Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta

African Saint A Perfect Lenten Companion

By LORRAINE V. MURRAY, Commentary | Published February 7, 2008

I will always remember the sound of the cell door slamming.

I looked around in the dim light and saw a cluster of women, all downtrodden and shabby, looking at me with sympathy in their eyes.

Many of the women were “ladies of the night,” while I was an amazingly naïve college student who had stupidly crossed the border into Mexico with just enough of an illegal herb to get me arrested.

The next morning, due to some miraculous loophole in the law, I was freed from the cell and allowed to get on with my life.

Still, the long-term emotional shockwaves of losing my freedom ran deep.

Each year, as Lent approaches, this memory comes back to me because this penitential season seems a perfect time to explore the comforts that imprison us.

The prisons, of course, vary: For some they are the hours whiled away in front of the aptly named “idiot box.” For others, they are the must-have evening martinis or the incessant nibbling whenever one is bored.

There are many other self-created prisons that I have personally frequented over the years. There is the lure of never-ending shopping, and the feeling that no amount of stuff will ever be enough. And don’t forget working such long hours that one’s relationships suffer.

During Lent we get a chance to stare these habits in the face and see the truth: They easily can become our master, while we become their slave.

Lent opened Feb. 6, and two days later the Church celebrates the feast day of an African saint Josephine Bakhita, who seems, in so many ways, a fitting companion for the season.

She was a slave who had lost a great treasure, her freedom, but she eventually found everything through Christ’s love.

Born in Darfur about 1869, Bakhita was stolen from her village at the tender age of 9 and lived for many years at the beck and call of cruel masters.

Sadly, the little African girl never again saw her parents and her friends, and the shock was so great that she even forgot her real name.

The slave masters laughingly gave her a new one: “Bakhita,” which means the lucky one.

Her life was harsh and agonizing, until she met a Catholic who taught her about the true Master, who is Christ. From then on, the girl felt that she was aptly named.

And no matter what the future might hold, she awaited it with hope.

Pope Benedict XVI writes about St. Josephine Bakhita in his new encyclical “Saved in Hope.” There he mentions that her coming to know Christ changed her outlook on the world.

As she wrote, “I am definitively loved and whatever happens to me—I am awaited by this Love. And so my life is good.”

Bakhita’s story turned out on a beautiful note. After she was baptized, she was freed from slavery and became a Catholic missionary sister in the Canossian order. In 2000, she was named a saint.

Her journey, from a free child to a slave and eventually to a saint, underscores an essential truth of the Christian faith: With God, we can triumph over the bleakest circumstances.

And during Lent, even if we feel imprisoned by our appetites for alcohol, sweets or material objects, we can break free.

Her story reminds us that we should never lose sight of our relationship with a loving God.

If we enter Lent clasping this jewel of faith in our hearts, we will journey smoothly to the other side. We will awaken on Easter Day not with a checklist of the things we’ve “given up,” but rather with a keener appreciation of what we were given.

We do nothing alone. Just as Jesus Christ was watching over that little girl in Africa, he is also watching us. And during Lent especially, he stands waiting to open our prison doors and set us free.

Lorraine Murray writes a column twice a month for the Living section of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. She will have a new book published this spring. Artwork (“The Liberation of St. Peter”) is by Jef Murray.