My alarm went off at 6:30AM last Saturday and I looked out the window and saw fog as thick as the proverbial pea soup. Only the Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s Annual Men’s Spirituality Conference could make me venture out from my warm bed at that time!
I arrived at the conference with 1,100 other tired, but excited men for a day of inspired talks, confession, comradery, and a closing mass with Archbishop Charles Chaput. I received much of value from all the speakers, however, one part of the story of genocide survivor Immaculee Ilibagiza stood out as an excellent illustration of the Little Way of St. Therese.
Immaculee survived the Rwandan Genocide, where almost one million of her fellow countrymen were killed between April and July 1994, by hiding in a 3 ft. by 4 ft. bathroom with seven other women for 91 days. As Tutsis they were in constant danger of death by the Hutu tribesmen who were seeking to exterminate them. A Hutu pastor hid them in a spare bathroom and gave them food when he could in between times when the house was being searched. The terrified women couldn’t talk, move, flush the toilet, or make any sound. A suffocating experience to say the least!
In the endless silent hours Immaculee at first harbored an understandable rage toward the Hutus who were killing her people and she wondered how a good God could allow it to happen. She spoke eloquently to the hushed crowd about how her attitude was transformed by meditating on Jesus’ agony on the Cross. She recalled the words that he spoke, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). Imaculee realized that if the Hutus really understood the immensity of the pain they were causing and the far-reaching consequences of their actions, they could not do what they were doing.
This realization was completely transformative for Immaculee. She began to ask God to help her forgive those seeking her life and she actually began to pray for them. She saw clearly that she was completely powerless in her small bathroom prison except for prayer. She began praying many rosaries every day and learned how to depend on God’s power for everything.
The Little Way of St. Therese teaches us likewise that we can do nothing apart from God. Jesus says that, “As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me” (John 15:4). Immaculee learned how to be little or humble before God realizing that she was completely powerless to help herself while confined to the bathroom. Her only recourse was the power of prayer. Thankfully most of us will never experience that level of confinement or terror, but we can learn that we too are powerless unless like little children we turn to Our Father in heaven for assistance.
Note: Immaculee recalls her entire harrowing survival story in her excellent book, Left to Tell.