PHOENIX — When a Phoenix mother lost her eyesight due to a rare medical condition, she feared she would never be able to see her four children again. But then St. Charbel came to her aid.

Dafne Gutierrez suffered from benign intracranial hypertension (BIH), a condition that causes increased pressure in the brain. In 2012, the increased pressure caused her to lose vision in her right eye. Three years later, in November 2015, the Catholic mother lost sight in her left eye, as well.

Phoenix’s local CBS affiliate, KPHO, quoted Gutierrez’s plea to God:

“For me, I was like, ‘Please God, let me see those faces again. Let me be their mother again.’ Because I feel like [my kids] were watching me, taking care of me 24/7.”

For more than a year, Gutierrez struggled to adjust to her disability, which now included occasional seizures, as well as blindness. Then, in January 2016, when Phoenix’s St. Joseph Maronite Church announced that the relics of St. Charbel Makhlouf (also spelled “Sharbel”) would be visiting the church, Gutierrez’s sister encouraged her to visit and to pray for the saint’s intercession.

Although she is not a member of the Maronite rite, Gutierrez visited the church Jan. 16, prayed before the relics, went to confession and was blessed with holy oil by the pastor, Father Wissam Akiki. Gutierrez recalled that, immediately afterward, her body felt “different.”

The following morning, she rose and returned to the church for Sunday Mass. Again, she experienced a different sensation.

And early in the morning Jan. 18, Gutierrez awoke with a searing pain in her eyes. She remembers how much they burned. And when her husband turned on the lights, she said the brightness hurt her eyes. She claimed, at 4am, that she could see shadows; but her husband insisted that was impossible because she was blind. He later described what he called “an odor of burned meat” coming from her nostrils.

According to The Maronite Voice, the newsletter of the Maronite Eparchies of the U.S., “That morning she called her ophthalmologist, and she was evaluated the next day. Her exam showed that she was still legally blind, with abnormal optic nerves. Two days later, she saw a different ophthalmologist, and her vision was a perfect 20/20, with completely normal optic nerves. Subsequently, she saw her original ophthalmologist one week later, and her vision was documented to be normal, with completely normal exam.”

 

No Medical Explanation

Dr. Anne Borik, a board-certified internal medicine physician who later testified regarding Gutierrez’s healing, was called in by the Church to review the case. Earlier this month, Borik — a member of St. Timothy’s Roman Catholic parish nearby, but who attends St. Joseph Maronite frequently — talked by phone with the Register about her findings. She explained that the brain condition Gutierrez suffered from causes the optic nerve to constrict. Once the optic disc — the spot at which the optic nerve enters the eyeball — is damaged, it’s too late to fix. Because, when the pressure in the brain reaches high levels, as it did in Gutierrez’s case, the optic nerves become strangulated.

“Unfortunately, once the blindness occurs,” said Borik, “it’s irreversible.”

Images of Gutierrez’s optic disc revealed significant damage: “We have pictures,” said Borik, “to confirm that the optic disc was chronically atrophied. There was significant swelling, or papilledema.”

But after Gutierrez’s vision returned, Borik reported, there was no evidence of the aberrations that were evident on earlier images. “In the post-healing pictures,” Borik said, “her optic disc is back to normal. Her vision is completely restored. She has no more seizures. That is why I, as a medical doctor, have no explanation.”

A medical committee, led by Borik, undertook a thorough review of Gutierrez’s medical records, as well as repeated examinations. The committee wrote, “After a thorough physical exam, extensive literature search and review of all medical records, we have no medical explanation and therefore believe this to be a miraculous healing through the intercession of St. Charbel.”

 

Unexpected Healing Strengthens Faith

Borik is enthusiastic about the healing, telling the Register, “It has changed my practice! It has changed how I relate to patients. Now,” she said, referring to her relationship with those entrusted to her care, “prayer is such an important part of what we do.”

Father Wissam Akiki, pastor of St. Joseph Maronite Church, had a devotion to St. Charbel (see sidebar below), and he installed a large picture of the saint in the parish shortly after his arrival in 2014. Then, in 2016, he arranged to bring St. Charbel’s relics to his parish as part of a U.S. tour.

Father Akiki remembers when Gutierrez showed up to venerate the relics. Father Akiki approached her. “I heard her confession,” he told the Register. “We prayed together, and I said to her daughter, ‘Take care of your mom, and your mom is going to see you soon.’ Then, in only three days, she called the church to report that she could see.”

Father Akiki acknowledged that Gutierrez’s healing has strengthened the faith and changed the face of St. Joseph Maronite Church. “People are coming here to pray, traveling from Germany, Bolivia, Canada, Australia, Jerusalem.”

Following the healing, Father Akiki planned to erect a shrine to St. Charbel at his parish, with a two-ton sculpture of the saint cut from a single stone and imported from Lebanon. The shrine will be open seven days a week, 24 hours a day. Father Akiki expected that the dedication of the shrine March 26 would draw crowds, including Maronite Bishop A. Elias Zaidan, Phoenix Bishop Thomas Olmsted and many local dignitaries.

Bishop Zaidan attributed Gutierrez’s recovery to the intercession of St. Charbel. “May this healing of the sight of Dafne,” he wrote in The Maronite Voice, “be an inspiration for all of us to seek the spiritual sight, in order to recognize the will of God in our lives and to act accordingly.”

Cristofer Pereyra, director of the Hispanic Office of the Phoenix Diocese, told Fox News that Bishop Olmsted spoke with the doctors and reviewed the case. “The bishop wanted to make sure there was no scientific explanation for the miraculous recovery of Dafne’s sight,” Pereyra reported.

The greatest change, of course, has been for Gutierrez and her children. Since her eyesight was restored, Dafne’s life has changed dramatically: She can once again check her children's homework, watch them at play with friends, and manage her household chores without extra assistance.

Her prayer was answered.

Kathy Schiffer writes from Southfield, Michigan.

 

Who Was St. Charbel?

Born Youssef Antoun Makhlouf in the high mountains of northern Lebanon in 1828, St. Charbel (also spelled Sharbel) was the youngest of five children in a poor but religious family. His baptismal name was Joseph; only when he entered a monastery at the age of 23 was he given the name Charbel, after an early martyr. He studied in seminary and was ordained a priest in 1858. For 16 years, Father Charbel lived with his brother priests; theirs was a communal life of prayer and devotion to God.

In 1875, Father Charbel was granted permission to live a hermit’s life. In his rugged cabin, for the next 23 years, he practiced mortification and sacrifice — often wearing a hair shirt, sleeping on the ground, and eating only one meal a day. The Eucharist was the focus of his life. The holy priest celebrated daily Mass at 11am, spending the morning in preparation and the rest of the day in thanksgiving.

Father Charbel was 70 years old when he suffered a seizure while celebrating Mass. A priest assisting him was forced to pry the Eucharist out of his rigid hands. He never regained consciousness; and eight days later, on Christmas Eve in 1898, Father Charbel died. His body was interred in the ground without a coffin and without embalming, according to the monks’ custom, dressed in the full habit of the order.

For the next 45 nights, a most unusual event occurred: According to many local townspeople, an extraordinarily bright light appeared above his tomb, lighting the night sky. Finally, after the mysterious light persisted, officials at the monastery petitioned the ecclesiastical authorities for permission to exhume Charbel’s body. When the grave was opened four months after Charbel’s death, his body was found to be incorrupt. Twenty-eight years after his death, in 1928, and again in 1950, the grave was reopened, and his body was also found to be without decay.

Numerous medical researchers were permitted to examine the remains, and all confirmed that the saint’s body was preserved from decay. For 67 years, the body remained intact, even when left outdoors unprotected for an entire summer — although it consistently gave off a liquid that had the odor of blood. Finally, though, Charbel’s body followed the natural course. When the tomb was again opened at the time of his beatification in 1965, it was found to be decayed, except for the skeleton, which was deep red in color.

The inexplicable restoration of Dafne Gutierrez’s eyesight is not the first healing credited to St. Charbel. Dr. Anne Borik reported that there have been hundreds — perhaps thousands — of miracles attributed to the saint.

Pope Francis is said to have a deep devotion to St. Charbel. Last Christmas, Borik reported, the Holy Father asked to have a relic of St. Charbel sewn into the hem of his vestments.

Kathy Schiffer