Thursday, March 22, 2007

Rafqa

Tomorrow, March 23rd, is the feast day of Boutrosiya Sabaq Al-Rayes, more commonly known as Saint Rafqa. Rafqa's story is a curious one; not long after praying to share in the suffering of Christ and his saints, she fell ill, eventually becoming blind and crippled, with continual migraine headaches and frequent nosebleeds. She was part of an order that places a great emphasis on work, so she insisted through it at all that she still contribute what she could -- in her case, knitting clothes for the other sisters in her order. She gave what little she had to the poor. So it went until her paralysis spread. She eventually died in late 1914. The exact nature of her afflication is unknown, although it seems to have been tuberculosis. But Rafqa herself insisted that her suffering was a gift for which she gave thanks.

I think saints like Rafqa tend to be difficult to understand for those of us who live comfortable First World lives. How could we consider ourselves blessed if we were to suffer as she did? But Rafqa was Lebanese, at a time when suffering was common in Lebanon, and her embrace of her suffering was part of her solidarity with others who suffered. And one of the reasons she has become such a popular saint is precisely this: undergoing terrible suffering, she was not overcome by it; her solidarity with others who suffer allows those who suffer to enter into solidarity with her, and be strengthened by it. They need not suffer in lonely silence; amidst the tragedies of life they do not walk alone. They walk with others, and although the suffering is not less, they find more strength to bear it when there are others who willingly bear it with them. Even in pain we are social creatures. And in that there is perhaps hope for us all. Further, she has been taken as a self-symbol by the Maronite community, which has also suffered rather extensively; but who see in Rafqa the possibility of not being overcome by it.

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