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.
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