St Charbel Makhlouf (1828-1898) led a life of exemplary holiness in complete obscurity. Yet after his death the extraordinary phenomena that attended his corpse brought multitudes to his tomb.
In the case of miracles, the philosopher David Hume argued, it is more likely that witnesses should be mistaken than that the laws of nature should be subverted. If that be so, a great many witnesses have been mistaken in the case of Charbel Makhlouf.
The fifth child of a mule driver and his wife, he was born at Biqa-Kafra in the mountains of north Lebanon. Orphaned at an early age, he was brought up by an uncle who showed little sympathy for his charge’s devotion to prayer and solitude.
Undeterred, in 1851, at the age of 23, Makhlouf entered the monastery of St Maroun at Annaya, taking the name in religion of Charbel, a second-century martyr at Antioch.
For 16 years, he worked hard in the monastery’s vineyards and sang the office at Mass.
If Charbel was in any way distinguished from his fellow monks it was in his greater fervour for mortification, his rapt attention at Mass, and his constant perusal of Thomas à Kempis’s Imitation of Christ. Although ordained a priest in 1859, Charbel increasingly felt the call to become a hermit. For some years his superiors resisted this ambition. In 1875, however, he removed to a hermitage attached to the monastery.
At 4,600 feet above sea level his cell was often freezing; it was clear, however, that suffering and self-obliteration were precisely the graces which he sought.
When Charbel died, aged 70, he was interred in the monastery cemetery, without a coffin, as was customary. Over the next 45 days, however, it seemed to many observers that the place where his body lay was irradiated by white light.
After four months it was decided to open the grave. Charbel’s cadaver was found to be perfectly preserved notwithstanding floods which had turned the area into a sea of mud.
The corpse was re-clothed and installed in the monastery chapel. Now, a strange liquid was secreted from the pores of the dead man’s skin, making it necessary regularly to change his garments.
An examination conducted in 1927 by doctors of the local French medical institute found that the body was still incorrupt. At this stage it was transferred to a new zinc-lined coffin, which was placed inside the wall of an oratory.
In 1950 a liquid was observed to be oozing from a corner of the tomb. Another examination discovered a viscous fluid in the bottom of the coffin. And while subsequent investigations have revealed a body no longer incorrupt, the bones have mysteriously turned red.
Hundreds of cures have been, and still are, reported by those who visited Charbel’s tomb. He was canonised in 1977.