‘Thank You, Thank You, My God!’: A Story of Grace, Gratitude and Thanksgiving

This Thanksgiving, as 2020 draws to a close, consider keeping the trials — and joy — of St. Josephine Bakhita in mind.

St. Josephine Bakhita is an inspiring witness to gratitude and hope.
St. Josephine Bakhita is an inspiring witness to gratitude and hope. (photo: Unsplash and public domain)

Due to COVID-19 and other challenges, 2020 will have a unique place in history books because of its trials and tribulations. 

Thus, when the 2020 calendar tells us that it is time to feel gratitude, to count our blessings and give thanks, it may feel harder than it has in other years. 

We can lose sight of the bounty of God’s goodness in the starkness of a year that, thanks to COVID, stripped us of many familiar comforts: health, security, stability, community and even access to the sacraments. 

Every individual and family has their own story of COVID-19 and 2020; no one was left untouched. 

And yet the Lord desires to reveal in the midst of upheaval and personal and cultural challenges that all of it — all of it — is an opportunity to be grateful. 

Not in spite of the suffering of this particular season, but because of it.One special saint, St. Josephine Bakhita, is a particularly poignant witness of the providential love of a God who works all things so profoundly for our good that humble gratitude is the only posture we can take for everything that comes to us from his hand. 

As this African-born saint demonstrates in her own witness throughout her life, if we could see his plan, if we could trust the economy of grace, we would be in awe of how he is even now planning a future for us full of hope and ordering all things in our life to that end, even the painful ones.

St. Josephine Bakhita was canonized by Pope St. John Paul II in 2000. Hers is an incredible story of forgiveness, but even more than that, of gratitude for immense suffering. How is it possible to be grateful for trauma and even torture? Only with a supernatural grace that reveals the redemptive and restorative power of God, who only ever allows suffering in order to bring about an immense good, a greater gift.

Born in Africa, St. Josephine had a happy childhood. Her parents were not Christian, but they were good, loving people who suffered deeply when their oldest daughter, Josephine’s sister, was captured by slave traders. 

Not long after, that became Josephine’s fate, as well. When she was just 9 years old, she was snatched while going on a walk near her home. With a knife at her side and a gun at the back of her head, she began a new life of suffering.

She was sold over and over, beaten and tortured, and named by her owners “Bakhita,” which means “lucky” or “fortunate.” 

Bakhita had been so traumatized by the events of her capture that she could never remember what her real name was. 

One example of the sufferings she endured was a brutal custom called “marking,” a particularly excruciating kind of tattooing. 

For days she drifted in and out of consciousness, laying in her own blood, and certain that she would have died had the Lord not had greater plans.

She was eventually purchased by an Italian consul who treated her with dignity and took her with him back to Italy. That truly was “fortunate,” for later she would come to stay with the Canossian Sisters at their Institute of Catechumens in Venice, receive instruction in the Catholic faith, and be baptized. “Those holy mothers instructed me with heroic patience and introduced me to that God who from childhood I had felt in my heart without knowing who he was. I remembered [in Africa] looking at the moon and the stars and the beautiful things of nature and saying to myself, ‘Who is the master of all those beautiful things?’ And I experienced a great desire to see him and know him and honor him. And now I do know him. Thank you, thank you, My God!” (From Slave to Saint).

Bakhita was baptized and took the name Josephine Margherita Fortunata, soon after joining the Canossian order as a religious sister. She served her community humbly and faithfully and became known and loved throughout Italy as she traveled and spoke in order to promote the missions. 

“If I were to meet those slave traders who kidnapped me and those who tortured me,” she said, as recounted in From Slave to Saint, “I would get down on my knees and kiss their hands, because if that had not happened, I would not be a Christian or a religious today.”

I would get down on my knees and kiss their hands: These are words that reveal immense faith in the goodness of a God who not only blesses us in concrete ways — food, water, shelter, sunshine — but who, in his great love, takes even what is meant for evil and turns it into a blessing. “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Genesis 50:20).

Through all the events and circumstances life may bring in particularly difficult seasons, or even just in our small daily crosses, as Christians, we can look beyond them all to Jesus Christ, who died to give them meaning, to transform and transfigure what sin and suffering has distorted and to bring about immense good. This is cause for hope — and with the help of grace, even gratitude.

As St. Gianna Beretta Molla put it, “The secret of happiness is to live moment by moment and to thank God for all that he, in his goodness, sends to us day after day.” 

This Thanksgiving, as 2020 draws to a close, consider keeping the trials — and joy — of St. Josephine Bakhita in mind as you sit down to a table of plenty and realize that blessings abound, even in this remarkably challenging year. 

Claire Dwyer 

writes from Phoenix.