A Moving Encounter for the Persecuted Christians From Baghdad
Priding ourselves in taking the route less travelled, the very real friendships we develop with clients often take us down routes we could never have imagined.
After a routine Monday night lecture at the Marriott Resort, a distinctly elegant family who had been unusually attentive lingered until all other guests had left the room. I could tell they wanted to share something, their story of their plight.
They are Christians living in Baghdad and are persecuted because of their faith. An uncle of the family died in a bomb blast in 2013, which had targeted the dwindling Christian population as they celebrated Christmas. Revealing their identical golden lockets containing splinters of the Vera Cruz, the cross that Christ was crucified on, they stood united in their indomitable faith.
The eldest daughter told me of her devotion to the Doctor of the Catholic Faith, Saint Teresa of Avila. I know of her, I have read some of her writings and I have been to see the places she inhabited in Avila; that isolated bastion in Castilla-Leon. Suddenly, I was struck with an idea. I hoped I could make it happen and after a few phone calls to a very dear friend, the plan was set.
The next day, I collected the family and took them to Ronda for what became a life affirming experience. It was a day true to the ethos of Toma Tours, a day in the Spain you never knew.
The nuns of the Nuestra Señora de la Merced in Ronda are keepers of a treasure; one of the most important holy relics in Spain, the hand of Saint Teresa of Avila. Stolen from the convent in 1937, Franco seized possession of the hand and slept with it beside his bedside until his death in 1975. It is now back in its rightful home, housed in a darkened, locked room, set inside a silver glove that’s covered in precious stones.
My friend had assured that if we were to arrive at 5pm, a sister would be waiting for us. I rang the bell and approached the rotating hatch as the sister welcomed us with a customary “Ave Maria”. I panicked and then remembered the response, “sin pecado reconcibido” (without preconceived sin). The hatch swivelled, revealing a key. “Please go through to the door on your right and wait.”
Once inside, we surveyed the room and all eyes rested uncomfortably on the double structure of bars separating “our” space from “theirs”. The family shifted uncomfortably and I gestured that they take a seat. We were to have a private meeting or visit with some sisters from the convent.
The eldest daughter gasped and cast her glance downwards, clutching her Vera Cruz. I suddenly realised that for her especially this was a huge moment and her emotion pulled me into the vortex of her anticipation. We sat in an ominous whilst glorious silence.
Sor Maria Encarnación made her aware of her approach as her walking frame clattered over the stone flagstones. She appeared through the door and greeted us with true warmth. As she doesn´t speak English I translated her questions and the family´s responses. There was a brief pause and she left the room (slowly) to return with another sister, Sor Maria Jennifer from Gibraltar! Now the visit took on another dimension as the family could liaise with her and embark on a vital conversation in English.
Sor Jennifer liked to talk and she explained her calling and how she had ended up behind bars. It took a delicately played handling of needs and propriety for me to open the way so that the eldest sister could explain why she was here. Her honesty and testimony stopped Jennifer in her fascinating anecdotes and she sat up to listen. The two ladies, at pole extremes of life’s experiences, but united by Saint Teresa and their love of her writings, held hands through the double bars and as the whole family rose to their feet, they all prayed together.
I couldn´t take the smile off my face as I witnessed this palpable outpouring of faith and support. It was a precious moment and quite timeless. What happened next had us all jittering with excitement. Both sisters left to collect THE HAND and we were granted a private Besame (when you kiss a Holy Relic).
I loitered at the back of the queue wandering what to do. It reminded me of the choice of whether to take communion or not, when my “communion” had rather fizzled out. I decided to kiss the hand and as I did, my top lip went all numb. Sor Maria Jennifer looked at me and asked my name.
“Emmanuel”, I replied.
“God with us……and is God with you?” she asked me quizzingly.
“Well that all depends.” I smirked.
“You and I should talk. God has a plan for your life.”
Blimey! There I was agreeing to a date with a cloistered nun to talk about God´s plan for my life. And do you know what? I will go back. Not to talk about God´s plan for my life but to talk to Sor Jennifer. I liked her. (not in THAT way 😉
The family stepped out into the real world of Ronda as if they were returning through the wardrobe from an adventure in Narnia.
Their eyes squinted at the sun and their faces shone with the light beam of privilege. I was somewhere in that wonderful world between reality and fantasy. I gave them half an hour freetime to buy some olives while I went to collect the Toma Van. The Spain you never knew…