How will you play your hand? (St Josephine Bakhita)

So are there any Lebanese here?  I grew up in a family of card players, and so a few weeks ago I was very happy to learn a traditional Lebanese Family card game called Seven and a half.  The goal of the game is to get the cards of the highest points in your hand without going over seven and a half – but still beating the the dealer.  Thus the key to winning is not what cards you get – but how you play your cards.

And this is the first lesson our saint teaches us today.  St Josephine Bakhita was born into a relatively well-off family.  But this didn’t determine her life because when she was eight she was kidnapped by Arab slave traders.  For the next 12 years she would be bought, sold and given away over a dozen times. She spent so much time in captivity that she forgot her original name. (1)  Sometimes she was cared for – and sometimes she suffered horrible abuse.  Once as her mistress watched, ready with a whip, another woman drew patterns on her skin with flour, then cut into her flesh with a blade. She rubbed the wounds with salt to make the scars permanent. She would suffer a total of 114 scars from this abuse. (2)  Yet even this suffering did not prevent her from becoming a universal role model and patron saint of Sudan.

In other words she teaches us hope – because my family background or personal history or gifts or weaknesses do not determine my life.  We all have pros and cons: we are all dealt different hands in the card game of life. It is not these which are the obstacles. And this is where she also teaches us about responsibility.  Because the question is not what cards I get – but what do I choose to do with them? What do you do with what you received in life? And how do you use it to help others? Gentlemen I ask you: how are you going to play your hand this year?

A second thing she teaches us is that the most sure, quick and easy way to happiness is to give ourselves to God.  Living with God is so powerful that even the worst things which trip up other people do not rob us of our happiness.    In her later years, she began to suffer physical pain and was forced to use a wheelchair. But she always remained cheerful. If anyone asked her how she was, she would reply, “As the master desires.” (3)  It was all she needed.  And this is God’s point today in the first reading, psalm and Gospel: there is no danger of missing out on happiness if I’m given to God.  The sure danger is missing out on happiness if I’m not.

Which brings us to the last point she teaches us today: that daily prayer is the key to finding this happiness as a Christian.  Why? Because it is in prayer that I take time to forget everything else, and be loved by God. “Seeing the sun, the moon and the stars, I said to myself: Who could be the Master of these beautiful things?  And I felt a great desire to see him, to know Him and to pay Him homage…”  (4) Pope Francis made the same point earlier this week: “God calls us to encounter him through faithfulness to concrete things: daily prayer, Holy Mass, Confession, real charity, the daily word of God.” (5)

So your homework, from Pope Francis and me, is to look at your daily schedule and plan when you will pray each day and for how long.  And let us pray for that in this mass: asking God to help us spend time with him every day. Amen.

  1.  Accessed 8.2.19.
  2.  Accessed 8.2.19.
  3.  Accessed 8.2.19.