Rawanda, Catholic Prayer, Healing Memories: Immaculee Ilibagiza

Not to long ago a great friend called me to see if I’d go and hear a lecture from a writer who published an account of being held by Hutu opposition in Rawanda during the genocidal slaughter.  I simply was not prepared to witness the startling faith of Immaculee Iligagiza (pronouned EE-lee-bag-ee-zah) account titled ‘Live To Tell’.  Throughout her lecture she faithfully referred to prayerful mysteries that dominate the Holy Rosary.  (For non-Catholics there are four dominate themes Joyful, Light, Sorrowful & Glorious mysterious.)

As a captive held peacefully in a bathroom closet by Hutu’s (she was a Tutsi) all she could do was silently pray while men searched for her throughout the town.  Her entire family was slaughtered and Hutu’s knew she was missing, so their was motivation to seek her for public humiliation, torture and slaughter.  She remained captive for a month while Hutu militia’s swept both her town and the house she was hiding in.  Throughout her captivity she discovered the prayer that dominated the prison life of St. John of the Cross, prayer without words or repetition.  Apophatic (pronounced Ap-po-fat-tic) prayer is wordless.  The mind focuses on an image or event and draws one’s entire consciousness and being inside the mystery that is Christ.

One month later she recovered her desire to see her home, and the mass grave of family members.  Even food and a shower became a gift worthy of praise.

We in the west have lost the desire to do penance and discover Christ is our mist.  The beginning of such a task is self denial.  Forced captivity provided her with the chance to experience total sacramental realism.  The kind of perception given to saints, martyrs and poets who view all carnal life as infused with divine grace.

Throughout her lecture she continued to affirm that everything, including tragic loss is a gift.  This is profound theology!  Worthy of a true Catholic aesthetic.

I found myself writing on a brochure as she spoke, later as I copied my notes I found the following advice:

“Without love, without true forgiveness, their is no happiness.”

“A joy lived alone is no good.”


“Christian revelation embodied within the Triddium (Good Friday, Holy Saturday, Easter Sunday) destroyed the very foundation of tragedy.  After the Incarnation and Resurrection, we cannot speak of tragedy.  Even with such loss, it begets prayer!”

Finally, on the side of the brochure I read:  “writing is like touching a wound.”

I was astonished to witness such profound sacramental life.  We need not go to history to learn or relearn what we were taught.  John of the Cross laid to waste formal scholasticism in revealing that God Himself as Creator can touch the soul directly.  For over a thousand years the Church embraced the formal philosophical categories of antiquity.  The martyrs knew even better!  Those that suffer harbor profound witness!

When will we realize the gift that is life, time or a shower.  For many, it takes a tragedy.  For others, the task of living is enough.  Peace unto them, they are already burdened.

As for Immaculee Ilibagiza, “Live To Tell” revealed a wounded, understanding Lord, unashamed in his nakedness to be abandoned and Crucified.  The final gift to the children of the Earth!

About William Holland

Systematic Theologian/International Relations
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