“It takes two things to knock down a tree: a strong wind and a rotten trunk.”
So began my presentation to a group of recovering drug addicts. I turned and pointed to a slide on the screen behind me: A STRONG TRUNK = STRONG CHARACTER. “What builds strong character? Virtue! The practice of virtue.”
I was fired up. I could hear conviction in my voice and felt intensity in my glare. But, as often happens when I assume the role of teacher, the instructor learned more than the students.
After informing my listeners that we would examine the life of a Catholic saint, Josephine Bakhita, to analyze the virtue of fortitude, I noticed confusion on their faces. Of course, I anticipated this reaction since none of my listeners are Catholic.
I pressed on, convinced they would be impressed with the story of Josephine’s life. I listed the crosses she bore: Born into a loving, African family, she was kidnapped by slave traders at the age of eight; forced to walk 600 miles barefoot; whipped countless times; ritually scarred as property; beaten to the point of forgetting her own name.
I expected the confused expressions to transform into curiosity. Instead, a woman in the back row excused herself to the bathroom. A man in front row scrolled his phone. The fellow to his right crossed his arms, shook his head and said, “You expect us to be like her?”
My lecture on fortitude was off to a feeble start.
“No, not exactly,” I mumbled. Realizing I had to alter my approach, I shifted the focus to the fortitude of disciplined athletes.
Call me stubborn but, the following week, I again began my presentation by referring to St. Josephine Bahkita. After reviewing the trauma she endured, I asked the group, “Have you ever felt like a lost child? Have you ever found yourself far from home, lonely and afraid?” I paused, letting the words sink in. “What happened to you on the day the world around you turned harsh and cruel? Whose slave did you become?”
I paused again.
“What scars do you carry? What voices scream at you, telling you that you are not enough—not good enough, not smart enough, not strong enough? That you’re a failure and everyone you’ve ever loved is disgusted with you?”
Some of the participants stared at the floor, others looked out the window. I noticed one of them wiping away a tear. Myself, I took a deep breath and reflected on the gouges in my own soul.
It was then that I caught a glimpse of an African woman in the back of the room. Wearing a headscarf and a tender smile, Josephine gave me a nod, then knelt on the floor and made the Sign of the Cross.
It was no apparition, just my imagination. Yet, in the silence of the room, deep connections were being made.
It’s an old pattern: shared suffering begets compassion; shared compassion begets hope. Addicts in rehab call it recovery. I call it the communion of saints.