Saturday, January 26, 2008

Recent Reading: Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust

I'm not sure what of value I can say about Left to Tell.

Immaculee Ilibagiza lived through a horror I cannot quite grasp: the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. She hid for three months in a tiny bathroom -- a bathroom -- with seven other women. And, though Imaculee already had faith in God, while she was in hiding she learned to pray. She prayed and meditated, with the aid of her father's Rosary, often for fifteen to twenty hours a day.

I guess you could argue that when you're closed up in a bathroom with seven other women 24/7, there wouldn't be much to do but pray. On the other hand, there's the option of going insane, which is what I picture myself doing.

But, she didn't do that.

She prayed.

So, the other day, when I was lamenting the week I was having (clogged toilets, a car with a dead battery on the day I needed to cart six children to choir in sub-zero temps, a broken surge protector that prompted me to jerry-rig plugs and cords into a working configuration that probably violated 17 different fire codes, yet another doctor bill ... you know ... the little frustrations of my middle-class life ...) I thought of Immaculee, whose story I had just finished reading.

Who was I to whine about my clogged toilet when Immaculee had been squeezed in next to one, not to mention all those other bodies, for months? Who was I to bemoan a lost internet connection, for Pete's sake, when this woman had heard the voices of her would-be killers outside the bathroom window, calling her name?

Who was I to fret about my little so-called problems in my little life when this woman had lived through a surreal and unimaginable horror?

Who was I, really, to whine when I could be praying?

I prayed. For perspective.

And Left to Tell is a book that will certainly reinforce one's perspective.

But, then, there's also this very interesting little passage, and it made me think. This comes after Immaculee has made her way to safety, and is looking for a job, while living in a house with a friend and a number of other refugees:
I dreaded going back to Aloise's without a job, so I wandered the battered streets of our Kigali neighborhood feeling sorry for myself. I wanted to sit in quiet communication with God to focus my energies, but Aloise's house was too noisy for me to meditate. Believe it or not, I actually longed for the days in the pastor's bathroom, when I could talk to God for hours without interruption. I remembered the joy and peace He filled my heart with during those long stretches of silent prayer, along with the mental clarity I enjoyed afterward.

And, I felt grateful to Immaculee for pointing out that noise of our lives can and does drown out the joyful noise of God sometimes. I felt grateful that this woman, who has experienced more horror but also a deeper level of immersion into prayer than I will ever know, would comfort us with the knowledge that even she could struggle with her return to "the everyday." Even a middle-class, midwestern mom, whose life is sometimes so noisy it seems there's no room for rich prayer, can identify with that.

Life is noisy, but He is still there. Above, beyond and behind it all, next to us, with us ... He is there.

And that, finally, is the message of Left to Tell. God's abiding presence, which led Immaculee Ilibagiza to forgive the men who killed her family, is really the only thing worth clinging to.

God was with Immaculee throughout her ordeal and He is with her still.

She was left to tell us about Him.

And she tells it well indeed.


Jennifer said...

Wow, wow, wow. This is a life-changing kind of post, Karen. Thank you.

Eileen said...

Wow, Karen, this is an amazing post. I wonder if I could get through a book like this, what horror.

I thought I had a thing or two to complain about today, too.

Now, I see that, of course, I don't, really.

Thanks for the gentle smack upside the head.

Meredith said...

I am wanting to read this too, but haven't brought myself to get it yet, I think YOu've just pushed me over the edge :) Great witness and review!

Danae said...

Great post! Is this something you shared with your two older girls, or was it a private read?

Liz said...

I agree Karen, I read it a couple of months back. In some respects it was very depressing and frightening to see how quickly life could go from normal to horror, but it was also a real testament to the value of prayer in the midst of that horror. Great review!

Heidi Saxton said...

A few weeks ago I heard this book read aloud -- for free -- at CRI (Catholic Radio International) on their new program "Cover to Cover". For those who are interested (they are now doing "Swimming with Scapulars," here's the link:

Esther said...

She is a very good speaker. You would think she would be serious but no. She is a lovely woman with a good sense of humor. But I still can't bring myself to read her book.

aj said...


Great post. Immaculee is an amazing woman and speaker. You should check her out. I also know she is going on a pilgrimage in case you are interested. See

Jenny said...

Your entry is so inspirational, it gave me more insight into the book when I read it. As a side note I found this on Catholic Online about Immaculee and her next pilgrimage,