Since the time of my training as a Missionary of Africa, my days are marked by something which cannot be measured but to which I have personally committed myself to respecting faithfully and which constitutes my first task as a missionary, that of praying.
First, I begin the day with an hour of meditation, often based on the Gospel of the day. This time is vital for me. It is essential in order to put myself in the presence of God, to put myself in His peace and His serenity. Then, I move on to the breviary, nearly always with my present community. As a Brother and a layman, I am not obliged to recite all the Hours but I have committed myself to saying Morning Prayer, the Prayer in the middle of the day, and Evening Prayer. I assist at the Eucharist preferably in a large gathering especially on Sunday when I attend the Parish Mass in whatever mission post I am in.
Normally, just before Evening Prayer, I take some time (a bit elastic since it depends on what I am doing) to reflect on the day and prepare my prayer for the following day by reading the Gospel and the Biblical text in the Office of Readings.
Each month during the monthly community recollection or personally if this is not possible, I look again at the notes I have written about my daily prayer and activities and that gives me material for meditation.
I am fine with Ignatian Spirituality and for my annual retreat, I like to do an Ignatian retreat. Normally it is during the long holidays of July and August according to the rhythm of the school year (French) which continues to regulate my life. It is also the occasion to take a bit of a step back, to give thanks for the year just finished, to seek reconciliation and ask forgiveness from the Lord and to make new resolutions, which I insert into my daily prayer at the end of my meditation.
After this very general introduction, I would like to share a powerful experience in my prayer life. It occurred at the end of 2014, when I was at the Foyer Ngongo in Goma, DRC. I was visiting the sick in the Provincial Hospital when I became attached to Elie, a young man suffering from cancer of the intestines. He had undergone an operation to have a colostomy bag fitted then discharged after two months by the doctors powerless to deal with this tumour. He died a week later in the company of his mother in a poor hovel.
Very early on, I understood that Elie was not going to pull through. During these three months, we travelled together up to the time of his death. This was a very profound experience for me.
Elie had been separated from his mother when he was only four years old. She had left his father who then married someone else. After he had spoken to me about his state of health, I asked him if he believed in God. He had been baptised a Catholic, had made his First Communion but had joined a Protestant church at a time when his cruel stepmother did not want him any longer in the house. I suggested we pray. For me, it was the only solution that could help his heart have peace. I also prayed for him during Mass, I invoked Our Lady of Sorrows that she would help me to bring peace to my brothers who were suffering like Elie. During my following visit, we prayed for his complete recovery. Then I presented St. Theresa of Lisieux to him. I confided in him how much she had helped me. He was very surprised, “How can the dead help us?” he asked. I tried to share my faith and my own belief in life after death, the communion of saints and their presence among us with the risen Jesus. Is not this faith essential for prayer?
My little sharing touched Elie who became preoccupied about being able to go to Paradise. That night, at adoration, I prayed for his conversion, that he might be saved. I randomly chose the following words from St. Theresa, “I wish to love you as a little child; I want to fight like a valiant warrior.” I copied them out for him. I found them very apt for his fight against the sickness and the suffering with this invitation to trust like a little child.
I prayed to St. Theresa and my “saint friends” to help me love Elie, to save him through our friendship. I noticed that Elie had been moved by my words and that he had begun to pray to St. Theresa. For myself, I was touched at how St. Theresa had heard me. I shed tears at prayers because I realised that I was not ready to see Elie die. I copied out a prayer in honour of St. Theresa to ask for his recovery through her intercession. I wished him to surrender, to let himself be carried by God (according to the Little Way). I encouraged him not to give up praying.
Sometime later, Elie expressed a wish to go to Mass at the hospital chaplaincy. He wanted to get back to normal life. He had tried traditional medicine against the tumour. However, he was not able to stay for long and he had to leave after the Gospel. I prayed that he would be able to accept his situation and to continue to fight. I also prayed that I would be able to accompany him and help him. His situation became more and more hopeless and he cried, “Why me? Why does God not love me?” I could only respond in silence. I tried to raise his spirits. We prayed. I told him to tell God everything that he had in his heart. I asked God to make him strong. I proposed that we pray together each one in his own way. The Gospel of the day made me think, “Happy are those who cry now, they will be consoled.” I tried to comfort him, how could I help him get through this experience, lead him on the path of faith? I could only be with him and love him.
The following day he was much better. He had rediscovered his hope and his spirits. I thanked God for having brought him some consolation. The tumour was filling up his stomach, which was beginning to swell. He received pain-killing injections. His mother was on the way from Kisangani. At prayer, I wondered if he had acquired sufficient faith, hope and love to be ready for the last journey. I thought of the parable of the ten virgins. I prayed God to give him the necessary provisions of oil. I prayed to Jesus that he and Elie would be united, that Elie would be a witness to Jesus in his suffering and that Jesus would take away this cup, but not what I wish but what He wishes. Could I ask my saint friends for a miracle for Elie? The signs told me of the approaching end. I prayed that Elie would not suffer too much that Jesus would prepare a good place for him and that I would know how to help him accept His will.
One morning I said to Jesus, “Let me have faith and that I know how to pass it on to Elie, he is going to die!” “I know, do not be afraid!” “I beg You and Therese to welcome him, which I do not doubt” “Love is enough!” His mother arrived. They got to know one another again. The hospital gave him permission to leave. His father had found them a little place to stay and they went to stay there. I continued with my visits.
Elie was afraid at night, his mother slept close to him. I advised him to pray, to think that God and the saints were at his side. We prayed dozens of rosaries. He wished to hold my hand while we prayed. We prayed together fervently. It was painful for him to move on the bed.
The morning of his death, I noticed the stars of the Great Bear during my meditation. It was only afterwards that I understood that God somehow wanted to warn me. Eli had dreamed one day of turning the moon into a star but did not succeed and now he had succeeded, he had arrived close to God and the saints. Just before his last journey at around half seven in the evening, I prayed for him again at our community sharing.
At the funeral, I told his mother that Elie was certainly in heaven, that he was still with us, and that he was going to help me from now on in another way. He was now part of the poor little ones who had found consolation.
I cried for him, moved by thinking that Elie was now with the saints, realising that God had spoken to me through him. I trusted him, one day he had told me that he would come to see me every day when he came out of hospital.
At my next retreat, Elie returned to me during my meditation: I thought about the love we had experienced. I imagine meeting him in Heaven. He, saying “Thank you”! Me protesting, “It is not me but Jesus that we must thank! Then accepting his thanks, I cry. I say “Thank you for thanking me!” Love will never end.
Since then, I pray regularly with Elie. I think again of the dozen rosaries that we prayed hand in hand and how he helps me to advance and come closer to God.
How to end? Prayer is a very personal and intimate experience, a journey with God. It is always a priority for me and never takes a holiday. Prayer is the way I listen and put myself at the service of Him who is my support. Through prayer, I recognise His presence in my life and to thank Him for all the marvels He accomplishes.
Pierre Petitfour, M.Afr.