By: Sr. Janice McLaughlin, MM
As a child growing up in Pittsburgh, my father used to take my sister and I fishing on the lakes and rivers in Pennsylvania. No talking was allowed. It would scare away the fish, our father said. As I sat quietly in the boat, waiting for the fish to bite, I drank in the beauty of my surroundings and marveled at the wonder of creation. I believe that this was my first experience of contemplative prayer.
When I joined the Maryknoll Sisters in the early 60s, we said the Divine Office in common several times a day. The rhythm of the psalms and the beauty of Gregorian chant entranced me. These ancient prayers recited and chanted daily, like the silent vigil in a small boat gently rocking on the water in my youth, transported me into a deeper reality where God’s presence was tangible.
My assignment to East Africa in the early 70s was a childhood dream come true. When I arrived on the shores of Lake Victoria in Tanzania to learn Swahili, I felt as if I had arrived home. The gentleness of the people and their joy in simple pleasures struck a chord with me. I had never felt comfortable with the materialism and consumerism in my native USA and was much more attuned to a life that relied only on basic necessities. Most of all, I fell in love with the extravagant abundance of nature that is displayed on the wide-open plains of the African savannah, where elephants, giraffe, zebra, impala and wildebeest graze side by side on the shrubs and grass that cover the plains and nibble at the acacia trees that provide shade from the scorching sun. Surrounded by such beauty, I feel as if I have been transported to the Garden of Eden and give thanks to the Creator for bringing me to this earthly Paradise.
In this natural wonderland, the psalms have taken on added meaning for me. as they use vivid images from nature to describe the union between God and all creation.
“All the earth cries out to you with shouts of joy, O God,
Serving you with gladness; coming before you, singing for joy.” (Psalm 100)
This verse from the psalms, and many more like it, mirrors the spirituality of the people with whom I have worked in East and Southern Africa, who view everything as gifts from God and pray accordingly. Prayers are offered for rain, for a good harvest, for the birth of a child, for the death of a family member or any important event and usually include rituals that involve water, fire, anointing with oil and blessing with milk or the blood of an animal. These services are held under trees or on hillsides and remind me of how Jesus went off to pray in the desert and in the hills around Galilee. As I join in these prayers with my neighbors, I feel a sense of belonging with the people and with their awareness of God’s presence in their daily lives.
The traditional religion of the Shona people of Zimbabwe is especially attuned to nature and to God’s presence in all creation. It forbids the killing of animals except for food and encourages the planting of trees and the protection of water sources. These traditions promote the common good in much the same way as do the social teachings of the Catholic Church. They have given me a deeper appreciation of the inter-connectedness of all things and have strengthened my commitment to protect and preserve the natural environment.
My mission experience has deepened my sense of the sacred permeating all that is. The forests have become my cathedrals; the lakes and rivers are my confessional; and the animals are my mentors and spiritual guides. I wrote a small book called Ostriches, Dung Beetles and Other Spiritual Masters (Orbis 2009) that describes the lessons we can learn from animals, insects, birds, trees and all creation. It is my ode to the African continent that has taught me so much about relationships, prayer and union with the Divine.
Pope Francis, in his magnificent encyclical letter on the environment, speaks of the “Gospel of Creation.” “Soil, water, mountains: everything is, as it were, a caress of God,” the Pope declares (Laudato Si, #84). This letter touches my heart as it asks me to hear both the cry of the Earth and the cry of the poor. The two are intertwined and demand my wholehearted response.
As I look back on a life lived close to the earth, I resonate with the words of Pope Francis and with these on the wisdom of animals by Irish poet and author John O’Donohue (Benedictus, Bantam Press, 2004, “To Learn from Animal Being”):
Nearer to the earth’s heart,
Deeper within its silence:
Animals know this world
In a way that we never will…
May we learn to walk
Upon the earth
With all their confidence
And clear-eyed stillness
So that our minds
Might be baptized
In the name of the wind
And the light and the rain.
Janice McLaughlin, MM is a Maryknoll Sister serving in Harare, Zimbabwe. She is a long time member and supporter of the Merton Center.
NewPeople Newspaper VOL. 50 No. 1. February, 2020. All rights reserved.