Saint Bakhita, Apostle of Gratitude

Saint Bakhita, Apostle of Gratitude

I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us… And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.  For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son.” — Romans 8:18.28-29

Every time I meditate on this letter from Saint Paul, I am so touched by the word “all” that I ask the Lord for the gift of faith and hope, so that I can really believe that all that happens in our life works for the good of our own life. Sometimes we are so overwhelmed by events that we are unable to see the goodness of the divine project, at least at the beginning, when we are blinded by grief.  We can live for years trying to make sense of it all, until comes the long-awaited moment, when through the fog we manage to find the precious thread which ties us to the Light, the grace in the dis-grace!  And so, the fog fades away and we are even able to thank the Lord for that pain.

Those who were able to receive this grace are certainly the saints. We look to them like our older brothers since they testify to us the truth of the Beatitudes with their own life.  Among them, in recent years, the one who has impressed me the most has been a Sudanese woman and her tragic story of slavery. She had the courage to say: “If I met the slave-traders who kidnapped and tortured me I would kneel down and kiss their hands.”

Until the age of nine she lived happily with her family in the African village of Olgrossa, when one afternoon, while she was walking through the fields, was kidnapped from two Arab slave-traders, held captive for one month in a dark and cramped hut, and then sold many times as a slave. The trauma of her abduction caused her to forget her own name, and that is why her slave-traders give her the name of “Bakhita”, which is Arabic for “lucky”.

After her abduction, she was sold five times in the slave-markets, heavily chained, and forced to work relentlessly to satisfy her masters’ whims. Eventually she found herself working as a slave for the mother and the wife of a general. During this period, she faced the worst years of her life, as she herself wrote: “During all the years I stayed in that house, I do not recall a day that passed without some wound or other. When one wound from the whip began to heal, other blows would pour down on me, without me knowing why. How many of my companions in misfortune were beaten to death!”

One day, she was “tattooed” with a razorblade, creating 114 cuts, and her wounds were filled with salt to ensure permanent scarring. “At any moment I thought I was going to die … immersed in a lake of blood, they took me to a mat, and for hours I knew nothing of myself … for more than one month [lying] on the mat, … without ever a cloth to dry the water that came out all the time from the wounds half-closed because of the salt”.

Yet, while telling her story, she kept saying: “If I met the slave-traders who kidnapped and tortured me I would kneel down and kiss their hands, because … poor people, they didn’t know how much they hurt me: they were the masters, I was the slave.  Just as we are used to do good things, similarly those slavers did such things because it was their habit, not for wickedness!”

These words resemble Jesus’s words on the cross: “Father, forgive them because they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).

What drove Bakhita to speak that way? What lies behind that “because” that leave us breathless?

“…I would kneel down and kiss their hands, because, if it had never happened I would not be Christian and a consecrated woman.”

Indeed, Bakhita, after ten years of slavery in Africa, was led to Italy by an Italian consul who treated her kindly and “gave” her to a Venetian couple with one daughter, Alice. While both Bakhita and Alice were left in the care of the Canossian sisters in Venice, Bakhita was instructed to the Catholic faith. She heard about Jesus and she recognized in Him that God that since her childhood she felt in her heart without knowing who He was. “I remembered that, looking at the sun, the moon, the stars, the beauty of nature, I said to myself: ‘Who is the master of all these beautiful things?’ And I felt a great desire to see him, to know him and to give him homage.”

In his encyclical Spe Salvi, the Holy Father Benedict XVI describes the miracle that took place in the depths of Bakhita with these words: “Here, after the terrifying “masters” who had owned her up to that point, Bakhita came to know a totally different kind of “master”— in Venetian dialect, which she was now learning, she used the name “paron” for the living God, the God of Jesus Christ. Up to that time she had known only masters who despised and maltreated her, or at best considered her a useful slave. Now, however, she heard that there is a “paron” above all masters, the Lord of all lords, and that this Lord is good, He is goodness in person. She came to know that this Lord even knew her, that he had created her —that he actually loved her. She too was loved, and by none other than the supreme “Paron”, before whom all other masters are themselves no more than lowly servants. She was known and loved and she was awaited. What is more, this master had himself accepted the destiny of being flogged and now he was waiting for her ‘at the Father’s right hand.’”

Since Italian law did not recognize slavery, for the first time in her life Bakhita found herself in control of her own destiny and she felt called from the “bon Paron” to consecrate her life as a Canossian sister.  For 45 years she served the community carrying out humble tasks, conquering everybody’s heart with her gentleness and hospitality. On the insistence of her sisters she dictated the memories of her past and gave her witness throughout Italy, in Venetian dialect — two years of missionary journeys that cost her a lot of effort but during which she left a trail of goodness. The sister that accompanied Bakhita told her story for her, while Bakhita herself said only few words at the end, giving her audience this simple message: “Be good, love the Lord, pray for those who don’t know Him. If you knew what great grace it is to know God.” And she would have liked to fly to her people “and preach loudly to everybody your goodness: oh, how many souls I could conquer for You! Among the first ones, my mother, my father, my brothers, my sister, still slaves … all, all the poor Africans, oh Jesus, let them know and love you, too!”

In my opinion Bakhita is a real apostle of gratitude since she was able to see in the events of her life, even in the most painful ones, the path that the Lord had prepared for her so that she could meet Him. The suffering of all those dark years was worth if it led her to the encounter with Christ, and she probably wouldn’t have met Him if she had stayed in her African village.

All my life has been his gift for me: men are tools; thanks to them I have received the gift of the faith. If I would stay kneel down all my life, I will never express enough my gratitude towards the good Lord.”

Concrete resolution:  In prayer, I will try to reconsider all those events that have led me closer to Jesus and express my gratitude to the Father. I can thank Him also for the people who, for good or ill, have been tools for my growth in faith.

This month’s meditation is by Sr. Simona Ciullo.