St. Elias was an Old Testament figure who slew the priest of Baal; St. Charbel was a 19th century Lebanese Maronite who became a hermit and is known for his silence and selfless prayer. So what could the two possibly have in common? Just the devotion of an entire nation.
Lebanon has been ripped apart by war for decades and is an often volatile blend of faith traditions and confessions, with a primarily Shiite Muslim southern region and a mainly Christian northern region. Where the two sides meet is in their appreciation for Elias and Charbel.
Children's Mass at St. Elias, November 7.(photo by Jennifer Scroggins)
St. Elias Maronite Church in Antelias is a parish of some 40,000 Christians, and it’s renowned throughout the Middle East. The faithful have been known to visit from well beyond Lebanon’s borders, and on St. Elias’ feast day, July 20, Muslims and Christians alike participate in Eucharistic adoration in the wee hours.
According to Brother Peter Haddad, that’s because St. Elias is a “common point” for both religions due to his roots in the Old Testament. Haddad, 24, who will take his vows Dec. 26, says Elias is someone all faith traditions can believe in.
Parishioner Tamara Chamoun, 13, echoed those sentiments—and clearly plans to live out a message of peace as she practices her faith into adulthood. “We’re all God’s sons and daughters,” said Chamoun, who said she has close friends who are Muslims. “God doesn’t separate us. … He likes us equal.”
Shrine of St. Charbel.(photo by Jennifer Scroggins)
That same spirit can be witnessed at the shrine to St. Charbel at the Monastery of St. Maron in Annaya. The shrine receives 4 billion visitors a year, many who come seeking Charbel’s intercession for physical or spiritual healing.
Father Louis Matar, who was superior of the monastery for 23 years and officially records Charbel’s miracles, said the desire for grace crosses lines of all faiths and confessions. One of Matar’s favorite stories, in fact, tells of an Iranian Shiite family whose son was in a coma following an accident. While at the hospital, the man’s mother met a Maronite Lebanese woman and told the Christian she and her family had lost their faith. The Maronite gave a picture of Charbel to the distraught mother, who in turn put the photo under her son’s pillow. Indeed, the young Shiite was healed, and the miracle was attributed to St. Charbel.
That occurrence, Father Matar said, has true meaning to any person seeking faith or a deeper relationship with God. Devotion to Charbel is not merely superstition, he said, but a means of connecting with God through Charbel’s intercession. “People are different. Even those who come for a miracle—but what is a miracle? Something you can see to move you on the right path,” Father Matar said.
A child is brought to the shrine of St. Charbel.(photo by Jennifer Scroggins)
Of course, in a country like Lebanon, Charbel’s spiritual and religious importance easily could be applied in the social and political realms.
As with Elias, Charbel is a rallying point for beliefs and practices universal among various creeds.
“We should live in a society where we all believe in Commandments that are common to everyone,” Father Matar said. “That could unite all of us.”
And wouldn’t that be a glorious miracle?