Beirut (AsiaNews) - The canonisation on Sunday in St Peter’s of two "Marys", two Palestinian nuns, Marie-Alphonsine Ghattas and Mariam Baouardy, sheds light, for all Eastern Christians, on what is essential in Christian life. Beyond folklore, art, culture, liturgy; beyond the values that are the foundation of modernity, like freedom and personhood; beyond geopolitics, and the holiness of life, what counts is the consecration of one’s life to God through Christ Jesus
Fully experienced by two women whose lives and temperaments were very different, such consecration is essentially the same for both, namely God’s love. For centuries, this passionate and exclusive love for Jesus inspired thousands of men and women, but some of whom stand out as "great" saints, including those who will join them this Sunday.
Why them? Such an election is a mystery, a state secret between God and his saints. However, what is beyond dispute, what is certain, is that the basis of holiness, its substance, is love. It is futile to seek holiness in any formal perfection in life, in asceticism, or in a studied face - as movie directors misguidedly believe.
Only, and only the flame of love that devours from within that man or that woman leads to holiness, turning them into vessels entirely and exclusively in the service of the One and Holy, the Almighty Other who became our brother.
Two "Women of Faith"
Marie-Alphonsine Ghattas (1843-1927) was born Sultanah Maria Ghattas in Jerusalem on 4 October 1843. Hailing from a devout Catholic family, she entered the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph of the Apparition at the age of 14.
Following numerous apparitions of the Virgin and a formal request from the latter, she founded the Congregation of the Holy Rosary together with her spiritual father. The order is currently established in Lebanon and throughout the Middle East, particularly in Palestine and Iraq.
Despite some health concerns, Mother Marie-Alphonsine actively participated in the development of her Congregation and founded many monasteries.
In addition to this intense activity, she became known in the region as a "great woman of faith", author of miracles. The one that is most often was the help she provided to a girl who had fallen into a well, whom she rescued handing her rosary beads!
She died in Jerusalem after a life of prayer at the age of 84, on 25 March 1927, feast day of the Annunciation.
Mariam Baouardy, Sister Mary of Jesus Crucified, was born on 5 January 1846 in I’billin in the Galilee, and died 33 years later, on 26 August 1878, feast day of the Stigmata of St Teresa of Avila, at the Carmelite convent in Bethlehem. Her life followed a glowing path.
Like Marie-Alphonsine, Mariam was born into a Greek-Catholic family of Lebanese origin. At the age of three, she lost both of her parents within days of each other. Taken in by a paternal uncle, she left with him for Alexandria.
At the age of 13, to escape her uncle’s pressures for her to marry, she ran away from home. A Muslim man found her and took her in. However, she refused to renounce her Catholic faith, and he cut her throat and left for dead in an Alexandria street.
Mariam woke up later in a cave where a nun dressed in blue healed her wounds and cared for her for months. She later said that she recognised the Virgin Mary in this woman.
Out of this terrible episode, she got a deep scar. From then on, Mariam was alone in the world, working as a maid wherever fate took her: Alexandria, Jerusalem, Beirut and lastly Marseille.
Perched on a lime tree . . .
At 19, having convinced her employers with her amazing qualities, she entered the Sisters of St. Joseph of the Apparition convent in Marseilles (France) as a novice, before being re-directed to the Carmelite convent in Pau, where she received the name of Marie de Jésus Crucifié (Mary of Jesus Crucified).
Three years later, she was part of a small group that founded the first Carmelite convent in Mangalore (India). In 1875, she was instrumental in the creation of the Carmelite convent in Bethlehem. She was particularly concerned with the construction of the new monastery, since she was the only nun who could speak Arabic.
She died on 26 August 1878 at the age of 33 from gangrene to an arm that she broke after a fall.
According to those close to her, mystical graces and charisms abounded in this nun’s life. At the Carmelite convent in Pau, nuns saw her several times perched high up on a lime tree, on branches too thin to carry her weight. Some claim to have seen her in Cyprus; others claim to have seen her in Bethlehem. Even though she was illiterate, she composed poems in French.
Sabbah: "not escaping history"
For the canonisation of the two Marys, let us remember the poignant lecture Michel Sabbah, Patriarch Emeritus of Jerusalem of the Latins, gave a few years ago at the Université de Saint-Joseph.
Before the Islamic State’s emergence, and notwithstanding the generalisations that one hears when the issue of the Christian presence in the East is raised, as well as lamentations about the rise of extremism and the demographic decline of Christians, either because of migration or because of the birth rate, the former Patriarch of Jerusalem was able to get to the heart of the matter when he said that what Middle Eastern Churches need in order to remain in this part the world are saints and martyrs.
“The future of Christians in our region is conditioned by internal political and social factors on which religion has some influence,” Patriarch Sabbah correctly pointed out in his address, “but it is also shaped by a powerful external factor, i.e. international politics, whose plans for the region ignore Christians."
After doing "everything that is humanly possible to defend themselves by all available legitimate means of redress,” even if the threat continues to bear upon them, Eastern Christians must accept to live their history, the patriarch said courageously, causing some rumblings.
"Escaping history means escaping God’s will. History is the place of our encounter with God." In the East, the 19th century gave us saints. The 21st century will honour us with martyrs, as he has begun to do in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Ethiopia, Egypt and elsewhere.