Message from a saint
If I had known that approaching the little girl would lead me into a bizarre world, I would have been better prepared. But there she was, attending a children’s party that I was covering for my newspaper. She was about ten years old and dressed like a nun except that her habit was white and the headpiece blue.
‘Hello. Why are you dressed like that?’ I asked.
Smiling, she answered: ‘The Virgin Mary told me to.’
Little girls who claim to see apparitions make good articles and so I invited myself over to her house. Nathalie, her two sisters and mother live in a tiny flat in a poor neighbourhood. The family had no doubts that Nathalie did indeed see the Holy Mother, Jesus and, most importantly, a Lebanese saint by the name of St Charbel.
To oblige me and put Nathalie in the ‘mood’ to go into a trance, the family began praying out loud.
A few seconds later, Nathalie fell on the couch. Her eyes were closed and she began speaking.
‘Love one another,’ she said. ‘Be good to each other.’
Her older sister immediately grabbed a pen and paper and wrote down everything Nathalie said. ‘It’s St Charbel talking,’ the family members whispered to each other.
‘God bless you all,’ continued Nathalie.
The repetition of common church blessings did little to impress me.
A few seconds later, Nathalie ‘woke’ up. From the look of the excessive attention her family was bestowing upon her, I could see the appeal of going into sudden trances.
Just as I was about to take my leave, a young couple in their late twenties entered the flat.
‘Have you gone through a trance yet?’ the woman asked Nathalie. ‘I’ve been in two already.’
‘Oh, I’ve had just one today,’ responded Nathalie casually.
I sat down and took my notebook out again.
The woman, Rania, led a round of hymns. Then she fell to the floor. Very much the sceptic, I approached and tried to raise her arms. They were very heavy and I had to let them go. Rania began speaking in beautiful Arabic poetry. It seemed St Charbel was in the room again. Suddenly, she asked me to come nearer. I obliged.
‘Why do you doubt, my daughter?’ she said in Arabic.
I decided to go along with her. ‘Can you speak to me in English?’ I asked.
‘In my village we don’t speak English,’ retorted Rania – or was it St Charbel? ‘Why do you need proof? Those who have faith don’t ask for proof.’
In spite of my doubts, I found myself rather entranced. A few minutes later, Rania woke up. She said that she didn’t remember anything. The group decided that they would prefer me to speak to their spiritual counsellor before writing up my article.
A few days later, I found myself facing a friendly old priest. With his white beard and long robe he looked as if he had stepped out of the Bible. He decided that I was worthy of being introduced to his followers and I found myself in another tiny flat – half of it turned into a shrine. Men and women were praying fervently in front of dozens of paintings of Jesus and the Virgin. In their midst, a woman of about 30 was leading the prayers. The priest beckoned her over. She opened her palms and revealed three tiny balls of incense.
‘These are from St Charbel to you,’ she said as she placed them in my hands. I stared inquisitively at the priest.
‘Every time Lana prays, incense balls appear in her palms,’ he explained.
Before I had chance to recover, the priest lead me to the midst of the praying group. He reached over, dabbed his finger in the oil on the paintings and – without warning – spread it over my mouth and face.
‘This oil is Holy,’ he said. ‘Look at the pictures, oil just appears by itself.’
I inspected the paintings and they were indeed wet with oil. By this time, I felt I had entered a strange world. Not sure how to respond to sudden appearances of oils and incense balls, I made a quick retreat.
But that day still nags at me. Were the incense, oil and trances just tricks to get attention or did I witness real blessings reserved only for the privileged few?
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