Last week, Immaculee Ilibagiza, survivor of the Rwandan genocide of 1994, spoke at a local high school here in Chicago. Her message exemplified the value of forgiveness and the power of prayer, and Rozann Carter reflects on her presentation here.
Thursday evening, I had the great honor of listening to the story of Immaculee Ilibagiza, author of the New York Times bestseller, “Left to Tell
,” and survivor of the horrible genocide carried out against half of the population of the small African country of Rwanda in 1994. While her book recounts the incomprehensible details of her experience, the short version of the story is that she and seven other women survived the genocide, “huddled silently together in the cramped bathroom of a local pastor’s home while hundreds of machete-wielding killers hunted for them.” The Rwandan killing spree lasted 100 bloody days wherein 1 million people, including Immaculee’s mother, father, and 2 brothers, brutally lost their lives.
Immaculee’s message, since the time of her release and throughout last 16 years of piecing together a life for herself, has been one of supernatural, Christ-like forgiveness. She returned to her homeland and faced her neighbors, who had astonishingly transformed into murderers during those fateful 100 days, to offer them forgiveness. The story of her inner transformation from incensed, indescribable rage; to the understanding that the individuals responsible were not evil, but merely blinded; and finally to the deep abiding peace offered by the line of the Lord’s prayer that calls the individual praying to forgive indiscriminately is a story that speaks sharply and starkly to each of us, humbling our inflated pride and identifying our embarrassingly silly hang-ups to communion and forgiveness. Similar to the examples of the saints, her supernatural, palpable, visible forgiveness makes present the forgiveness of Christ from the cross and calls us to action in the present time. The tragedy is in recent memory, and the survivor is right in front of us; the Goodness of God is sacramentally made present in an individual whom we can see and touch, providing a severe depth of perspective that changes everything.
Throughout of the course of the evening, however, she continually touched on (and physically conveyed) the power of prayer. While she stood in the 3 foot by 4 foot bathroom with 7 other women for 91 days, she turned to the rosary to “take a break from her own thoughts.” Each day, she prayed 27 rosaries, pleading for Mary’s intercession and Jesus’ protection even as she vividly imagined what awaited her as the tribal soldiers fatefully called her name right outside the door. Each time, each visit, each unbelievably close call, she was miraculously spared. And, after Immaculee’s presentation, I was blessed to hear her speak personally to a group of women wherein she stressed this fact: we have so little faith, so little trust in God, so little understanding of God’s desire to commune with us through the means of our passionately conveyed petitions and His loving answer. We cannot grasp the power of prayer, and generally, we leave it untried. She cited Luke 11:5-13:
“And he said to them, "Suppose one of you has a friend to whom he goes at midnight and says, 'Friend, lend me three loaves of bread, for a friend of mine has arrived at my house from a journey and I have nothing to offer him,' and he says in reply from within, 'Do not bother me; the door has already been locked and my children and I are already in bed. I cannot get up to give you anything.' I tell you, if he does not get up to give him the loaves because of their friendship, he will get up to give him whatever he needs because of his persistence. "And I tell you, ask and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives; and the one who seeks, finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened. What father among you would hand his son a snake when he asks for a fish? Or hand him a scorpion when he asks for an egg? If you then, who are wicked, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the Father in heaven give the holy Spirit to those who ask him?”
Over and over again, Immaculee encouraged the listeners not to be afraid to vehemently petition God for what we most deeply desire, trusting in His power to do all things.
So, what of the efficacy of prayer? For what should we petition God when He knows best, when “His will be done”? Why not merely arrive at the understanding that God has everything under control, and there is no sense attempting to influence His actions? Why not calmly and sweetly let things unfold as they will and work at tempering one's reactions? Because God desires, as Father Barron continually states, our full flourishing. And this “full flourishing” comes about through constant, impassioned, beautiful, genuine conversation with Him. It is through this conversation that we learn who we are, even as we learn who He is. We let him take his rightful place within the interior of our hearts, sorting through our fervent desires and being deeply glorified by granting to us what allows us to become most fully alive. Like every other expression of “free will,” the impetus is ours. The knock is our fist on His door. He desires to rejoice with us in the impassioned “yes” and to console us despite the compulsory but all-knowing “no.” He knows what He is about. And the more we know what He is about through the communion of prayer, the more we allow Him to bring us to Himself.
Father Barron often stresses the fact that when we pray, we are listening in as the Father and the Son converse about us. Immaculee’s message was a fervent encouragement to enter into this conversation, unafraid to honestly offer our hopes, our fears, our inadequacies, and our desires with ardent faith and unwavering trust, even in the most seemingly mundane petitions. We must not merely assume that God doesn’t need our input. He is glorified by our passionate desire to affect His will because by exercising this desire, we allow Him the means to fulfill it-- to an infinitely greater degree than we can comprehend.
Rozann Carter is a Production Assistant at Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.