Blessed Charbel Makhlouf and Catholic Lebanon’s Medieval Charm

by Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira

Saint of the Day, Monday, January 31, 1972

“A Roman and Apostolic Catholic, the author of this text submits himself with filial devotion to the traditional teaching of Holy Church. However, if by an oversight anything is found in it at variance with that teaching, he immediately and categorically rejects it.”

 The words “Revolution” and “Counter-Revolution” are employed here in the sense given to them by Prof. Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira in his book Revolution and Counter-Revolution, the first edition of which was published in the monthly Catolicismo, Nº 100, April 1959.



Saint Charbel Makhlouf (1828-1898) was beatified 5 December 1965 and canonized 9 October 1977.

I noticed that Blessed Charbel Makhlouf’s biography is relatively poor because—I seem to glimpse—his story is one of the fully normal developments. Imagine someone writing the history of a country that developed perfectly in all its stages and reached its fullness normally, without any hindrance or trouble. However brilliant and magnificent, that story would fit into a little space.

We can see that Blessed Charbel Makhlouf never faltered nor had any problem. As his countenance indicates, his sanctification was exceptional, powerful, and continual. If you can use this expression, he was a bulldozer of holiness. As his face shows, he faced the cross head on and corresponded until he dropped dead.  I want to project his picture, so you understand that well.

We realize that his sanctification must have occurred amid storms and squalls, aridity and trials, as there is no sanctification without it. There is no such thing as sanctification on a smooth paved road where you do your duty every day and never have dryness, trial, or temptation. But we get the impression that he won the battles of his spiritual life, more or less like Napoleon. Imagine the story of Napoleon up to but not including the battle of Leipzig, precursor to Waterloo, which was his end. Up to that time, Napoleon wins all over the place. Although looming storms accumulate an Austro-Prussian-Anglo-Russian coalition was formed [against him] with so many men, etc., he was still successful in the Battle of Marengo and others shining from behind the clouds.

We have the impression that Blessed Charbel Makhlouf had that kind of success as a saint and, amid the storms written on his face, in his eyes, and his firmness, he went ahead on the right path steadily and surely until he died. Accordingly, at least judging from the data the book provides, his is a relatively poor biography. We see, for example, the axis of his interior life – his great cross and the great occasion on which he was placed between saying yes or no. He never staggered but said yes. He never had any doubts, was always affirmative, facing obstacles with that calm and as sharply as the point of his hood. As a result, he shines in the highest of heaven as a fixed star of the first magnitude.

That is Blessed Charbel Makhlouf. So what can we say about him? What is his biography reduced to? This is an opulent mise en scène that explains Lebanon of his time and the milieu of which he is the product. Then there is a description of the convent where he lived, and afterward, his life as a hermit. Then you have his thundering miracles of the first magnitude, miracles by a great saint. Then there is his death and yet another thunderous miracle amid a cascade of miracles. He is beatified and raised to the glory of the altars. That is the life of Blessed Charbel Makhlouf.

We realized that this introduction to his life is very necessary to understand what environment he comes from. His biographer aptly cites a nineteenth century book about Lebanon at that time and explains that in the nineteenth century there was a lot of talk about the Middle Ages. It was a time when the Middle Ages was very much in fashion.

He says there was a lot of talk about the Middle Ages in European museums, castles, vestiges of the Middle Ages in Europe, but Lebanon is where the Middle Ages is still alive today.  Because, deeply marked by the Crusaders and given the circumstances of the country’s evolution, today’s Lebanon still lives under a feudal regime. Blessed Charbel Makhlouf is from the 19th century and still lived in feudal Lebanon. So, the description of Lebanon I started to give you fits into that medieval perspective.

You remember me talking about families of modest peasants who lived in those high parts of Mount Lebanon with great historic cedars in places where many biblical episodes took place. They were dedicated to agriculture and, above all, cattle or sheep raising. They led a hardworking life during the day but were so religious that in the evening, the churches would all stay open and they would come en masse to pray at all hours of the night to satisfy their feelings of piety and devotion. This resembles very much what the life of piety could be like in a medieval village in Europe.

Here come other descriptions of the medieval aspect of life in Lebanon. And you will see to what extent this is really attention grabbing.

He says that Lebanon was a place with a true nobility and describes how that feudal nobility lived. It was the famous nobility of the sheiks. Not so long ago, a sheik was the symbol of an Arab warrior. He rode magnificent steeds and was a noble fighter in his appearance. He had splendid tents, wore big turbans, his life was at once noble and nomadic, with all the adventurous and uncertainty of nomadic life, everything that makes nomadic life fascinating. He was in a prestigious and perpetual gallop, always victorious across the desert sands.

This is the somewhat Hollywoodian image of the sheik I have had since my childhood. The word sheik came to me, and I believe to several of you, accompanied by a world of prestigious connotations. But I could not really distinguish between a sheik and an emir or pasha, for example. As a boy, I was fascinated by the pasha, full of jewels, turbans, feathers, sitting on super pillows, resting and smoking something from a hookah, which I saw in illustrations in Jules Verne’s books. It is some liquid passing through a crystal flask–it must have the flavor of quintessential flowers from the East or something like that. The pasha smoked it, and some prestigious bubbles went up into a mouthpiece. He was sitting on some cushions on a marble floor and watching the Bosphorus flow by with oarsmen, Saint Sophia’s tower, a muezzin singing, and there he sits, letting time run by. The pasha was the opposite of the sheik, but I did not know how to distinguish between a sheikh and an emir. It was when reading this that the thing came to life for me. You will see how a sheik lived in that feudal environment of Blessed Charbel Makhlouf.

He says:

“In Lebanon at that time, nobility was not a mere word but a reality. The noble is ordinarily the lord of a village, who lives in his castle and has a certain number of servants. He also has at his disposal a whole clientele of partisans dispersed in the country, willing to take up arms under his command on any occasion.”

This reminds us of family wars between cities such as the Capulets against the Montecchio’s, for example. The sheik has a following. You can imagine two sheiks fighting in that tangle of alleys of an oriental bazaar, with men and women screaming and killing each other, running frantically in search of the sheikh to start a battle in which he shines as the leader of an organization still based on the family also its military political and economic aspects. That was something very close to the wars of the Middle Ages between families and villages.

The sheik had grandeur and always went around dressed in a certain luxury and, above all, riding magnificent horses. He never went out into the street without a great accompaniment of servants and vassals. We have seen in a film the faraway figure of a sheik in the desert accompanied by servants and vassals with the sun shining behind him. It fascinated our youths in different times.

The Lebanese kept something else related to medieval customs: tournaments.

“Part of their characteristic customs was to have great ornaments overlaid with gold and silk. The horses of the nobles were adorned with silver and sometimes with fine cloth, and they customarily held not only great horse races but tournaments in the manner of the Middle Ages.”

Here you see the atmosphere of Blessed Charbel Makhlouf. You have a peaceful, religious village, then castles of the sheiks. The sheiks who go riding through the desert as he saw other sheiks do in his childhood. Then you have all the sheik’s luxury and splendor, bowing peasants, patriarchal solidarity between the sheik and the peasants. That is the atmosphere in which St. Charbel’s great soul was formed.

He describes the country’s general conditions as follows:

“In Lebanon, there are no cities as such. The Maronites are peasants, all of whom know how to read and write. To the knowledge they needed, they added a lively faith, very pure customs, and, ultimately, that was all they needed. The sweetness and purity of their customs were remarkable, and their hospitality was very dignified.”

There were no hotels in that area, and the families had to host those who came from abroad. So they offered the latter a magnificent, very dignified hospitality with great affability.

“All of them very active and very intelligent, very capable of inventing new techniques and methods to develop their handicrafts. Their perseverance doing hard work was indomitable. And although those simple peasants only knew how to read and write, their conversation was enchanting. They knew how to communicate a remarkably poetic note to their conversation.”

You see the difference between a peasant trained in a traditional environment and one trained in technical and mechanical civilization. You can imagine how a peasant in Europe today knows a whole lot more. But he does not know how to converse or communicate a poetic note to his conversation. You can imagine peasants gathered in the main square in the evening. One arrives supported by a stick and listens to them talk. They hold a gracious and spirited conversation about those common things in a peasant’s life from which Our Lord took the parables of the Gospel. That is how meaningful they are for those who know how to interpret them and see their beauty. You can imagine them talking under that starry eastern sky in that poetic atmosphere. Every now and then, one or another makes a great poetic tirade; everyone listens, sighs and the conversation goes on.

When the conversation begins to die, everyone goes to church to pray. Then they go to sleep and, in the morning, begin to work in the fields. To fully understand his soul and even his countenance, you need to insert Blessed Charbel Makhlouf into this eminently medieval climate.

He goes on to say:

“They were a true people of God for whom the only thing needed was essentially being men of God.”

What a magnificent formula! They do not have a thousand things that the consumer society gives us but have those that the consumer society destroys: men of God.

The Monastery of Saints Cyprian & Justina, where he studied, was run by a most pious and learned monk, the priest Nimatullah Kassab, who was later superior general of the order to which Charbel Makhlouf belonged. An excellent connoisseur of the Syriac language, he composed a grammar that remained classical for a long time. It was Charbel’s primary teacher. When absent from the convent, he was replaced by Father Nomental and Father alHardini, also elementary teachers.

This is also charming. The convent is close to the village, and when it’s time to teach the children, you see a small convent door open, and a monk dressed à la Charbel Makhlouf, in those veils, etc., comes walking down the road while the kids run and get ready for class.

Then he says that two noble personalities are dominant in the formation of Charbel Makhlouf: the two substitute teachers. Not so much the grammarian. He says that it would even be interesting to give a biographical profile of each of the two priests. Note that they taught in the shade of a magnificent cedar tree and usually in the public square because of the regularity of the weather. The children sat in a circle and the monk gave them the class. How poetic that elementary school was:  a charming village, a monk contemplative, an always silent hermit monk who goes out and breaks his silence only to teach; and he comes covered by his veils and mysteries. He crosses himself and says, my children, today’s subject matter is such ad such. This whole environment helps us to understand the man a little.

I would now ask you the favor of projecting the figure of Blessed Charbel Makhlouf. While I will not describe him again, his is one of the faces that has impressed me the most, except for the Holy Shroud of Turin. This physiognomy has impressed me the most to this day. He is calm, powerful, meditative, recollected, and with a fabulous certainty of judgment, doctrine, and opinion.

He is not at all a dreamer but a man whose thoughts come from the highest reaches of human cogitation and are then applied to every detail. His figure is simply amazing.

Is it not true that his countenance is not part of the civilization of the image, that he would not depend much on images and would have a thousand cogitations in mind without eagerly looking at everything? He is the opposite extreme of the civilization of the image advocated by Paul VI.