The power of prayer

Last night I attended a very moving talk by Immaculée Ilibagiza, author of No One Left To Tell, a memoir of the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

I didn’t know what to expect. Would this be a book signing kind of event? A talk? A Q&A? When I arrived I found a sold out crowd filling the auditorium at Cathedral High School here in Springfield. And the event itself was unique – Last night, I found the most real and convincing justification for forgiveness and the foundations of Catholic faith that I’ve ever heard. That’s not to say I accept Catholicism – I’m not a member of any formal church – but the talk was very powerful and well reasoned.

Immaculee’s event opened with a short documentary film that set the stage with what happened in Rwanda in 1994. Following the assassination of the president, the ruling Hutus set out to kill the country’s Tutsi population. Over a three month period between 500,000 and 1,000,000 people were killed. Some estimates say 20% of the tiny country’s population was murdered in this killing spree. The victims included Immaculee’s parents, brothers, and extended family.

She talked of her experience in that unimaginable time.

Immaculee was hidden and protected by a local pastor. She spent 91 days in a 3 by 4 foot bathroom with six other women. When they emerged from hiding, she had lost half her body weight but she was still alive.

She explained how faith came to her in the bathroom. At first, confinement was merely uncomfortable, and hard to believe. Then it got more uncomfortable. Finally, it became unbearable. That’s when a Hutu mob arrived to begin a house to house search for Tutsi to kill. They were armed with grenades, machetes, and spears. At that point, she says, she began to pray. She asked God to show himself if he was there.

The mob spent several hours searching the pastor’s grounds. They looked through the front of the house, under the shrubs, in the outbuildings, and even on the roof. For some reason – she attributes this to God – they turned away from the locked door at the rear of the house.

She said she heard two voices in her mind as the mob searched the house. One said, “You have no chance. Open the door and get it over with.” The other voice said, “Be calm, and I will protect you.”

She says it was very tempting to open the door, and she was terrified, but she stayed quiet. That first search seems to have solidified her faith in a protective God in a way that her earlier religious education had not.

That strong faith sustained her for three months in the bathroom, until the violence ended and she walked out into daylight to see her village - littered with decaying bodies being eaten by wild dogs.

She began to teach herself English from the bible, saying the words in her mind since she could not say them aloud for fear of discovery. She relied heavily on the Book of Job and the Lord’s Prayer, but there was a problem.

The Prayer speaks of forgiveness, but she was not ready to forgive the killers at first. She spoke at length how she arrived at a point of forgiveness and found herself able to accept the totality of the prayer. She says that brought her a feeling of release and freedom.

I can understand how forgiveness can set you free. There is indeed a deep good feeling that comes from that. But is forgiveness unlimited in scope and applicability? I don’t think it is. I can honor and admire Immaculée’s letting go and forgiving. History is full of priests and ordinary people who have forgiven their tormentors and prayed for them to see the light and change their evil ways right to their awful ends. Such people are seen as giving their lives for a noble principle or belief and they are held out as role models for the rest of us.

But ultimately, evil is put down at the point of a sword, not through the good words of the preacher. Preachers can have a powerful impact, but sometimes the evil runs too deep, and overmatching force offers the only solution. The horrors of Rwanda, like all other such situations throughout history, were resolved and enforced with military might.

To me, that defines the limit of forgiveness. At some point, a person who is purposeful and evil becomes an unacceptable threat. The threat may be to me individually or to society at large. To forgive and pray for such a person in the hope that they may change while knowing they have a long and continuing history of evil becomes a harmful act as long as that person is allowed to remain on the loose.

Some would say, who are you to judge? My answer is that I don’t presume to judge unless the choice is forced upon me. If a person approached me with a knife in an alley, I would rather shoot him and face the consequences – moral and legal – of firm self defense rather than pray and take my chances with an unknown but certainly malign force.

I can forgive the drug addict who breaks into my house when I am gone. But if he comes in the window at night when I am home, I'm probably going to shoot him before the question of forgiveness can be raised. When someone demonstrates a proclivity for killing children, society's primary goal should be to remove him permanently from our presence. Whether he should be put to death or caged forever is a subject for another discussion but I submit that forgiveness is an abstract that has no place in that conversation. However, forgiveness has a place to help victims heal. Those of us who are not yet victims have a duty to act preventatively for our own good and that of our fellows.

I suppose you might say I believe in acting firmly, and forgiving when the aggressor is on the ground. Removal of threat comes first to me; forgiveness comes later. I know that’s not the priest’s view, but I am not a priest.

Immaculee's message was very powerful and I could see that it resonated with many in the audience. Clearly, if she could survive that reality, the challenges many of us face here in America are trivial in comparison however awful they may feel to us at the moment.

I thought about her words alone, and in the context of my own life.

Her explanation of finding absolute faith in a protective and caring God, and following a path to forgiveness and freedom, makes perfect sense once you accept the idea that there is a God to protect you.

That’s where she and I differ.

While she has a wonderful story of salvation, and she lived to tell it, I am sure there were countless people just like her praying for the same salvation, yet they were mercilessly put to death at that same time.

Why would a God save her, and allow the others to die?

I can accept the theological arguments that there is both terrible cruelty and great kindness in the world. But I have a hard time believing in a protective God as applied to any of us individuals because I can see no evidence of a pattern of salvation. It seems just random. Or maybe it’s planning . . . after all, I have long believed fortune favors those who prepare for it.

I have never been able to get past that point in my own life.

I thought back to times I was in grave danger, and what I did. There were times I prayed to live another day, and some would argue that it worked because I am still here. However, I always felt I am here because I kept going; I felt like salvation came from my own effort or perhaps luck more than divine protection. When I push myself beyond the limits and I come out the other side, it seems natural to believe my survival was a result of my own effort and my damaged but recovering body is a testament to that.

I can see how it would feel different to watch an external threat approach, come close, and then recede. Seeing the soldiers carefully search the house, and then turn away from her locked door is a good example. If I had been there, and the only action I took at that time was to pray, I might well believe (as she did) that God intervened. But nothing like that has ever happened to me.
I have heard that people experience such feelings in the face of certain diseases like cancer, at times when they are in retreat. I suppose that’s something we all face at the end, and maybe I will come to believe then.

Until then how could I be expected to believe in a higher power? I don’t know. I know many people do believe, but I don’t know where their faith comes from. Should I believe? I don’t even know the answer to that.

So her talk was inspiring, and I’d recommend you go hear her if she comes to your town.

What I got from her was a very good understanding of why she believes, and what that belief has done for her. But where do I go from there? Steps 2, 3, and 4 in her life all depend upon acceptance in step 1, and I don’t see how to achieve that for myself, or even if I should try.

Until then, I believe I continue to live a reasonably moral life. I do my best not to hurt others, and I practice kindness whenever I can. I even receive regular feedback from others that suggests I am succeeding at this. I reach out and help people, through my writing, my workshops, and in daily life. I do the best I can. I believe it’s possible do good even though I am uncertain about the questions of higher powers and divine protection or salvation.



I'd like to hear her speak. Have you never had a voice warn you of something? God? A guardian angel? In Cleveland, I took a wrong turn off the highway into a desolate industrial area at 11:30pm. Immediately an alarm went off in my head, "GET OUT OF HERE NOW!" I completed a U-turn and hit something in the road, blowing out two tires. I could see the highway ahead of me. I drove on the deflated tires up to the highway, under a light. The warning was a loud as if someone had run a bell in my ear, "GET OUT!" I've never experienced anything like it since. And it gives me chills still.
Crystal Hendrix said…
Thank you for sharing that!! I really like to read your blog and to see your feelings. Although a moral life?? Okay moral to you...I still can't get past the lighting the dummy on fire for fun. Although my husband (an aspergian) thinks it sounds like fun too...maybe it is a boy thing or a boy aspergian thing.

Good luck on finding a higher power...I can see how it would be hard to find that...depending on your own life history, what you were exposed to and the different circumstances you have experienced. All of them combined make it a very personal discovery. But I do appreciate your open mindness! If only more people had an open mind! :D

I will continue to look forward to your own personal experiences! :D
John Robison said…
Crystal, may I suggest that one must learn to live a moral life, and to do so we must do some immoral things. I would not light a dummy on fire today, because I posess the wisdom of an adult. However, I can certainly understand that today's children will play pranks just as I did, adn in doing so they will learn their own morality. Some will go in a good direction and others not.

Whatever you think of my pranks I am satisfied that I ended up okay in terms of a moral structure to live by.
Carol Pavliska said…
I have not heard her speak but have read her books. I found them absolutely beautiful and inspiring but I've run into the same wall(repeatedly) as you. As I read Immaculee's book I wondered the same thing about the others who were praying (and you KNOW that so many others were also praying for their lives during that time....just as earnestly). I don't necessarily think there is no higher power, or that faith is useless, I just don't happen to understand them. This is small in comparison - but saying grace before a meal always bothered me - because it was like thanking God for making us his favorites by making sure we had food - when I knew there were so many others going hungry, also saying grace, and probably more deserving than me. Anyway - thanks for sharing your thoughts on this.
BTW - My Aspergian turned 12 today - big party in the works for Saturday.
ShaSha said…
Hi John,
I actually was reading some scripture on how you talked about forgiveness but also through the sword. And how people seem to like to even make the Bible Politically Correct. God does speak of fighting and battles and enemies. I was researching this myself last week and here is a scripture from Pslam 35 broken down. Just a snippet but Ill give you the whole verse in the link to read as a whole..

Contend, O LORD, with those who contend with me; Fight against those who fight against me.
Take hold of buckler and shield, And rise up for my help.
Draw also the spear and the battle-axe to meet those who pursue me; Say to my soul, "I am your salvation." Psalm 35 written by King David
Unknown said…
I have found that when I live a moral life good things are laid out before me. I do not believe in a god, but I do believe there is a right way and a wrong way.

And thank you John, your novel was a proper fulcrum in my life. I was lucky to encounter it early in my search for better answers. Happy new years.
ThatsBaloney said…
God does not promise us an easy life or even a long one. He promises eternal life to those who believe.
Have you heard of Alpha classes that some churches offer? It is a great place to explore Christianity and ask those deeper questions you might have. Some of our Methodist churches here offer it.
Also, there is a book you might be interested in called The Case For Christ by Lee Strobel. It was written by an atheist searching for truth.
Diane T said…
woof back. I have always felt exactly like you on this subject. A belief in strong moral and spiritual values does not require a belief in a deity. After 911 there were emails circulating about proof that prayer works because someone prayed and escaped from the Trade Center. I have to say, from a logical and statistical viewpoint, it was more proof that prayer did not work. If they didn't think the other 3,000 people were praying and equally deserving to live, they must be mistaken.

I do remember hearing this woman speak on TV and was very moved by her story. I also remember her saying that there was a very large piece of furniture obscuring the door they were hiding behind. It is an impressive and remarkable story of survival and I respect her faith.
Random thoughts as I read this:

Sometimes the kindest thing you can do for a predator is stop them.

The toaster doesn't have to believe in electricity to make toast.

You are a kind and loving person. That,is God in action.

Some spiritual teachers say if you knew how wonderful the death experience is, you would stop imposing the death penalty on those you despise.

Glad you enjoyed the talk John. I don't question your morals one bit.
Justthisguy said…
This is so weird. This evening I attended divine services at my weird church (so weird we have to beg space in a more "regular" church)

Ours is part of AMIA, or The Anglican Mission in the Americas. It's run out of The Anglican Province of Rwanda, to bring the Gospel to the benighted heathen white folks in America.

What a lot of people don't realize is that the vast majority of Anglicans in the world are non-white.

The doctrine is straight traditional, with Apostolic Succession, consecration of the Host, etc. It's a full-service Church, too. We got yer intellectual sermons, we got the people speaking up like Quakers, we got the formal ritual, we got yer glossolalia and wimminz falling over backwards.

And best of all, I think it's funny: The proudest boast I can make of my family is that all four of my great-grandfathers served honorably against the United States of America, and yet my Archbishop is a (Oops, can't say that here!)

I like the order of the service, the traditional doctrine, the fellow congregants. Unfortunately, the music mostly sucks. It is all ate up with new-age chick-appeal, and is horribly loudly electrically amplified.

My fellow congregants have learned to indulge me when I insert earplugs at the start of the service. I have offered to procure a fire axe and repair their mixing board, but have had that offer refused.

I mean, really, we've had the Church for 2000 years and electricity for only a hundred or so. How did we do without it for so long?

Sorry about that. To get back on topic, it seems like the African Christians are the only ones who take it seriously these days.
Justthisguy said…
Oh, Sardine? I think of saying grace as asking forgiveness for the killing of our food. Not being plants (autotrophs) who can live on minerals, water, and sunlight, we animals (heterotrophs) inevitably must eat things which are, or were, alive. We must kill in order to live. I don't care if you are a Vegan, the cells in that apple on which you are chomping are still merrily metabolizing until they arrive in your tummy.
Anonymous said…
Gee thanks, mister!

I think one of the biggest problems with religion is that they look in the wrong direction for the source of life. Complex things come from simpler things. Randomness randomly generates order, but order cannot make anything that is truly random.
We should respect where we came from: God (of whatever manifestation you want), Gaia, Mom, Dad, the food we eat, the soil that makes it possible, the sun, etc. When we figure out that we are the result of the little things, we have matured. As long as we think there is something 'higher' that we have to be subservient to instead of servicing what supports us, we will be children of a lesser (lessor) god.
There may be some energy-based lifeform that helps people like Immaculée for whatever reasons. There may also be an aether and time is only the sequence of events, but doesn't it make sense to learn to cooperate with the universe than to expect something from it for nothing?
Anonymous said…
Hmmm... I agree that in Rwanda, overwhelming military force was required to stop the genocide. However, the genocide could also have been prevented or alleviated by the Belgian colonists, who kept the Hutus oppressed under the Tutsis for so long and then left them in power when the Belgians left; by the countries that have failed to aid in the evacuation and resettlement of Rwandan refugees, both before and since; by all of the international observers who heard the "Hutu power" slogans on the radio and knew what they meant; and by the international businesses that supplied machetes and other arms so cheaply to Hutu militants. For ideas on how nonviolence may be used even in the face of violent government action, you can check out "A force more powerful: a century of nonviolent conflict‎," by
Peter Ackerman, Jack DuVall, or "Nonviolence in America: a documentary history," by Staughton Lynd, Alice Lynd.

As to why God saves some people and not others -- God moves in mysterious ways?
m said…
there's so much more to focus here than her religious orientation.

the fact that you went...and just sat there...privileged white guy...and criticized her faith: it's really petty.

she survived a genocide.


that's worth focusing on. the reasons for the genocide...the regional politics, the history behind it...that's worth focusing on. but the fact that you dismiss her religion...that's really missing the point big time. not at all what rwanda, the genocide, had to do with.

i don't know. it's disappointing that you would listen to her speak, and then make it about your own personal take on god.

given the context (i.e. GENOCIDE, resulting from many years of tribal conflict and repressive dutch occupation), who cares what you think about religion?

you're missing the background, the historical context. you're focusing on one woman's source of hope and survival, belittling it.

easy to dismiss god, hope, when you repair elite, over-priced cars for a living.

this woman...maybe if she, instead of surviving a genocide, fixed toys for rich people...maybe she would share your "enlightened" detachment.

but she didn't . she grew up in a world very different from your own. try to...not understand...but avoid judging. how hard is that?

don't judge. period. step back from your easy life...try to leave a little room for the people who think differently from yourself.
John Robison said…
M, it seems to me that there is quite a lot more judgement and less of the detachment you say in need in your response than there was in my original post.

As to criticizing me for listening to her and then interpreting her story in the context of my own life . . .frankly, I think you are nuts. Everyone interprets their observations in the context of their owns lives. If you want to listen to her somewhere else and simply ponder survival and genocide as you suggest . . . go for it!

That's not what I took away from it, and I am free to see things as I wish just as you are.

There was no attack in my story, but there sure is in yours.
TheresaC said…
M, people like you make me angry...

You think Mr. Robison criticized the woman's faith, he merely voiced a difference of opinion. I saw nothing in his post that suggested a lack if respect for what the woman went through or for the belief system she relies on today.

Just because he has a different opinion than someone who beleives in religion and he did not have to live through a horrible genocide does not make him a selfish "privileged white guy". It makes him lucky, as the rest of us are.

He listened to this woman's lecture, gave it some thought, and is merely voicing why he does not necessarily agree with her.

I consider myself agnostic, although when I was in college I took a World Religions elective class so I could understand more about the religions of others and as a result have more tolerance and respect for the beliefs of others, even though my own beliefs continued to be "different". Too bad many "believers" can't be more tolerant of the opinions of non-believers.

You say "easy to dismiss god, hope, when you repair elite, over-priced cars for a living."

Just the fact you make this type of comment is proof that you are quick to judge someone else, instead of considering the other's opinion before you dismiss it because it does not agree with your own.

Oh, by the way, my own father spent the last nearly 40 years restoring cars for people who were way better off than ourselves. He preferred to work alone, so he never built the business up nearly as successfully as Mr. Robison, but he managed to keep a roof over our heads and pay the bills. (He must have done it well, as one of his customers has been his customer for nearly 20 yrs.) And because he spent his career doing what he thoroughly enjoyed, I am sure he considers himself very lucky and one who has lived a charmed and in a way, privileged life, even though he never got rich doing it.

I am extremely offended that you dismiss those who have a profession similar Mr. Robison's and my father's as if their work has no value. You yourself need to learn tolerance and understanding.
Kanani said…
John, I can only speak how I see things to, and how my experience through life has shaped me.

Yes, it does seem random. I'm sure that every person in Rwanda at that time was praying to some creator. Those people who got killed? They weren't killed because they weren't praying. And she wasn't spared because she was praying, either.

Rather, the way I see it is that the series of events shaped her, helped her find a mission in life, something to sustain her. I think that's the true gift of faith.

That you do the best you can is enough. The rest --divine protection and salvation, that's up to some higher order, and quite frankly, if that's all I worry about, then I'm not doing the hard work here on this earth.
m said…
"Everyone interprets their observations in the context of their owns lives"

True, but some people interpret respectfully. Others interpret from a superior attitude.

Trying to use the word "context" in an attempt to excuse your dismissiveness is a cop out. You work through her descriptions...and dismiss her heart-felt religious beliefs.

So yeah, that's superior. That's arrogant. You deserved to be judged.

The fact that you would act offended...yet have no problem criticizing the view point of a true survivor, this woman who made it through a genocide...petty of you.

Spare me your lame outrage.

other commenter: "Just because he has a different opinion than someone who beleives in religion and he did not have to live through a horrible genocide does not make him a selfish "privileged white guy". " does.

That's kind of the ultimate example of privilege. Living as a white, wealthy business owner in a rich nation? And criticizing the faith of someone who has survived a genocide in a poverty stricken, war torn country?

Ummm...that's about as arrogant and superior as it gets. Hard to find a more suitable example.

"Just the fact you make this type of comment is proof that you are quick to judge someone else

Oh, definitely Theresa. I judged his BS instantly. Took about a second to realize that this was condescending crap.

Of all the evils in the world, injustice...all of the things to criticize...he focuses on this womans faith?

Rich, white guy BS. All there is to it. I'm very comfortable criticizing him.
Anonymous said…
John, regarding forgiveness..
I personally believe that forgiveness brings great freedom, but that it does not remove consequence.
Paulene Angela said…
Quote: Until then how could I be expected to believe in a higher power? I don’t know. I know many people do believe, but I don’t know where their faith comes from. Should I believe? I don’t even know the answer to that.Unquote

John, you and millions more are asking the same questions.

Faith/belief is very personal. I believe that we are all connected by a higher energy who guides us.
Do you ever feel someone is helping you?
ssas said…
Hey, haven't been around for so long and this is what I stumble upon? Heavy stuff, man.

Forgiveness = good

I think forgiveness is more about the person who needs to forgive. It's a release, it's taking the power back, and yeah, I happen to think it's Grace, too.

I could use a dose about now...

Woof! Missed you!
Joe said…
Side note: There is a very good movie titled "Hotel Rwanda" which gives a glimpse into that time. Worth seeing, IMO.

Adrienne Wagner said…
I think in the end, we should forgive those who hurt us, but if we are given the option of preventing them from hurting us in the first place, we should certainly take action and do so.

I enjoyed this post, she sounds like an extremely interesting lady, and your viewpoints were interesting as well. All you can do is be nice to everyone, and hope they do the same to you. I hope to read more from you in the future, and I can honestly say your writing has affected and helped my life. I also hope you find whatever it is you may or may not be looking for, but even with you don't I hope you continue to be the great person you seem to be. Woof.

Susan said…
I am grateful to have access to your reporting of Immaculée Ilibagiza's presentation, and your inner dialogue in response.

Questions of Faith, Believing and Knowing remain constant through human and individual evolution. Some of us search for stories (testimony? proof?) from people like Kim Rossi Stagliano and Immaculée Ilibagiza. Search as we might, the unsettling question of who survives and why will never be definitively answered. Perhaps that is part of what keeps us going, experiencing, and learning. Maybe trying to force others to accept our beliefs by manipulation, coercion, violence. Maybe choosing kindness.

I am also grateful for the comments by your readers, especially Thomas's about nonviolent solutions—and his gentle reminder that war is not necessarily inevitable. We all have so much to learn. Every day in every moment, we make choices. Some of us feel guidance and call it God; some of us don't. Regardless, each choice is crucial for us all.
Anonymous said…
M, please seek help. I mean that sincerely.
anonymous said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
anonymous said…
I am really appreciating reading what you have to say. I know when I was 17 and hitchhiking I called out and said God if your really there show yourself to me. In many ways He answered that direct seeking. I put my complete faith in Jesus to be my savior. Ask Him to reveal himself to you. I really care. I'll be praying for you. Thanks for sharing.
JMac said…
Hi John,
I have enjoyed reading your blogs, and getting a glimpse into your thoughts. I especially appreciated this blog because of the inquisitiveness and honesty of it. I don't know if you have read any of C.S. Lewis or not, but I have found his books to be very thought provoking. The Problem of Pain is a great one. I also found A Grief Observed a good read. He wrote this as a journal when he was dealing with the death of his wife. He struggled with the nature of God. He says he never doubted His existance, but His character. He questioned why a loving God would allow his wife to suffer, and then make him suffer through her loss. He comes to terms eventually, but shares all of his thoughts and feelings in the process. I enjoyed it anyhow. Just wanted to make those suggestions. It seems we share some favorite authors such as Patricia Wood and Mark Haddon (not to mention Augusten Burroughs, whose writing pales in comparison to yours.) Thanks for all you do.

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