I’ve had the opportunity to live in Rome twice, once as an undergraduate and once as a graduate student. There’s nothing like living in the Eternal City, and both semesters impacted my faith in incredible ways. I find myself getting “Rome-sick” pretty frequently, so I have to constantly remind myself that it wasn’t just sunshine, roses, papal Masses and gelato. Luckily, I kept a detailed blog and journal so that whenever I have the itch to move back, all I need to do is flip through and remember all the craziness and idiosyncrasies that made me crave Target and standing in queues.
One of the blessings I received as a grad student was the opportunity to live on the grounds of a Maronite monastery. I had been somewhat familiar with the Eastern Rites of the Catholic Church before that, but nothing compares to living with the Maronites and praying with them on a regular basis. We had the opportunity to join them for the Divine Liturgy every morning and we ate almost all our meals with the monks—the “abounas,” as we called them.
Before living with monks, the feast of St. Charbel Makhluf would be just another blurb in my Magnificat. But now it reminds me of the abounas and their devotion to the saint, which seemed right up there next to their devotion to St. Maroun. I think of the incredible lessons they taught me, even if they didn’t realize they were teaching.
I remember sitting at dinner and observing the monks, who had now become my friends. There was Abouna Charbel the mosaic artist and Abouna Michel who worked in the Vatican. Victor was studying violin. One taught at the Angelicum, and one was in school. We had regular visitors from Lebanon, including an opera singer, and nuncios and bishops were regular guests at the dinner table. Conversations in Arabic swirled around me without me giving it so much of a second glance, my amens began to sound like ah-meen, and I was introduced to Lebanese customs and food.
It wasn’t uncommon that I wanted the gift of understanding so I could know what the abounas were saying at meals. Sometimes there was a great joke that sent everyone into laughter, and one of the monks would lean over and try to explain it to us. The evening the papal nuncio from Qatar, Yemen, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates was at dinner I listened intently, as if I could pick out words here and there… but alas, what might work for Italian homilies certainly did not work for Arabic conversations! The few words I could pick out were “Beirut” and “Hezbollah.”
During the spring we lived there, there was a political crisis in Lebanon that came to a head, leading to armed clashes for about a week. The airport in Beirut was closed, leaving several of the visitors to the monastery stranded in Rome. The conversations would grow in intensity, and scenarios would begin to grow in my head. The priests knew English very well, and I knew I could just ask them what was happening, but I remained silent until I could ask one of them privately. I often felt so ignorant and uninformed, and I was aware that whatever I did know was filtered through the American media. The monks would occasionally ask questions about the policies of America, and sometimes I could barely articulate my country’s position on issues. Whereas I didn’t know the Lebanese political situation, they kept themselves abreast of the situation in the United States, and I soon realized my government sometimes affected their lives as much as it did mine.
Those few months connected me to the Church in a completely foreign part of the world. I knew from my first semester in Rome that I would experience the universal Church in a unique way in Rome, but I wasn’t prepared for the depth that experience would have, thanks to my friendship with the Lebanese monks. I became even more acutely aware that the Body of Christ was much larger than my little parish family back home. The enormity and diversity of the Pope’s flock came alive.
Whether it was the beauty of the Maronite liturgy or the complexity of foreign political situations, I lost my myopic view of the world, at least for a while. I began to appreciate the diversity of the Church Militant and how little I was in it all. But it is a little like studying the solar system—gaining an understanding for how minute you are should simultaneously give you a sense of thanksgiving for how loved you are. I’m a member of this Body of Christ, one among billions, a speck in this nation, a blip on this timeline … and I am a child of God, fearfully and wonderfully made, and not a hair on my head goes uncounted.
The feast of St. Charbel (an optional memorial) no longer goes unnoticed on my calendar. It is a time for me to thank God for the enormity of the Church. It is a time to pray for those Christians who live in war-torn parts of the world, especially those persecuted for their Faith. Every saint’s feast day is a time to celebrate the diversity of the Body of Christ, the multitude of paths to holiness, and the one holy Catholic Church.
St. Charbel, pray for us!
All you holy men and women, pray for us!
July 24 is the Optional Memorial of St. Charbel Makhlouf, Priest (1828-1898).