St. Charbel, A Role Model About Preparation for Eucharist
Fr. Richard Kunst, Curator & Commentator
When Pope John Paul the Great was criticized for canonizing so many saints, he acknowledged that he did, indeed, deliberately raise more saints to the altar than any of his predecessors, because he believed we are living in a time that needs saints as witnesses more than ever. There have been books written about the people he canonized and beatified, and it is quite refreshing to read about many of them, because we can identify with people from our own era who lived a heroic faith life.
As much as I like hagiography, the study of the saints, I have to admit that many of them, living in a different era, seem to be a bit untouchable, or even unreal. In many cases they became “kitsch,” entering so much into the piety of worldwide Catholicism that they became little more than statues. I am reminded of St. Therese of Lisieux who has rightly been called the greatest saint of modern times. Her statue seems to be in a majority of churches, but I’d like to know how many people in the pews actually know anything about her life.
I very much enjoy reading about those who lived seemingly normal yet holy lives. They were simply examples of the Gospel, lived. However, we can also learn something from the “untouchable” saints, those who for whatever reason seem otherworldly to us. In the month of July we have one such saint. On October 9th, 1977, Pope Paul VI canonized a Lebanese Maronite Rite monk, Charbel (or Sharbel)) Makhlouf. While very few saints are honored with a place on the universal liturgical calendar, St. Charbel is one who is so revered that he does, indeed, have a feast day, which we celebrate on July 24th.
St. Charbel was born in 1828 in Northern Lebanon. In 1859 he became a priest with particularly strong devotions, both to the Blessed Mother and even more so for the Eucharist. For the last decades of his life, he was a hermit, living in the mountains in complete poverty. This austere behavior is one of the reasons he seems to be untouchable: how many of us can identify with a Lebanese Maronite monk, living in complete solitude, eating hardly anything, and all the while performing miracles? Probably not many of us. Yet it is St. Charbel’s prayer practice that makes him even more unique, while at the same time giving us an incredibly relevant example.
St. Charbel’s life was centered on the Eucharist and the celebration of Mass, and this devotion intensified in his last twenty years. He would regularly celebrate Mass at noon, but he would awaken eight to ten hours beforehand to pray continuously in preparation for receiving Christ in the Eucharist. Imagine! Ten hours of prayer in preparation to receive Communion! But it doesn’t end there. Afterwards, he would spend another eight to ten hours in a prayer of thanksgiving for having received the Eucharist!
The Eucharist was literally the center of his life, and everything else revolved around it. This seems to add to his otherworldly status; who among us could do something like that, day in and day out for decades? Who among us would want to? And yet, what a beautiful example!
Reflecting on the life of St. Charbel calls to mind a common frustration among my brother priests and me. On a regular basis, many people come into Mass late. Often they are so late they miss one or two of the readings. It is even more common for whole portions of the church to be empty after communion. While we are happy that these people at least come to Mass, think of the contrast between our experience and that of St. Charbel, who would spend hours in prayer both before and after receiving communion.
We would never go to a movie late, or leave before the story was over. Why in the world, then, would we do that with the Divine Liturgy where heaven and earth meet?
St. Alphonsus de’ Liguori (1696-1787), born 130 years before St. Charbel, believed that if we didn’t receive our first communion until we turned 100, we would still not have sufficient time to prepare. At another time, he said that once we receive communion, twelve angels surround us, worshipping what we just consumed. Obviously, that is not dogma, but it is food for thought if we are tempted to leave Mass early.
The saints are always icons of having lived the Gospels, including those who seem to be so different from us. St. Charbel is a great example of this. I pray to him that through his intercession more people will grow in awe and reverence for Christ’s Eucharistic presence.
St. Charbel, pray for us!