Sr. Liliane Sweko, former novice directress in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, is a member of the Congregational Leadership Team of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur.
As an African and a woman religious who worked for many years in Africa before being elected to the general leadership team of my congregation, I can only approach our theme from the starting point of the particular experiences through which religious life is growing and taking root in African soil. Well known for its poverty, under-development, endemic sicknesses and its wars and HIV/AIDS, is the African continent not in the process of making its mark within the noble Christian tradition of prophecy and mysticism? Yes, for the past fifty years or so, many African women religious have been assassinated (235 in 2003) along with their brothers and sisters, men religious, priests and laity. By the end of last year, the number of assassinated women religious greatly increased. We remember with great sorrow and many tears Sister Denise Kahambu Muhayirwa, a trappistine of the Monastery of Notre Dame de la Clarté-Dieu from MURHESA. Sister Denise Hahambu was about to celebrate her forty-fifth birthday on the Saturday of the week she was killed. The unbearable images of her broken body left in a pool of blood were transmitted throughout the world. In his pamphlet They Lay In Wait For Us published in 2003, Father Neno Contran, a Cambodian, assembles in an anthology the lives of all these women religious killed for their Christian faith and their religious presence and witness. In the Preface to this pamphlet, Sister Pétronille Kayiba, OP, writes:
If we examine the circumstances surrounding the death of these consecrated persons, we discover that they were not involved in activities that were particularly confrontational: their time and energy were devoted to teaching, medical assistance, development, evangelization. Unarmed, they were a threat to no one, were capable of extraordinary courage, and stood out from others solely by the gratuitousness of their love, sign of God’s solidarity with people. Their story demonstrates that, perhaps more than in the past, risks are part and parcel of consecrated life and they arise unexpectedly. Wars, dictatorships and the exploitation of ethnic divisions have a way of making targets of important values and of those who embody them. It seems that attacks on convents and flights into the forest or into a more secure area in order to escape rape and looting are becoming commonplace occurrences much like the anonymous cases of suffering among ordinary people. (Sr. Pétronille Kayiba, OP, Preface, 5).
As described, the situation of religious life in Africa highlights what is in fact a constant feature of consecrated life: whatever the particular situation in this or that continent, in this or that culture, risks are part of religious life and it is this very fact that enables us to bear witness to what the world, in the Johannine sense of the word, cannot comprehend. The following reflection on our theme will develop four points: shadow and light; mystics and prophets for our time; you are the light and salt of the earth; actions designed to radiate light in the darkness.
- SHADOW AND LIGHT
To realize that our world is a world where, in the words of the prophet Isaiah, the people walk in darkness, a world where men and women live in the shadows, one has only to pay attention to the daily reality of many countries and their people. However, should not our faith in the one who died and rose again transform our gaze so that we may discern the light, feeble as it may be, which continues to shine despite all the winds of the world which could extinguish it?
The description of the dark continent has become a classic one: its shadow should not, however, obscure its light, light announcing the rising of a more radiant and strong sun. The Lineamenta for the Second Special Assembly on Africa of the Bishops’ Synod (June 27, 2006) describe the shadows of this continent in this way:
The widespread deterioration in the standard of living, insufficient means for educating the young, the lack of elementary health and social services with the resulting persistence of endemic diseases, the spread of the terrible scourge of AIDS, the heavy and often unbearable burden of the international debt, the horror of fratricidal wars fomented by unscrupulous arms trafficking, and the shameful, pitiable spectacle of refugees and displaced persons…. The infant mortality rate continues to grow. After more than ten years, the constant deterioration of revenues persists in some of the poorest countries of Africa. Access to potable water is still very difficult for many. Generally speaking, the great majority of African people live in a state of want for basic goods and services. Today's situation in Africa cannot fail to touch consciences. In these times, Africa more than ever is dependent on rich countries, and is more vulnerable than any other continent to their manoeuvring aimed at giving with one hand and taking back twofold with the other, and at keeping a strong hold on the development of the political, economic, social and even cultural life of African countries. In constructing the world, Africa is deliberately left out.
(Lineamenta, Chapter 1).
The authors of these Lineamenta discern, however, glimmers of hope, sparks of light which can transform the shadows of the African continent into a beautiful sunlit day:
In many countries of Africa, only the Church functions well, enabling people to continue to live and hope in a better future. Furthermore, she provides necessary assistance, is a guarantor of living in harmony and contributes to finding ways and means to rebuild the State. However, she is also the privileged place where the subject of reconciliation and forgiveness can again begin to be treated. … the advent of peace in some African countries; the burning desire for peace throughout the continent, especially in the Great Lakes region; growing opposition to corruption; a deep consciousness of the need to promote African women and the dignity of every human person; the involvement of the laity in "civil life" for the promotion and defence of "human rights"; and the ever-growing number of African politicians who are aware and determined to find African solutions to African problems.
Similarly, even though our world may still be disfigured by violence, all kinds of terrorism, wars and conflicts often enflamed by those in power and by multinationals seeking to profit from these situations in order to exploit the riches of poor countries and keep people dominated and oppressed, our Christian faith assures us that God is always present in this world. The surge in solidarity and fraternity, pretty well worldwide after catastrophes and natural disasters, and even after wars and armed conflicts, is amazing. Because it was so widely publicized, the global mobilization to assist the victims of the Tsunami or the earthquake in Haiti seems a good example. Thus, even when violence becomes inhuman, when everything would suggest that God has deserted us, when we declare that God is dead or bemoan God’s absence and, as in the case of Eli, our eyesight begins to dim and we can no longer see clearly the wonders of God (1 Sam 3: 2-3), let us never forget that “the lamp of God has not yet gone out.” Remember Etty Hillesum, the young Jewish girl who died in the concentration camps? She has wonderful words to say, words which should still be meditated upon and mined when the shadows, the darkness of our world, block all gaze upward toward the positive and all horizons of hope and of life. As an African and a Congolese, I feel all the humiliations, all the violence and rapes inflicted on my people’s women, those many bodies demeaned, destroyed by the violence and wickedness of men.
Where do we find hope and the strength to continue to hope and live? I recall the words of Etty Hillesum, sisterly words, as a source of courage and faith: “I will help you, my God, not to extinguish yourself in me. It’s my turn to help you and to defend to the end your home in us. See how well I take care of you. I do not offer you only my tears and sad foreboding on this windy and grey Sunday; I even offer you a scented jasmine. And I will offer you all the flowers I find on my path, and there are many, believe me. I wish to make your visit as pleasant as possible.” (Etty Hillesum, An Interrupted Life, French edition by Pascal Dreyer, Desclée de Brouwer Publishers).
According to a wisdom saying of our African ancestors, however long the night, day does finally come. In this high-stakes play of darkness and light, Christian faith and hope empower us consecrated women to be bearers of a light, a torch, which the world needs in order to see and warm itself by. At times, this light and fire will be invisible to the eyes of the world but the world will still sense its presence and strength. To conclude this first point, let us recall an image used by Joan Chittister in the title of her book Fire in These Ashes. As she explains, this image refers to the process of burying the embers, watching over the fire and carrying the coals “to new places so that they can flame again.” (Joan Chittister, Fire in These Ashes, 178). In this world darkened by so much drama, wars, violence and disdain for human beings, religious life should create new paths, find a new ability not only to watch over the fire within but also to find fresh opportunities to embrace the world in a profound and totally new way.