The Rosary: the prayer that saved my life
During the 1994 Rwandan genocide, Immaculée Ilibagiza and seven other women spent 91 days hidden in the cramped bathroom of a local pastor’s house. Immaculée entered the bathroom a vibrant, 115-pound university student with a loving family; she emerged weighing just 65 pounds. Immaculée believed that praying the Rosary spared her from being slaughtered during the horrific 1994 Rwandan genocide, in which her family and more than a million other innocent men, women, and children were brutally murdered. The following is an excerpt from The Rosary: The Prayer That Saved My Life, by Immaculée Ilibagiza, published by Hay House, available in bookstores, at HayHouse.com, or from Immaculee.com.
My head and my heart still writhed in fear, anger, and confusion, the likes of which I’d never known before. The devil’s voice that had twisted through my mind as the killers searched the house had been silenced when I called on God to save us, but the terror was already returning, my mouth filled with nervous bile and my entire body quaked.
And sure enough, as soon as the sun set and I heard the sounds of screaming in the distant darkness, the devil began whispering to me once again. I knew that only God could silence that slithering voice, so I vowed to pray throughout the night without rest.
I began the first of the rosary’s opening prayers by squeezing the crucifix of my father’s beads between my thumb and forefinger with such force that the metal grew hot against my skin. I made the Sign of the Cross and silently said the rosary’s first prayer. Perhaps for the first time in the thousands of times I’d said it, I fully understood and completely meant every word.
“In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”
The devil’s voice was suddenly silenced by the short prayer. The words were my declaration that I was about to do something with the backing of the most powerful force in the universe: the Father of all Creation; His son, the embodiment of all good; the Holy Spirit, the power of God’s love within us.
It dawned on me that as a child of God, part of that power belonged to me. I realized my words meant: “By the power invested in me by God Himself, I begin this prayer!” It was the most positive and empowering phrase ever to pass my lips, yet my heart had never been more humble. I spent at least two hours contemplating this one prayer, and was only pulled out of my reflection by the cries of someone being attacked a few hundred yards from the house.
I shivered, said a prayer that the soul of the poor person whose life had just ended be guided quickly to heaven, then plunged back into my rosary…silently commencing the second prayer that is said while holding the crucifix: the Apostles’ Creed. This prayer had always been a chore for me, repeating that I believed in God, then what the Bible says about Jesus and the Holy Spirit and the Church and Saints and on and on and on, was just so…redundant. It seemed a pointless prayer because if I didn’t believe all those things in the first place, I wouldn’t be praying the rosary!
However, the Creed took on new meaning for me while kneeling on the bathroom floor surrounded by killers. I realized that the words embodied the ethos of Christianity since Jesus first sent his apostles into the world to spread the Word of God. Just one day earlier, this prayer had meant so little to me. Now it was my spiritual compass. In a moment of clarity I recognized in its words who I was and where I stood in my faith. It gave me my bearings as a Christian, and provided me with the voice I needed to stand up and declare whose side I was on and what I believed in. I was a child of God and followed in the footsteps of Jesus, and no power on Earth—not the killer at the door or the devil in my ear—could ever take that away from me.
The fingers of my right hand moved from the crucifix to the first large bead of my rosary, and the words of the Lord’s Prayer began tumbling from my heart. I felt God in the bathroom with me, as though He had answered me when I prayed “Our Father.” I thought of Dad, leading thousands in the same prayer, holding this same rosary in his hand, and asking God for the same things I was asking Him for now: to deliver me from evil.
There was so much anger in my heart toward the killers at that moment that I could not bring myself to ask God to forgive their trespasses—their trespasses were too great, too vile…and they were still trespassing against me, against so many innocent people! I hated the killers and prayed for God to be patient with me.
My fingers moved toward the rosary’s main chaplet, and I paused on each bead to delve into the meaning of the corresponding prayers with a passion and yearning unknown to me until that point. On each of the next three beads I prayed the Hail Mary, recalling my love of Our Lady over the years, and how she wept when she warned us of the coming genocide. Each of the three times I called her name I felt Our Mother’s gentle, comforting hand on my shoulder—her touch would soon become my greatest solace.
On the next large bead I prayed the Glory Be prayer, wishing with all my being that God’s glory would indeed, now and forever, be the driving force of all existence—a force against which the kind of evil now strangling Rwanda would stand no chance.
Then, on the same large bead, I said the rosary’s final opening prayer before I would announce which mystery I was about to meditate on. Again, the Fátima Prayer had never really made an impact on me before, simply because no one I had ever loved dearly had died, and the concept of my own death had never entered my youthful mind. All that had changed in a matter of a few days, of course.
Death was now all around me—I didn’t know if my parents or brothers were alive or even if I myself would survive the night. I had lost count of the number of screams I had heard coming from outside that had ended in wheezing death rattles. I pressed my beads to my lips and whispered: O my Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of hell, and lead all souls to heaven, especially those who are most in need of your mercy.
As I was about to internally announce my intention to mediate upon the First Joyful Mystery, more screaming fell upon my ears from out of the darkness. Such little light penetrated the bathroom from the room’s one tiny window that I couldn’t see the rosary in my hand, so I summoned an image of the red-and-white beads to my mind. Suddenly my thoughts were flooded with memories of the rosary throughout my life. …
I saw my father…only a few days ago: first as he held his rosary high and called upon the multitude to repent their sins and to pray, and then as he handed me that same rosary—the rosary I now held in my hands—as he told me to call upon Mary when I no longer had him in my life.
When I heard Pastor Murinzi’s roosters crowing, I realized that I had been reflecting on my own life with the rosary instead of the mystery I had intended to start. But through that personal reflection I was able to see how the rosary had always been with me, and how on so many occasions I’d used it to call for help when I needed it most. I also recalled how Father Clement reminded me of the importance of developing a deep understanding of the mysteries to truly appreciate the full meaning and power of the rosary. I resolved to do just that for however long I would be trapped in the bathroom.
So when the pastor checked on us that morning, I asked him to lend me a Bible. I then began to study the life of Jesus and Mary with a mind now focused entirely on learning all they had to teach. The Bible and my rosary were the only weapons I had to fight for my life.
I didn’t wait for the killers to arrive at the door to open my heart in prayer. After their first visit to the house I knew that fear and despair would be ever present in my life. When I wasn’t praying or reading the word of God, I was in torment. The only thing that stilled my anguish and silenced the devil’s voice was prayer.
I quickly learned that, with my rosary in hand and my heart humbled before God, I could open a door in my mind and step out of the bathroom to be with Him. By the time I finished the rosary’s opening prayers I’d feel a warmth in the center of my chest, as though a glowing amber had been placed beside my heart; after making the Sign of the Cross, that warmth would begin to radiate throughout my entire body. My state of mind became so peaceful that by time I chose the mystery I intended to meditate on, the bathroom was a blur to me, the shouts of the killers—whether they were outside or searching within the house—were a barely noticed thrum of background noise.
If my heart was sincere, my fingers danced along the beads and my thoughts dropped like a stone in a deep pool of cool, clear, quenching water. My body was still on the hard tile floor, wedged beneath the other women crammed into the tiny space with me, but my mind was no longer in the pastor’s house, no longer in Rwanda—it was with Jesus and Mary in the Holy Land.
I was not hallucinating or experiencing any kind of psychotic break; I was always conscious that, somewhere just behind me or in front of me, armed men were trying to murder me. But my rosary carried me to a place of such deep prayer that the mysteries I meditated on became as real to me as any waking experience or any memory I had of my own life. My prayerful state wasn’t a daydream or surrender to a hyperactive imagination; rather, I was engaged in an active conversation with heaven. …
As you will soon see, it was through meditating on the mysteries of the rosary with the Blessed Mother at my side that I found the courage, strength, and faith that saved my life, and saved my soul. …
While enduring unbearable suffering, I received the most beautiful gift I’ve ever gotten: I discovered how to pray the rosary, find the Blessed Mother, and talk to the Lord. I discovered how to appreciate and receive the full beauty and power these precious beads offer to each and every one of us.
Reflecting on the Mysteries of the Holy Rosary deepened my understanding of God and my place in His kingdom more than anything else I’ve ever seen or done. The lessons I learned through meditating upon these mysteries delivered me from the evil of the genocide and showed me how to let go of the anger and hatred I felt toward the men who killed my family.
Learning the secrets of the rosary has been a long journey for me, that in many ways, I am still just beginning. I discover new meaning and more blessings in the mysteries every time I kneel to pray. I sincerely hope you will continue on this wonderful journey with me as we travel to the very heart of the rosary: the mysteries.