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Lebanon's Cedar of Strength in Suffering
By Joseph Rayes, O.F.M.

Q U I C K S C A N

Mid-life Changes
To Be Like Jesus
'Passionate and Generous Love'
St. Rafqa Pietra Choboq Ar-Rayès

It’s not hard to find God’s presence in Francis of Assisi, Vincent de Paul or Mother Teresa. These holy people touched many lives and are world figures. But God works also in the lowly and hidden, as God did in the little village of Himlaya, tucked in the cedarrich mountains of Lebanon.

There, Boutroussieh Ar-Rayès was born to poor, devout Maronite Catholics. Her mother died when Boutroussieh was seven. At 11, she already worked as a maid to help support the family.

At 18, she entered a community of teaching sisters where she was called Sister Anissa. She lived a quiet life teaching young girls for 18 years. In 1871, her community merged with another that had a similar charism. Each sister could choose to join the new community or enter a cloistered community. At 39, Anissa chose the cloistered Baladite Order. She took the name of her deceased mother, Rafqa (Rebecca).

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Mid-life Changes

God writes in crooked lines and tosses us about until we are where God wants us to be. Rafqa was serenely happy in her new home. She did the daily chores of cloistered life with a joyful spirit. We are reminded of St. Thérèse of Lisieux and her little way, doing ordinary things extraordinarily well.

One sister who lived with Rafqa at this time stated, “During my stay with her she was simple-hearted, happy in every situation; she had no temper... was never angry or disturbed. Nor did anyone become angry with her. We all agree she became a saint because of her good-heartedness.” But what is the cost of loving in all the ordinary circumstances of life with its moments of coping with frustration, experiencing selfishness or holding back anger to show a kind face? Sanctity demands that loving price from all of us. Accomplishing the great things depends on the call of God.

June 29, 1832 Born in Himlaya, Lebanon

July 12, 1871 Transferred to cloistered monastery in Aito, Lebanon, where she later prayed to be one with the sufferings of Jesus

March 23, 1914 Died in Gerabta, Bartroun, Lebanon

June 10, 2001 Canonized by Pope John Paul II in Rome

God was not finished with Rafqa. In 1885, the 53-year-old religious went to chapel to pray. In her own words, “Seeing that I was in good health and that I had never been sick all my life, I prayed to God in this way, ‘Why, my God, are you so far from me? You have never visited me with sickness! Have you perhaps abandoned me?’”

That very night she began to experience extremely severe pain in her head. The pain moved to her eyes and lasted 29 years. Doctors could find no cure. In time she became blind and crippled, having movement only in her wrists and hands.

Through it all, she remained joyful, even grateful to God for the gift of suffering. She said, “I have no right to complain.”

Most of us go kicking and screaming any time we feel a little pain or discomfort. What makes a person embrace suffering? Perhaps the answer lies in this: Rafqa was so in love with her Lord that she, like Francis of Assisi, wanted to identify with Jesus in all things, even in his suffering.

While she didn’t move physical mountains, she taught us the power of love in the midst of pain. Once more God raises up the lowly.

Next: Gianna Beretta Molla

 

“In the sufferings which never left her for 29 years of her life, St. Rafqa always showed a passionate and generous love for the salvation of her brothers, drawing from her union with Christ, who died on the cross, the force to accept voluntarily and to love suffering....May St. Rafqa watch over those who know suffering, particularly over the peoples of the Middle East who must face a destructive and sterile spiral of violence. Through her intercession, let us ask the Lord to open hearts to the patient quest for new ways to peace.”

—homily from the Mass of beatification

 

Joseph Rayes prayed to St. Rafqa to restore the land of his ancestors. His father came from the same village as St. Rafqa, to whom he was distantly related. Father Joe died this past January.


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