Just recently I had a wonderful vacation in Sicily. The island is very beautiful and very diverse. I expected the coasts to be scenic since the island is surrounded by the Mediterranean, Ionian, and Tyrrhenian Seas, and indeed this was true. But the interior of Sicily is equally beautiful with mountains and valleys and other natural resources. The hillsides are covered with vineyards, olive groves, oranges, lemons, almonds, pistachios and many other delights. I am sure it is more than that I happen to be half Sicilian that made me feel very at home there. I think it is that Sicily has a very rich history and has been home to many different cultures that have enabled the people to be very warm and welcoming.
During our travels we came across a few saints that are very important to the people of Sicily. One of those saints had a feast day this week, St. Agatha of Catania, and so it seemed fitting to reflect on why she is so revered by Sicilians. Actually it is a bit ironic because very little is known about her. It seems that Agatha was from a wealthy family and that at some point in her young adulthood she professed belief in Christianity and consecrated her life to service of the Lord. It is said that in 250 AD she was arrested by a magistrate who tried to force her to work to a brothel, but she refused to comply. Therefore the angry magistrate had her mutilated before finally rolling her on hot coals. During the torture, Mt. Etna erupted and her torturers fled. She thanked God for an end to her pain and then died.
This week we celebrate some other saints who, like St. Agatha, experienced great suffering. However, I would like to focus on St. Josephine Bakhita (February 8) who also has a connection with Italy. Josephine was born to a wealthy Sudanese family in 1868 but was kidnapped at age 9 and sold into slavery. She was given the name ‘Bakhita’ by her captors because she was so terrified she could not give her own name; it means ‘fortunate.’ She was tortured and subjected to great pain by her owners. Apparently they would cut her and then put salt in the wounds in order to insure scarring. Eventually she was sold to an Italian who took her to Italy where she met the Canossian Sisters and through them, petitioned for her freedom. Josephine was baptized and eventually joined the Canossians, in a life of service, cooking, sewing, and greeting guests who came to the convent, teaching others how to love Christ. She was very well loved by her Sisters and by the people of Verona where she lived until her death in 1947.
Saints such as Agatha and Josephine, teach us that suffering can be redemptive if offered as such. Neither of them held any anger toward those who tortured them. Even more astonishing is that in the stories of saints such as these we see that they lived with a great deal of joy, even in the face of great suffering. For example, Josephine turned her energy outward in forgiveness, love, and service. It seems that what these saints learned is that no matter what comes our way, the path we are on is the path to our holiness, and so we can turn to Jesus, the one who truly understands what suffering is about, in order to have the strength to bear the burden with love.
It is not a secret to any of us that life includes various forms of suffering. While most of us will not lose our lives in a dramatic martyrdom, we do suffer from maladies and difficult situations, large and small. Throughout our lives we endure situations at home and work in which we feel terribly burdened. Sometimes we suffer through illnesses, chronic pain, or injuries. Other times it may be caring for someone who is ill, elderly, or maybe a child or spouse with a disability that requires constant care. Perhaps we struggle with a relationship which is difficult or painful. Maybe our suffering comes from a workplace which is nearly intolerable, but we cannot leave our job at the moment. It could be something as seemingly innocuous as being overwhelmed by daily chores or “having too much on our plate.” As St. Thérèse Couderc (who suffered a great humiliation at the hands of her own congregation) once said, “We die by pinpricks.” What I think she meant was that sometimes it is not a big catastrophe that is the source of our suffering. It can be the many complexities of daily living, the little things that add up, which create a sense of carrying a great burden.
That is not to say that we do not have any happiness or that we cannot find joy in the midst of our struggles. In fact, it is for this reason that we celebrate the saints: these were people who found great joy in the love of Jesus. They gave their lives in death or in service because they found joy in the truth of the gospels and the reality of God’s love. Not only that, they believed that their sacrifices were offered as prayer for the communities they served and as witness to the strength of their love and commitment to Christ. Their lives and sacrifices became catalysts for others to have faith in the message of the gospels that Jesus is Lord and that He offers us eternal life. This joy is what buoyed them in times of great trial.
Those who suffer allow their hearts to be expanded with compassion and mercy. They begin to have hearts that understand Jesus and His suffering more deeply, such that they understand that suffering is a school of love which we can turn outward in empathy and compassion for other sufferers. Those who have learned what suffering teaches are usually the ones who have the greatest capacity for love if they allow themselves to learn, rather than to become embittered by suffering.
St. Josephine Bakhita is one who shows us how suffering can teach such wisdom. While it is true that much of her suffering came before she really knew Jesus, she did say she knew that there was a Creator of all the beauty she saw around her in the world. Can you imagine being able to see beauty while enslaved and continually tortured? Yet this is what she said about the beginnings of her faith. It was this outlook, born of hope, which enabled her to open her heart to Christ when she was taught about Him, and it was this openness which led her to faith and commitment. It seems that she allowed her heart to be fertile ground for love, and in so doing she could not contain the love, but rather shared it with all those with whom she came in contact. St. Josephine teaches all of us that we can overcome whatever adversity comes our way if we allow Christ to work with us and within in us. Josephine served with joy. Rather than let her past and the permanent scars on her body guide her to bitterness and hatred toward the people who enslaved her and the culture from which they came, she let Jesus guide her to the freedom which came with forgiveness and love. The joy and love with which she lived is what touched others around her.
Let us learn from St. Agatha and St. Josephine, and from those saints who suffered both great and small, that our sufferings are not in vain. If we allow the Lord to be the strength in our weakness we, too, can let our suffering be turned into joy. (2Cor 12:8-9) That which threatens to overwhelm us can be eased through the love which is given us through those we turn to for help: friends, family, service personnel, clergy, and others who are all sent to us by God. And we can turn to others in love and care as well. That which we receive, we can give as a gift. It does not have to be something heroic; sometimes all we need to do is smile when we are around others who are also carrying a burden. What we need to remember is that we are not alone and that we can turn to the saints for their prayer of intercession and for their inspiration in how they coped with adversity. If we can remember that the Lord is with us in no matter what we encounter, we can have the joy of His love which can give us the strength to “hang in there” with whatever it is that is weighing us down. Jesus said: “Come to me all you who labor and are burdened and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28) Let us trust in His promise!
May we turn to the Lord in our weakness and find His strength! May we have the courage to trust in the promises of Christ that He is with us always, especially when we feel most burdened! May we take to heart the words of Jesus who says that He will take our burdens and help us carry them! Let us find joy in His love and care, sharing it with others who are also burdened! And may we turn to St. Agatha and St. Josephine as intercessors and sources of inspiration for our lives! Let us continue to meet in the Compassionate Heart of Jesus! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
The top photo was one I took on our trip. It is of Mt. Etna, which is not far from where St. Agatha lived. It is said that once her veil was taken in procession around the volcano and through her intercession an eruption was averted.
The next is a photo of a mosaic of St. Agatha in the Cathedral in Monreale, S. This mosaic is found on the north wall of the presbytery.
The icon is St. Josephine Bakhita Universal Sister by Fr. William Hart McNichols. It can be found at http://www.fatherbill.org/all-categories/product/72-st-josephine-bakhita-universal-sister
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Heart Speaks to Heart