16th Tuesday in Ordinary Time
Memorial of St. Sharbel
When Thomas Merton discovered St Sharbel, nine years after his solemn profession as a Trappist monk, he said of him: “He is my new companion…My road has taken a new turning. It seems to me that I have been asleep for nine years…and before that I was dead.”
This Sharbel was a monk of the Maronite rite, who never wrote or spoke very much. His great work was contemplative work, meaning prayer. He used to stay in the abbey church after the night office until morning, a span of about six hours in his monastery. Not talking to others but talking for others, to God. He used to serve several Masses in the morning, and then, since he was a priest, he said his own. His thanksgiving after Mass often lasted two hours, which he was allowed because he could.
With an example like that, Sharbel was permitted to go to the solitude of a hermitage in 1875, after having spent fifteen years in the monastery. For him, solitude was a joyful thing, related to faith and charity, because it was the road to God. Charity does not come easily. Sharbel did not get it by just saying, “My God, I love you”. That’s good, but it’s not enough. His life was unified because he kept the end in view. Solitude throws you upon yourself. And we know ourselves only when we lose ourselves in God. When you come right down to it, God is the only one we can really talk to. Who else really understand us?
Even so, the monastery had rules for any monk who wanted to become a hermit, and the most important one was that he had to remain under the direction and supervision of the superior of the monastery. A hermit could eat only one meal a day, and that would be sent by the monastery. He could not sleep more than five hours. He had to observe silence strictly. In case of necessity, he had to speak briefly and in low tones.
There’s not much left to say about the twenty-three years Sharbel lived alone. But I think we can say that the less he cared for himself, the more free he was from care. True freedom lies in the ability to see reality as it is, to see the truth and relative importance of things as they are, and to make choices based on this true vision. If our choices depend on our passions or on our being politically correct, they are not free choices. It’s not the mere exercise of choice that makes us free, but the determination to choose what conforms to the truth. This secret St Sharbel knew.
On December 16, 1898, while saying Mass, St Sharbel felt a sharp pain in his chest. Another monk had to help him from the altar to his cell. For eight days he was paralyzed, and he died on Christmas Eve, 1898. To a crazy modern world, enslaved to sensuality and indulgence, St Sharbel shows the way to happiness, which is love of God. For we were made for God and our happiness consists in sharing his happiness. God has made us for himself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in him.