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Boutrosiya (Pierina) Shabaq al-Rayes, the only child of her parents, was born on the feast of Saints Peter and Paul, the 29th of June 1832 in a small village on the slopes of the Himalaya mountain of Lebanon. Her father was Mourad Saber Shabaq al-Rayes and her mother was Rafqa Gemayel. She was orphaned upon her mother's death six years later. After working as a maid in the house of her father's friend in Syria from 1843-1847, she returned to Lebanon. In 1853, she entered the convent of Our Lady of Liberation in Bikfaya and became a nun in the Marian Order of the Immaculate Conception.
Boutrosiya recounted that "As I entered the church of the convent, I felt immense joy, inner relief; and looking at the image of the Blessed Virgin, it seemed as if a voice had come from it and entered the most intimate part of my conscience. It said to me: 'You will become a nun'.
She became a novice on Saint Maron's day, the 9th of February 1855. In 1856, she pronounced her monastic vows and took the religious name of Anissa (Agnes). While serving in Deir-el-Qamar in 1860, she witnessed the massacres of the Christians in the Chouf Mountain and was greatly affected by the suffering of her people.
In 1871, her order united with the order of the Sacred Heart of Jesus to form the Order of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary. The nuns were given the free choice of joining the new order or another existing order, or resuming lay status after being dispensed from their vows.
This was a very difficult time for the nuns of both orders who were not involved in the original decision to unite. Sister Anissa was teaching in Ma'ad in the Batroun region in North Lebanon. When she learned of the decision and the new situation, she went to Saint George's Church to pray. While in prayer, she cried because of her great distress. She fell asleep and felt the presence of someone who told her, "I will make you a religious".
That night she dreamed of a man with a long white beard carrying a staff shaped like a "T" at the tip. He told her twice: "Become a nun in the Baladiya Order (The Lebanese Maronite Order)". Sister Anissa did enter. Through interpretation of her dream, Sister Anissa learned that the old man in her dream was Saint Anthony the Great, who carries a baton with a T-shape tip, made from a branch of a tree. Saint Anthony is the model of monastic life for the Baladiya Order.
On the 12th of July 1871 when she was 39 years old, she entered the novitiate again but it was at the monastery of St. Simon in El-Qarn as a member of the Baladiya Order. Her new religious congregation was cloistered. The nuns prayed, meditated, worked in the monastery and lived a life of asceticism. Her novitiate was documented in the records of that monastery as follows; "Sister Rafqa, whose name was Boutrosiya from Hemlaya, began her novitiate on the 12th of July 1871 at the age of 39". Two years later, on the 25th of August 1873, she made the solemn profession of her perpetual vows of obedience, chastity and poverty in the spirit of the strict Rule of the Baladiya Order. In the records of St. Simon's monastery we read, "Sister Rafqa received her angelic cowl (the hood) from Father Superior Ephrem Geagea al Bsherrawi during the administration of Sister Zyara al-Ghostawiye, Superior of the monastery on the 25th of August 1873". She took her mother's name Rafqa (Rebecca) as her religious name.
The Lebanese Maronite Order has its roots in the early monastic life in the East. However, it became an institution in the modern sense of the word in 1695. Pope Clement XII approved the monastic rules of the Order on the 31st of March 1732. In 1736 at the Lebanese Synod, the women's branch of the Order was organized under the same rules. Their relationship with the men's branch was spiritual and administrative. Their monastic life was that of an Oriental solitary type, which stresses prayer, contemplation and asceticism.
Life as an enclosed (semi-cloistered) nun of the Baladiya or the Lebanese Maronite Order was not easy, and not everyone could observe the strict, rigorously observed rules. The Order followed the monastic spiritual and idealistic values of "following and imitating Christ; communal, fraternal life; emulating the martyrs; under Christ's banner, fighting against evil; spiritual expatriation (Ghourba: absence from our "heavenly home"); and waiting for the Second Coming with eternal life in the Divine Presence. The Order also follows the monastic practical and living values of "obedience, chastity, poverty, prayer, work, mission, and communal living".
The nuns followed the basic monastic principle: pray and work. Their monastic daily life was divided as follows: prayer, chanting the office, meditation and Holy Mass, during the three hours from 4-7 A.M. Then came work from 7 to 10 A.M.
At 10 A.M. the nuns would sing the Breviary and this was followed by breakfast. Then they worked in the convent, paused to pray the Breviary once again, read from spiritual works and engaged in pious conversation as a community. At 2 o'clock in the afternoon they recited Vespers and this was followed by supper. Half an hour after sunset, they conducted the evening prayers from the Breviary, followed by the "great silence" when the nuns retire to their respective cells to meditate and rest until midnight. At that time (midnight), they leave their cells to join together in singing the first part of the Breviary. That would ordinarily last one and a half hours but during lent and Holy Week would last two hours. Back in their cells, they would be called again at four in the morning. Many of the nuns would stay in church to pray and meditate waiting for the four o'clock call to begin their day again [i.e. some nuns remained in chapel, and not in their cells, at prayer from midnight until 7 A.M.].
Rafqa lived her monastic life in great joy. On the feast of the Holy Rosary in 1885, seeing that she was blessed with health, Rafqa asked our Lord to let her share in the suffering of His crucifixion. Sister Rafqa prayed "Why, O My God, why have you distanced yourself from me and abandoned me? You have never visited sickness upon me! Have you perhaps abandoned me?"
Blessed Rafqa was born in Lebanon at a time when suffering was the daily bread. She witnessed and experienced distress. For her to ask for more suffering is beyond comprehension. But Rafqa so requested. She believed that suffering is the path to salvation and a source of joy. Emulating Christ's love, she prayed asking to share in the suffering of Jesus and her people.
Her prayers were answered. From that night on her health began to deteriorate; yet she rejoiced in being made worthy to participate in the suffering of Our Lord. She began feeling pain in the optic nerves. The doctor who was treating her pierced through and destroyed her right eye in a barbaric manner. During bleeding and unbearable agony, Rafqa said only: "In communion with Christ's passion." Her other eye deteriorated and she became totally blind. Rafqa continued to suffer optic hemorrhage daily. She was left with no strength or energy.
Blind and in pain, she continued to work by spinning wool and cotton and knitting stockings for the other sisters. She took part in common prayer, chanting the psalms and reciting the Breviary - all of this from memory. Even when blind and weak, she often begged the mother superior to let her share in the daily work of the other sisters. Refusing to eat what was considered the good food, Rafqa often chose to eat the leftovers.
In 1897, Sister Rafqa was transferred to the monastery of Mar Youssef of Grabta (Saint Joseph) with Sister Ursula Doumit, the superior, and three other sisters. In this monastery, Sister Rafqa's earlier request of suffering continued to be granted. In 1907 she told her superior about the intolerable pain. Rafqa soon became totally paralyzed, with complete disfunction of the joints.
In a 1981 medical report based upon the evidence presented in the Canonical Process, three specialists in ophthalmology, neurology and orthopedics diagnosed the most likely cause as tuberculosis with ocular localization and multiple bony excrescencies. This disease causes the most unbearable pain.
Rather than ever complain of her pains, she prayed unceasingly, saying: "In communion with Your suffering, Jesus", "With the wound on Your shoulder, Jesus," "With Your crown of thorns, Jesus," "With the sufferings caused by the lance… by the thorns… by the nails of the Cross, my Lord Jesus."
Under obedience, the superior, Sister Doumit ordered Sister Rafqa to tell her life story since she did not wish to do so because she was humble. On the 23rd of October 1914, Sister Rafqa asked for final absolution and the plenary indulgence. She died in peace and received a humble monastic burial in the tombs of the monastery.
Four days after her death, Sister Ursula Doumit experienced a miracle, which took place through the intercession of Sister Rafqa. For eight years, Sister Ursula
Doumit had been suffering from a lump in her throat that prevented her from even drinking milk. On the fourth night after Rafqa's death, after having asked the other sisters to let her rest undisturbed, she heard a knock at the door of her cell and heard someone say, "Take sand from Rafqa's grave and swab your throat with it. You will be cured." Sister Ursula thought that one of the sisters had come to her about community affairs, so she asked to be left alone and went back to sleep. Again there was a knock and she heard the same message. She answered "I will get the sand when morning comes." In the morning, after learning that none of the nuns had knocked on her door, she went to Rafqa's grave and took some sand. Though still in wonder about what had happened during the previous night, she mixed the sand in water and swabbed the lump. The lump disappeared immediately.
Sister Ursula had been miraculously cured! Since then, she advised all who came to her with an illness to do the same.
Many physical and spiritual healings have been attributed to Rafqa's intercession. However, the miracle put forward for the Beatification of Sister Rafqa was the instantaneous, complete, definitive and scientifically inexplicable curing of a Lebanese woman named Elizabeth En-Nakhel from Tourza in northern Lebanon, who was suffering from uterine cancer. Elizabeth was cured, through Rafqa, in 1938 and lived for 28 years more. She died from a completely different illness in 1966.
On the 23rd of December 1925 and during the tenures in office of Maronite Patriarch Elias Howayek, the Superior General of the Lebanese Maronite Order Abbot Ignatius Dagher, and Pope Pius XI, the Lebanese Maronite Order presented Rafqa's cause for beatification to Rome. The causes of Blessed Hardini and Saint Sharbel were submitted at the same time.
On the 9th of June 1984, the eve of Pentecost, in the presence of the Holy Father John Paul II, the authenticity of the miracle experienced by Elizabeth En-Nakhel was publicly announced. This was necessary for beatification, which took place on the 17th of November 1985. She was then called Blessed Rafqa. Her feast day is celebrated on the 23rd of March.
Rafqa is like the bride of the Song of Songs who listened to the calls of her beloved: "Come from Lebanon, my promised bride, come from Lebanon, come on your way. Look down from the heights of Amanus, from the crests of Senir and Hermon, the haunt of lions, the mountains of leopards. The scent of your garments is like the scent of Lebanon. She is a garden enclosed, my sister, my promised bride; a garden enclosed a sealed fountain of the garden, well of living water, streams flowing down from Lebanon!"
Miracles continue to be granted through her intercession. Thousands of believers visit her tomb at Saint Joseph's monastery in Grabta. Her cause for canonization as a saint is being presented to the Sacred Congregation in Rome.
Saint Rafqa, please bless our families, save us and both our countries Lebanon and Australia.