There is a common but myopic view in the West that equates the Arab World solely with Islam and, in many cases, terrorism. This skewed perspective ignores the suffering and dwindling population of Arab Christians who deserve our admiration, support, and, at the very least, our recognition that they exist. Many believe the wealth of sanctity in the biblical lands has dried up, and that the land of the patriarchs, prophets, and Our Lord and Lady has little left to offer the Universal Church. To the contrary, in many ways the Arab Christians ought to be considered the “jewel in the Church’s crown”, for in the face of over a millennia of persecution they have courageously preserved their Christian identity.
The saint whose feast we celebrate on August 26th demonstrates this inspiring perseverance of the Arab Christians. Known as “the Little Arab”, St. Mary of Jesus Crucified (1846-1878) is among the greatest mystics in the history of the Church, whose life and witness show that against all odds there are flowers of holiness still blooming in the deserts of the Middle East.
Mariam’s father was persecuted by the Ottoman police for his Christian faith causing him to settle with his wife in I’billin, a small village in Galilee, not far from Nazareth. This couple of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church lost twelve boys in their infancy—not one of them reached the age of three. The pious couple was not, however, without hope in the midst of their suffering. They resolved to make a pilgrimage on foot to the Grotto of the Nativity in Bethlehem, some 70 miles away. In that holy place, where the Son of God was born of the Virgin Mary, they promised that if granted another child, this time a girl, they would name her after God’s own Mother and return to the Grotto when the child reached the age of three to offer wax candles equal to their beloved little daughter’s weight. Their earnest prayers were heard and Mariam was born on January 5, 1846. She was followed by another boy, her brother Paul, two years later.
Sadly, Mariam’s parents both died of illness a few days apart from each other when she was not yet three. Mariam was placed in the care of her paternal uncle living in I’billin, while Paul was sent to a maternal aunt in another village. The brother and sister would never see each other again.
Later in life, Mariam never forgot a voice she heard one day after she had accidentally killed two little birds while giving them a bath. As she buried the creatures in the garden, she heard a voice from Heaven with a message she would never forget: “Everything finishes in this way; but if you will give me your heart, I will be yours forever.” We will see how these words would come to fruition in Mariam’s life.
When Mariam was twelve, her uncle moved the family to Alexandria in Egypt. Not long after that she was informed that a marriage had been arranged for her. Mariam flatly refused. Since hearing that voice in the garden as a little girl, she desired to give her heart to Jesus alone. He would be her betrothed. The young woman never wavered in the face of her family’s anger and the humiliations they foisted upon her, always recalling the words she had heard in the I’billin garden. She was forced to work in the kitchen as a common slave.
After several months of this, with no acceptance of her vocation in sight, she decided to reunite with her brother Paul. She reached out to a man who was on his way to Galilee who she hoped might deliver a letter to Paul on her behalf. Little did she know what this innocent gesture would bring about. The man was a Muslim and after engaging in a warm conversation with her about her recent travails, he tried to convince her to convert to Islam. Her flat refusal exclaiming: “A Muslim? No, never!” angered the man, who then slashed at her throat with a knife. Believing Mariam to be dead, he carried her body to a deserted street and left her there.
Something mystical then occurred, which stands as an obvious example of how Mariam’s life was one prolonged in-breaking of the Kingdom of Heaven into our world. Her bloodied body lying on the street was recovered by a nun dressed in blue who took her to a grotto and nursed her back to health. Recalling this episode later in life, Mariam suggested her stay in the grotto lasted a month and expressed no doubt that the nun dressed in blue was Our Lady. The Holy Virgin stitched up Mariam’s neck wound and foretold the course of her life. She would never see her family again, she would go to France and become a religious—first as a spiritual daughter of St. Joseph and eventually then of St. Teresa—and she would receive her Carmelite habit in one house, make her profession in a second, and then die in a third.
This episode was no dream. The scar on Mariam’s neck remained the rest of her life. Later, when she took ill during her time at different convents in Marseille, Pau, Mangalore and Bethlehem, doctors all took note of it. The scar measured four inches long and several cartilaginous rings of the tracheal artery were missing. The mistress of novices of the Sisters of St. Joseph wrote:
A celebrated doctor at Marseille, who had taken care of Mariam, had confessed that although he was an atheist, there must be a God, for from a natural point of view, she could not have lived.
Yes, Mariam was spared martyrdom to achieve perhaps an even greater conformity with the Crucified Savior, for later in life she would bear His Holy Wounds in the stigmata. Mariam would thus be a “living martyr” for the rest of her earthly life.
She would never see her family again. They thought she had run away to become a nun—and in a sense, she had. It would only bring embarrassment to them if they ever spoke of her again, which they didn’t. She took on work as a servant to get by. At the age of fifteen she pilgrimaged to Jerusalem and upon the empty tomb of Christ she pronounced her perpetual vow of chastity.
The family she was working for relocated to Marseille in France. At the age eighteen, under the guidance of a priest-spiritual director, she became a postulant of the Sisters of St. Joseph of the Apparition. She could neither read nor write and spoke only a little French. She was affectionally called the “Little Arab” by her confreres. It was during the two years of her postulancy that the phenomena of her spiritual life began to be noticed. She would often be found in ecstasy and to this was added the first manifestation of the stigmata when Jesus appeared to her in the chapel one evening with His wounds clearly visible. Coming out of the ecstasy her hand was covered in blood and there was a severe pain in her left side. The stigmata would continue to manifest during Lent and on Fridays, where blood flowed from the gaping wounds on her hands, feet, and side, with an intermittent flow from her forehead. This lasted from 1867 until finally the Little Arab’s prayer was answered and the wounds of her stigmata disappeared so as to only be suffered interiorly.
As can be expected, the Little Arab became the subject of much controversy in the community. Though the majority of sisters were favorable to the authenticity of these strange manifestations, it was decided that a mystic such as her would not be suitable for that active congregation. Her superiors thought a cloister would be a far better place to house such a soul. In fulfillment of the prophecy made by Our Lady while nursing her back to health in the grotto all those years ago, Mariam then entered the Carmelites. She was fittingly given the name, Sister Mary of Jesus Crucified.
At the center of the Little Arab’s spiritual life, which would reach the highest heights of sanctity, was her special devotion to the Holy Spirit. In one of her ecstasies she received this prayer which she imparted to the world:
Holy Spirit, inspire me. Love of God, consume me. To the right path lead me. Mary my mother, look down upon me. With Jesus, bless me. From all evil, all illusion, all danger, preserve me.
She ardently desired all priests to offer a votive Mass of the Holy Spirit once a month. Just last month, I was able to pray before her relic at the Carmel she established in Bethlehem. Then and there, I resolved to answer her call and take up this monthly devotion to the Holy Spirit. I was spurred on to do this by her words:
The world and the religious communities seek new devotions, and neglect the true devotion to the Paraclete.—It is for this reason that there are errors and discord, instead of peace and light.
In 1867 she entered the Carmel of Pau, France. Two years later she would help establish a new Carmel in Mangalore, India. Three years after that she would return to Pau until finally she established a new Carmelite foundation in Bethlehem. In prayer, Sr. Mary of Jesus Crucified determined that this is what God wanted. Everyone, along with every practical circumstance, was against it. Yet amazingly, this humble peasant woman with hardly any education realized this dream. She secured a benefactor and support for the project from the necessary Church authorities. She designed the architecture of the monastery herself, in the form of a tower as a sign to the people of Bethlehem of the Holy Virgin who is called “The Tower of David”. The Carmelite nuns entered the monastery in 1871.
All along the way in each of these convents and monasteries, the Little Arab’s life was “woven in wonder”, to use an expression of Fr. Amédée Brunot, SCJ, her first biographer and spiritual director. She became renowned for the supernatural phenomena surrounding her. The stigmata mentioned before, along with ecstasies, levitations that lasted for hours, bilocation, prophecies, the ability to read souls, the strange and unique phenomenon of being possessed by a good angel, and the transverberation of her heart.
The Little Arab would die on August 26th 1878, a feast she now appropriately shares with the transverberation of the heart of her spiritual mother as founders of the Discalced Carmelites, St. Teresa of Avila. She died due to a fracture she suffered in a fall while delivering water to workmen building the monastery. Her body had endured so much suffering in her life and could take no more. The wound became infected and she died at the young age of 33.
For all of this and more, the Little Arab can be considered one of the greatest mystics in Christian history. Her canonization came just four years ago, on May 17, 2015. She is a saint raised up by God whose life was so supernatural that it challenges our tepid faith and uncovers for us the hidden sanctity of the Arab World.
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!