The virtues of the relics of Saint Charbel to save Lebanon from its crisis
by Fady Noun

The COVID-19 pandemic and political and economic difficulties have caused a decline in the number of pilgrims. The shrine remains nevertheless a major destination for those seeking graces for themselves and the country. Annaya monastery is seen as in a hospital emergency room, when all other healing methods seem to fail.

Beirut (AsiaNews) – At any time, but especially at “these woeful times” to cite Pope Francis from his 1 July speech, Annaya is a destination cherished by Lebanese from all religious backgrounds because it offers them what now has become a scarce commodity, namely the comfort of hope and, from time to time, scientifically inexplicable healings.

Restaurants near the monastery are currently reporting a drop in business, thus offering a good sign of the country’s situation. Health conditions combined with the catastrophic effects of the collapse of the pound and soaring prices, whether for basic foodstuffs, petrol or public transit, have partially undermined their prosperity. Fewer customers are coming, say minibus drivers operating on the Jbeil-Annaya line, which can now cost more than 15,000 Lebanese pounds (US$ 9).

Transportation costs explain perhaps why, on this third Sunday in July, the date on which the Maronite Church celebrates Saint Charbel, the Superior of the Lebanese monastic order, Father Neemtallah Hachem, celebrated the solemn Mass, not the Patriarch in the presence of the Lebanon’s president.

Fr Louis Matar, who keeps the register of healings and graces obtained by visitors through the saint's intercession, also mentioned financial difficulties. The monk and priest noted that at present there are no medical documents attesting to declared healings. “Because of the additional costs these documents entail, the faithful deem them superfluous.” For him however, “They are the greatest proof of the miracle obtained.”

A great number of healings have taken place on the very tomb of Saint Charbel, whose body, inexplicably, continued to sweat blood more than 60 years after his death, on Christmas night 1898. Tens of thousands of Lebanese saw this unexplained wonder, which is no longer taking place, when the tomb of Saint Charbel was opened in 1952.

Communion of saints

For Edina Bozoky, a Hungarian historian who lectures in medieval history at the University of Poitiers, “the cult of relics is based on the concept of a force (virtus) that we imagine still alive and active in the bodily remains of saints.”

“One of the most important signs that show the living force in the remains of saints is the incorrupt state of their bodies,” she explained. This is “sometimes accompanied by certain phenomena attesting to the continuity of life: growth of hair, beard, nails, but also the fresh blood which flows from the body,” all of which have been observed in Saint Charbel’s case.

“Finally, it is possible to think that the souls of saints are already with God where they can intercede on behalf of the living. This concept of the ‘communion of saints’ – which lessens the separation between the living and the dead – must also be taken into account if we want to understand relic worship. The places where these are kept constitute places of mediation, holy places (loca sancta) connecting earth and sky, body and soul.”

What better way to describe the Annaya monastery: “We come here as we go to a hospital emergency room,” said a married woman who travelled to the shrine with her husband and daughter. “One comes when all other attempts at healing have failed, and there is no other recourse but a miracle. We also come for non-medical emergencies as well,” she adds. “First aid for meanings.”

Many travel to Annaya at present to ask for a miracle for Lebanon. From the monastery overlooking the Holy Valley where he celebrated Mass, Patriarch Beshara al-Rahi set an example on Saturday. “To you we entrust our and your homeland: Lebanon. We need a miracle and we know that you are able to obtain it,” said the prelate, echoing Father Louis Matar, who likes to say that the hermit of Annaya likes to present himself to those he visits in dream as follows: “I am Saint Charbel Lebanon, I am coming to heal you.”