I quickly learned that, with my rosary in hand and my heart humbled before God, I could open a door in my mind and step out of the bathroom to be with Him. By the time I finished the rosary’s opening prayers I’d feel a warmth in the center of my chest, as though a glowing ember had been placed beside my heart; after making the Sign of the Cross, that warmth would begin to radiate throughout my entire body. My state of mind became so peaceful that by the time I chose the mystery I intended to meditate on, the bathroom was a blur to me, the shouts of the killers—whether they were outside or searching within the house—were a barely noticed thrum of background noise.
If my heart was sincere, my fingers danced along the beads and my thoughts dropped like a stone in a deep pool of cool, clear, quenching water. My body was still on the hard tile floor, wedged beneath the other women crammed into the tiny space with me, but my mind was no longer in the pastor’s house, no longer in Rwanda—it was with Jesus and Mary in the Holy Land.
I was not hallucinating or experiencing any kind of psychotic break; I was always conscious that, somewhere just behind me or in front of me, armed men were trying to murder me. But my rosary carried me to a place of such deep prayer that the mysteries I meditated on became as real to me as any waking experience or any memory I had of my own life. My prayerful state wasn’t a daydream or surrender to a hyperactive imagination; rather, I was engaged in an active conversation with heaven.
When meditating upon a mystery I felt the same way I did when I was a child sitting beside a wood fire, with my head resting comfortably on my mother’s lap. It wasn’t my earthly mother’s lap in which my head rested now, however, it was the lap of Mother Mary. If I opened my eyes while I was praying, I’d see the beautiful face of Our Lady smiling down at me, calming my soul with her loving presence. Sometimes it was as though she were showing me a movie. If I was confused or frightened, she calmed me wordlessly by softly touching my hair, stroking my cheek, or putting an image in my mind that resolved my question.
As you will soon see, it was through meditating on the mysteries of the rosary with the Blessed Mother at my side that I found the courage, strength, and faith that saved my life, and saved my soul.
Now, the idea that I was sitting and chatting with the Virgin Mary while praying the rosary may seem strange to some people, but it didn’t seem strange to me. Not then and not now. What sometimes is hard for me to believe is how, sitting in the center of the most wretched killing fields the world has ever seen, I was repeatedly able to reach a near-blissful state of prayer. Yet that is exactly what happened to me. While enduring unbearable suffering, I received the most beautiful gift I’ve ever gotten: I discovered how to pray the rosary, find the Blessed Mother, and talk to the Lord. I discovered how to appreciate and receive the full beauty and power these precious beads offer to each and every one of us.
Reflecting on the Mysteries of the Holy Rosary deepened my understanding of God and my place in His kingdom more than anything else I’ve ever seen or done. The lessons I learned through meditating upon these mysteries delivered me from the evil of the genocide and showed how me how to let go of the anger and hatred I felt toward the men who killed my family.
Learning the secrets of the rosary has been a long journey for me, that in many ways, I am still just beginning. I discover new meaning and more blessings in the mysteries every time I kneel to pray.
Immaculée Ilibagiza was born in Rwanda and studied electronic and mechanical engineering at the National University. Immaculée holds honorary doctoral degrees from The University of Notre Dame and Saint John’s University, and was awarded The Mahatma Gandhi International Award for Reconciliation and Peace 2007.