Josephine Bakhita was born in 1869 in Dafur, Sudan, with three brothers and three sisters. She was loved by her family and the first few years of her life were carefree and blissful. Her parents were relatively affluent. All this, however, did not prevent her from being abducted and sold into slavery, when she was only about nine years old. Her elder sister had fallen to the same fate only two years before her. She was made to walk barefoot about 600 miles, to another city. During that journey she was already sold twice. In her trauma, she even forgot her own name when questioned by her captors. They would name her ‘Bakhita’, meaning ‘fortunate’, in Arabic and she would be converted to Islam. Far from fortunate, over the next twelve years, she would be sold three more times and with rare exceptions, suffer cruelty on a daily basis. She would be branded, beaten, whip-lashed and even cut as a matter of course. She recounts some very distressing instances of torture in her autobiography. In 1882, due to threats of civil war, she was once again sold, for the last time, to the Italian vice-consul in Sudan. Even as he continued keeping her in a state of slavery, for the first time, someone treated her kindly, without beating or punishing her. Due to a worsening civil situation, he returned to Italy, taking Bakhita with him. There, she was given over to the custody of a friend, Augusto Michieli and his wife Turina. Bakhita would eventually become the nanny of their baby, Alice. Over the next two years, the Michielis set up their business in Sudan and began plans to move there permanently. However, with the process taking much longer than expected, they had to temporarily leave Alice along with Bakhita in the care of the Canossian nuns in Venice. Here, Bakhita encountered Christianity for the first time. Among the sisters, she found the love of Christ and gave her life to him. It would completely change her life. She later recalled with gratitude, that they had “introduced me to that God who from childhood I had felt in my heart without knowing who He was.”
In the meantime, Turina returned to take Bakhita and her child back to Sudan, but Bakhita refused to leave. The matter reached the courts. The sisters shielded Bakhita, appealing to the Cardinal of Venice about her problem. In 1889, an Italian court ruled Bakhita to be a free woman, since slavery was not legal in Italy and the British had outlawed slavery in Sudan even before Bakhita’s birth. For the first time, she was free and in control of her own life. In 1890, she was baptised Josephine Fortunata (the Italian equivalent of ‘Bakhita’) and confirmed by the same Cardinal Giuseppe Sarto, who would eventually become the sainted Pope Pius X. She chose to stay with the sisters, later becoming a professed Canossian nun herself, once again, welcomed by Cardinal Sarto. She would go on to spend 42, very fruitful years with the order, being based in Schio, Italy. She was lovingly called Madre Moretta (‘black mother’) by the locals as her sanctity and joy were well recognised by them. During the turbulent years of the World Wars, in particular, people would seek her out, feeling comforted by her presence. She died in 1947. Bakhita was once asked, “What would you do, if you were to meet your captors?” She responded without hesitating: “If I were to meet those who kidnapped me, and even those who tortured me, I would kneel and kiss their hands. For, if these things had not happened, I would not have been a Christian and a religious today”.
I’m thinking of the extraordinary story of Josephine Bakhita today as we are given these three short, yet very profound parables. In the first parable, there is a man who seems to find (stumble upon?) a treasure in a field. He is not aware of its presence, nor is he looking for it. But his finding it triggers a flurry of activity – he hides, he goes, he sells, he buys; from looking for nothing in particular, he begins to act decisively, energised by the joy that has filled him. The merchant is different. He is a businessman, who already knows what he is looking for. He is intentional in his search. Yet, what he finds is far greater than what he has encountered before or what he had hoped to find. He shares the experience of discovering a great gift, a surprise, and the mark of joy with the first person.
We all have events in our life which mark us profoundly. Sometimes, these can be of such singular importance, that they become the lens through which everything else in our life is evaluated. They can even mark how we see ourselves, the world around us, how we understand our lives. A distressing or traumatic event can leave us paranoid, causing us to see everything, everyone with suspicion. But events can be equally joyful and profound. Managing to get the job we have longed for, being affirmed by someone we look up to, falling in love. They have the power to re-order our lives. Everything else in life is now judged through this lens. A person, who has been directionless in their life, could find new purpose when they fall in love with someone. There are things, people, hobbies they will let go off, to order their lives according to this event. They have discovered something about themselves and about what their life concerns. And to fall in love with God – or rather to find that we have been loved, all of our life, completely by God – is the most profound of all events that can happen to us.
This is what we see in the lives of the saints and certainly in Bakhita’s life. In finding the love of Christ, all the events of her life, became meaningful. Even the most painful events of her life, what could be thought of as a series of random, cruel events to befall someone, now had meaning as she found that she had been loved by God through it all. Having found the treasure, she takes ownership, buysthe whole field, her life. A field would contain all kinds of rubbish, but she can buy it all for the sake of the treasure. And having stumbled upon the treasure, she now sought the pearl of great price. Like the merchant, she had direction. She could no longer be simply moved by people or different events. When she was ordered to go back to her life of slavery, she refused. Where did this girl who grew up in slavery get such courage from? To antagonise her masters could be potentially dangerous. And to what end? Her fight for freedom was not simply for freedom’s sake or a fit of rebellion. The pearl she sought was to give her life to Christ, in her case, as a religious. Marked by the joy of Christ’s love, she would risk losing everything, so she could be free to wed her Bridegroom, Christ himself.
This is Christianity. When people are asked, “What does it mean to be a Christian?”, many might say, it is to be a good person, or to love others or even to live a moral life. But it is not any of these. Christianity is an event. As Pope Benedictused to say, “it is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.” (Deus Caritas Est, para 1). In this event of encounter, our lives can be changed. We can find joy even through the worst moments of our lives. We can let go of everything that is not of God, for the sake of the love we have found. The famous quote attributed to Pedro Arrupe, former superior general of the Jesuits summarises it well:
“Nothing is more practical than finding God, that is, than falling in love in a quite absolute, final way. What you are in love with, what seizes your imagination will affect everything. It will decide what will get you out of bed in the mornings, what you will do with your your evenings, how you spend your weekends, what you read, who you know, what breaks your heart, and what amazes you with joy and gratitude. Fall in love, stay in love, and it will decide everything.”
Josephine Bakhita was beatified in 1992 and canonised in October, 2000 by Pope St John Paul II. Her feast day is on the 8th February. She is the patron saint of Sudan and survivors of human trafficking.