The beginning of Spring – on this side of the World…

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Color outbreak at Monastery Entrance

As we head into Spring in the southern hemisphere the days get longer and warmer. And at the same time we are heading toward the season of Advent. It feels very odd indeed.

The days should be growing shorter and there should be less light – so that Jesus comes to a darkened world to bring light… The symbols just don’t work as neatly here. But the world is spiritually darkened Spring notwithstanding. I keep wondering if our notions of holidays and seasons in the church year should be adjusted to this hemisphere. How can one sing great hymns like “In the Bleak Mid Winter” or “O Little Town of Bethlehem” when it is sunny and 85 degrees? I gather the custom for many folks to keep Christmas is a trip to the beach.

But the flowers may make up for all that. Poet Christopher Smart calls flowers “the peculiar poetry of Christ.” Certainly flowers, like all things, tell us something about their creator. Do flowers drape themselves in wild and vibrant color just for us? Or just for them? Or for the bees and bugs that pollinate? Is it just a reckless display of beauty that mirrors the reckless way God loves? All of the above?

There is one flower that has particularly captured my thoughts. It is a Citrus Geranium, which is a native South African plant, but I guess by now is found in garden centers across the globe.20181015_125254

As you can see in this picture, its not the prettiest or most exuberant flower in the world. It has small, little flowers and is a fairly diminutive plant. It is good in wet and dry weather, though in dry conditions its leaves look sad. Its big thing is not its visual beauty. But run your fingers over the leaves and the smell of citrus is huge. This little plant cries out with scent rather than sight.

How fun. Many of the flowering things fill the air with sweet smells, but this little fellow, when you touch him, gives this clean and refreshing blast. That, apparently, appeals to some pollinators. But for the mosquito, it is not welcome at all. I love this plant!

So each of us has our gifts and some are more subtle and quiet. But they are gifts nonetheless. I don’t suppose that a Citrus Geranium ever has doubts about its beauty or envy of the Bird-of-Paradise bursting forth with noisy color just a few feet away.

I also believe that these flowers never lament that their time of beauty can be quite short. One of the beautiful and aromatic shrubs is called Yesterday Today Tomorrow (Brunfelsia pauciflora if you want to be proper). It looks like this:

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It has, one day, little buds. That would be yesterday. Today the buds open into the purple flowers that fade quickly to white. And tomorrow they are gone, followed by the next round. It moves on constantly – never getting too attached to the present.

All these flowers have something to say. All of creation has something to say. All creation sings of its Creator. We have a place, an important place, in creation. But we are not the Creator. It is not always clear that we understand our relationship with other parts of God’s creation. And that is our loss and perhaps our path to destruction.

But today, I’ll stop and admire the flowers.


Seeing is believing…???

a book from our library – yes really!

So our Monastic Library here at Mariya uMama weThemba is in a bit of disorder. It was down the hill and had to come up the hill. In the process of being boxed and moved, it also got shuffled. And we are making changes in how it is shelved to make it more friendly – all nice things and primarily my work for the next bit of time.

So I came across this “book” pictured above. It was nestled in with things from Teilhard de Chardin and Thomas Merton, among others. I was whipping my way through books putting them in categories like “Monastic History” and “Religious History”. As I glanced at this book trying to settle in my mind where it would go I saw, in the picture, a monk in a habit pushing some type of broom… Was this some type of contemporary Franciscan thing? Was it a book on the spirituality of cleaning? I struggled to make sense. There are a lot of strange books in a monastic library.

Slowly it began to dawn on me it was no book at all. No quirky monastic order. Just the ever-so-mundane operating instructions for a carpet cleaner that had somehow made its way into the monastic library. But having realized that, I was still left to wonder why the manufacturer had put a monk in habit on the cover of their book… reality eventually crept in.

I find these sorts of things quite amusing; what the mind will do to make sense of things that don’t make sense. BUT if I leave it there then I have left a humbling learning opportunity in the dust.

In this silly example is an illustration of the way we see what we want or what we expect, not what is in front of us. Its not just that we project what we want to see, but our experience and context pre-disposes us to see things. We look at the world through the lens of our own life. So I see a monk in a habit on the cover of an operating manual for a vacuum device…

In this case it is innocent and silly – and harmless.

But when I am in South Africa looking though my North American lenses, what is distorted? When I look through my white male lenses, what do I mis-perceive about folks who are neither white nor male?

When I looked at this book cover, my monastic lenses clearly filled in some blanks in a way that, I think, is a compliment to the guy on the cover. But in general when we “look” at folks and fail to see who they are, it is no compliment. When we “listen” to people without really hearing what they say, it is nothing less than a lie.

In the Christian tradition we hold that God knows us as we truly are. God sees what is in our hearts and knows what is on our tongues. I firmly believe this, though there are days I wish I didn’t – days when my heart is in an ugly space and when my words have been derisive or dismissive. Yet the faith is that God not only knows us (knows me), but that God loves us (loves me). And I really do believe this.

The opportunity is to take the risk to know myself more deeply and more fully. Knowing that I’m the guy who sees monks on equipment brochures tells me something about what is in my heart and also how my assured judgement is much less than assured.

In fact, I have to give up the entire illusion of certainty. That doesn’t leave me arrested and motionless. It means I have to proceed in faith rather than in certainty.

Now I’m ready to take on that vacuum cleaner and all its spiritual demands…

Misty morning…


We started this morning with a cold mist floating about the place. We’re at a high enough elevation that getting wrapped in the clouds is not too uncommon. But it was a strange sort of feeling – like we might have been on some other planet or that the craze of the world might have been quieted.

Sitting in the chapel, where great windows overlook this valley is always a treat, but I really love the misty, brooding sorts of days more than the sunny and perfect sorts of days. So this was the view more or less at Lauds:


Perhaps its a bit crazy – but in some sense this could be the highlands of Scotland in this sort of weather. And I love Scotland…

I suppose in some sense there is a link between Scotland and South Africa (beyond the history of British colonialism). Scotland is at the northern edge of things and has this marvelous coast that looks to the Atlantic and the north pole if you far enough. South Africa is at the south end of things and has this marvelous coast that looks to the south pole… Somewhere with no definitive sort of boundary the south coast of South Africa looks at either the Indian Ocean, or the Atlantic. The Cape of Good Hope more or less points to that boundary, but beyond the land, it really just looks like water that knows no bounds.

I’ve been reading Diarmuid O’Murchu’s “Religious Life in the 21st Century” lately and he spends a fair amount of effort looking at the tendency in religious communities to want to more or less escape the world. And when we are fogged in, it feels like we have. But by mid-morning the sun was out and the world was back…

Part of the monastic challenge, but really the challenge for all people of good will and hope, is to be able to know the world as it is and see it as it could be – a better world. And having seen a better world, then to get about the business of building that better world. There is no one answer as to how to do that. In fact, there are perhaps about 8 billion answers, since that seems to be about the population of the world this year…

Part of the wonder of misty mornings for me is that I get to see an almost unformed world – just a gray, misty blank slate. And I think it is especially important to really stop and look at it – to smell the moist air and hear the soft murmur of things. Then to see what the mist could form into…

The point is not to get too weighed down by what is behind the mist – this is South Africa and behind the mist I know is a great deal of pain, poverty, violence, and corruption. As well as a great deal of humanity and grace. Reality is there no matter what I think.

But the mist reminds me that opportunity is there as well. We don’t change reality by wishing things were different. But we do change reality by seizing opportunity.


Sermon for September 30th, 2018 – Salting things up…

Here are the readings for today – for the curious… 

There is so much going on in today’s Gospel reading from Mark. Words of comfort, words of caution, words about being good to children and not creating stumbling blocks for those who would follow Jesus. There is the discussion of casting out demons – and who gets to do so… the disciples and Jesus do not seem to be on the same page on this. So many interesting things to talk about… 

So naturally, I don’t want to talk about any of those things. 

Instead, let’s talk about salt. 

In the final two sentences in this section of the Gospel, the word salt, or some form of it, comes up between 4 and 7 times – depending on who’s translation you look at. In the version we heard this morning, it comes up 5 times which is right in the middle, right where Anglicans want to be. 

So, all that talk of salt leads me to wonder what might be standing in the background. Why so much salt? 

We take salt for granted these days. You can go to the store and purchase salt for a very small amount of money. In the United States, where we have very cold winters with mountains of snow and lots of ice, we cover the roads in salt. It melts the ice and is inexpensive. You can drive safely through ice and snow… then your car then rusts to pieces in the Spring… 

If you are a crazy gourmet cook with way too much money to spend then there is an exotic salt extracted from sea water in Korea by roasting it in bamboo and clay – and if you’re curious, it costs about 20 Rands ($1.5) for a single pinch.  

So, was Jesus talking about Amethyst Bamboo Salt (that’s the expensive stuff) or ordinary table salt? The answer is probably none of the above.  

The salt we see today is carefully refined, so it is mostly pure sodium chloride with trace elements in it. That was not the case in Jesus’ time. 

Salt was gathered then in ways similar to today. Salt water from any number of available salty places was dried and the remainder was a white, powdery substance, so it would look like a modern salt. But it contained lots of other things. And it had more uses than just flavor enhancing food. 

(I know the scientists are thinking that there are lots of other substances that are salts, not just sodium chloride… but I’ve got to cut this off somewhere – so “table salt” is the standard). 

Salt, then as now, was used to preserve things. In a world without refrigeration or canning, you either ate things fresh, or you got sick a lot, or you preserved with something like salt. So some of Jesus reference in his 5 or so mentions of salt have to do with the preservative nature of salt. 

Salt also has some anti-bacterial healing properties – it doesn’t feel too good but rubbing salt in a wound can prevent infection. And it is likely that folks in Jesus time were aware that washing a wound with salt water could help, especially given that the “fresh” water was probably none too fresh. So, some of Jesus’ 5 or more references were to this healing property of salt. 

These days we burnt sacrifice is pretty much behind us… However, in Jesus time it was standard practice. Before an offering was sacrificed it had to be salted – probably as a ritual form of purification. And this is certainly in Jesus’ 5 salts… 

Mud cooking oven
perhaps outdoor cooking ovens may have looked something like this in Jesus’ time.

Another more obscure way that salt was used then was in the cooking process, but not where we might guess. There was nothing like a modern oven, but there were outdoor cooking ovens that allowed for the roasting of foods. In these ovens, the fuel and the food got to share the chamber and the floor of the chamber was often made up of a layer of salt.  

The salt may have helped control food contamination, but it also helped in combustion for the salt acted as a catalyst for the flames. But not the salt exactly, it was other minerals in the salt that enhanced the fire. Remember that salt was not particularly refined, so there were lots of other minerals and things, not just sodium and chloride.  

At some point, those volatile elements would be exhausted. You’d be left with just a bland block of salt. It would be said to have “lost its saltiness” since it could no longer enhance the fire. It would be tossed onto the footpath as a sort of low-grade paving and fresh salt would replace it. This is clearly part of Jesus’ 5 salts. Today we know that salt cannot actually loose its saltiness – except by becoming something else. But salt was different then… 

Well – back to today’s reading…  

We’ve gone through the discussion on doing good things in Jesus name… We’ve been admonished not to lead people astray or to set up barriers between them and God’s good news… And we’ve been warned in no uncertain terms about millstones around our necks as we are tossed into the sea… We’ve heard about a place where the fire never stops burning and the worm never stops nibbling. I don’t dismiss these warnings, but I think they are meant to grab our attention. They are sign posts along the way. They are not the destination. 

And then the salt… Everyone will be salted… with fire. Translators struggle with this, but the meaning comes through – this is salt in the purifying and preserving sense. Fire purifies, and salt purifies… We will be made pure… We will be preserved. You could say, perhaps, we will be saved.  

But if the salt has lost its saltiness, how can it be seasoned? Everyone in those days knew about salt and its use in the cooking oven and what un-salty salt was worth. I believe what Jesus wants is for us to be the salt… to enhance the flame, the passion, the holy fire of the Gospel.  

We are called to share the good news… to share the Holy Spirit. If you remember the day of Pentecost, the spirit comes in wings of flame. We are called to be part of that flame, to be catalysts as salt was a catalyst in those familiar ovens around where Jesus lived. If we are not part of the reaction, part of the flame, we are of no use.  

And just call to mind where the reading started: The disciples have seen an unknown healer helping sick people and they put a stop to it… The see the fire of God’s healing power and they toss water on it. God is wild, not safe. God’s love is abundant and unrestricted. Too often, we would like to domesticate God… 

Have salt in ourselves? I don’t know about here in South Africa, but in the US the medical advice is to have less salt. It doesn’t matter how much or how little salt you eat, it should always be less. And to be fair in a land fed largely on McDonalds French Fries, there are tons of salt in the diet…  

But Jesus is not being literal or contradicting modern medicine. I think this is yet another concept of salt, as in salt of the earth. We struggle these days with the concept of humility. Left unchecked we can get quite full of ourselves, but on the other hand, many around us value themselves so little that suicide and other forms of self-destruction abound. Humility is tied to the earth – specifically to humus, that rich soil that makes gardens so marvelous. To be humble is simply to be properly grounded in the earth.  

There is an additional dimension to salty that may not have existed in Jesus time, but I think is helpful. Salty is, at least for the English, a somewhat derogatory description for folks who are coarse or common. Sailors were referred to, in days past, as “old salts” partly for their time at sea, but also for the unrefined ways. Still in the US, “salty language” is a euphemism for foul language. 

Jesus is telling us to be salt… I hear a call to be salty, not too proper, not too worried about things being just so. Jesus is always concerned that we be honest and never very concerned that we be polite.  

So, salting ourselves, being offerings in our whole bodies to God, being part of the living flame of the Holy Spirit, being humble and well grounded, and being more honest and less polite enables us to be at peace with ourselves and our brothers and sisters. 

This is no little thing. It literally makes us builders of God’s Kingdom of peace and justice, not in some heavenly sphere, but right here, right on this salty old earth.

Heritage Day at the monastery

Entrance to our school

South Africa celebrates National Heritage day in a number of ways and at our school it is an important day. On Saturday (not the official day, but a good day for folks to come) the school was open and faculty, staff, parents, siblings, and most of all students were on hand for traditional games, food, and fun.

There were games involving balls and kicking them and running… I don’t know much about even familiar sports, but this sport isn’t like anything I know… There were swing sets… there was jump rope with kids taking turns while others swung the rope… there was singing and dancing and storytelling…

A big feature of Heritage Day is Braai – or what in the northeast of the US we would call barbecue. Our school’s day followed that custom with, among other things, a roast pig donated by one of the families.

The food was abundant and smelled wonderful. Braai is very typically South African and so were the side dishes of corn meal and spinach as well as rice.

It is a lovely group affair and a great treat for the kids – and for the Brothers as it fills the area with energy, sound, and aromas.

Most of the kids in our school come from poverty, so a good meal is more than just a treat. It is a day when they are not food insecure. It is also quite wonderful to see that our school mixes a few kids from pretty comfortable backgrounds into the group quite seamlessly. Keep in mind, Apartheid only ended in the mid-nineties. So a group of racially diverse children has been possible for just over a generation. And its marvelous to see how indifferent these kids were to racial identity. At least for this day and in this safe space…

The class rooms look a lot like any classroom anywhere, but the views from the windows would have kept me distracted for most of the school year… They look out over our valley with its ever changing patters of light and cloud. For most of the students who live in the location of Grahamstown, it is important to be able to spend time in an environment that is not dangerous, not dirty, and not crowded.

The class sizes are small – about 14 per classroom and the teachers and administrators are first rate and so we are very proud of the opportunity the school offers. Kids coming out of our school (which is only primary grades), if they do well, can go to some of the finest schools in South Africa, which happen to be in Grahamstown. Those who are not quite so academically minded can go to the public schools, but they are well positioned to excel because they have learned basics of language, math, and culture.

South Africa for a long time has had world-class prep schools, colleges, and universities and these are largely still functioning. But in Apartheid times blacks could not attend these schools. Mission schools functioned for a long time relatively free of government oversight (and produced folks like Nelson Mandela) but in the 1950s the Bantu Education Act brought Apartheid to education and forced black kids into government schools. In these schools they were taught how to be other folks servants – how to clean other people’s houses, how to cook other people’s meals, how to work in other people’s factories. And while the Bantu Act is gone, the government schools are struggling to say the least. Many still lack basics like indoor plumbing. Teachers are over-worked, under-supervised, and not much education can take place.

The path out of poverty for these young people is education. And our little school provides a place where students can get a good start on education.

Building God’s Kingdom here and now must surely involve equipping young people to be servants of God, not servants of human masters.

And I would be remiss if I left the impression that everything at our school is roses… the Order does not have nearly enough money to run the school and so we scrimp and scrape. But it is not sustainable in the long run. So if you happen to have deep pockets, or know someone or a an organization that does, gifts to the school will always help. Donations for Holy Cross School can always be made through the Order of the Holy Cross, West Park.

The thing about God’s Kingdom is that some assembly is required and it doesn’t build itself…

Feast of the Holy Cross…

Stations of the Cross at Mariya uMama weThemba Monastery

Yesterday was the Feast of the Holy Cross – at least that is its most basic name. The legend about this particular feast is that it marks the finding of the actual cross on which Jesus was crucified. More about that later.

In the Order of the Holy Cross you can imagine that this is a major feast. And what would a feast be without a feast – so yesterday at midday we dined on marvelous pork belly… This not a common meal in the northern US, but it is the part of the pig from which Bacon comes – so you know it is good. It is basically uncut, uncured, unsmoked bacon that is cooked until tender with various good things.

As for the feast – legend has it that St Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine (who was anything but a saint in spite of his saintly mom), found the cross while leading a discovery through the Holy Land. There are all kinds of political breezes blowing around the story, but you can google that if you like.

The feast has alternative names, but my favorite is “The Invention of the True Cross” – which is so named because of a rather literal trip from Latin into English. The Latin word “inventa” means to find and perhaps our English word “invent” may include some essence of that. Inventors “find” solutions to various things…

I like the notion of invention because it suggests not being too literal about this feast. I know some who insist that St Helena absolutely found the one and only exact cross on which Jesus was crucified – some 300 years after the event… And I suppose it could be true. But the thing about the Romans and their most evil method of execution, the cross, is that each cross was used over and over. Once you were dead, the cross was readied for the next victim. And eventually the cross would be discarded when it was no longer usable. So the notion that this particular cross was somehow stored in a secluded spot so that Helena could later discover it is very unlikely.

But, having said that, I work to liberate myself from a too literal understanding of scripture and tradition. I have no trouble understanding that the stories in Genesis are not literal descriptions of how the earth was formed – the fact that there are two stories and they make no attempt to harmonize underscores that point. Why then should I be confined to a literal understanding of the Legend of St Helena and the Finding of the Cross?

The cross has much to teach us about our own inhumanity. The Romans had a number of methods of execution and the cross was intended to be the most horrible, reserved for the most dangerous folks. On the cross, the condemned person was not only meant to die, he was meant to suffer… and he and his suffering were meant to be on display. I would say he or she, but I don’t think the Romans crucified women.

It is always tempting to think of these things that happened millennia ago as being locked in the past. But what the ancient folks understood about remembering is that it is not locked in the past at all – when we remember (literally put the “members” back together) we live the event now, not then.

It is simply a fact that the cruelty of the Romans is hardly locked in ancient history. I’d note, as an example, the recent US practice of taking children from their parents at the boarder in order to set an example to others. This may not have been literal crucifixion, but it has many of the marks: It is cruel, without doubt. It is intended to create a spectacle that will frighten other would-be migrants into turning back. We are inventing a new cross, as it were.

So I hope you enjoyed the feast – I did… but not simply as a happy celebration. God’s power is what transformed the cross from a hideous and inhumane tool in a wretched and evil system of “justice” in the Roman world into a symbol of love and forgiveness.

We need to hold onto the reality that the cross is made of our most vile intentions. If we loose sight of that then our base nature is set free to do horrible things, and God’s sacrifice is reduced to a sort of magic charm that can be worn as jewelry and nothing more.

There is a pious concept of laying our burdens and troubles at the foot of the cross – and that is a beautiful concept. But I’d suggest also that we hold in mind sometimes that we make up the cross with our hate, indifference, greed, and inhumanity and Jesus is nailed to that cross. Jesus doesn’t crucify himself.

The Feast of the Holy Cross is a very sober feast indeed. Pork Belly notwithstanding.

Fauna of Africa up close and personal…

A visiting bovine…

Yesterday (Monday) we headed to Port Elizabeth, the somewhat nearby city that features a fairly substantial airport. Br Joel was heading out for a few weeks of vacation and family visit in Tanzania. So we had to drop him at the airport.

Heading down the N2, the road that more or less leads from Cape Town in the Western Cape to Durban in KwaZulu Natal by way of Grahamstown and Port Elizabeth, we passed through a long expanse of rolling hills and valleys with lots of wildlife. I noticed in the trees many baboons sort of gathered and watching things go by. At first I thought they were large birds. I thought – how nice to see some wildlife to make me feel like I’m in Africa…

We had a very nice time in Port Elizabeth including a sumptuous brunch on the terrace of a restaurant overlooking the Indian Ocean. PE, as it is always referred to, has a population of more than 1 million, a bit larger than Boston. So while it is not a world-known city, it is not small. The port is quite active and I counted more than a dozen freighters scattered around the harbor waiting for who knows what.

Coming home again along that long stretch of N2 through things like Addo Elephant reserve Br Daniel, who was driving, noticed lions to our right in the process of mating. Br Roger refers to it as “nature porn”. It is the first time I have seen lions in the wild (acting wild to boot). They are really big. And I called to mind that it was only about 30 miles from here that lions dined on Rhino poachers at Sibuya Game Preserve. There is poetry in the poachers being poached. 3 people lost their lives, but the population of Rhinos has been reduced by poaching to fewer than 5000, with about 1000 being killed last year alone. It is truly gruesome as only the horns are taken and the giant, elegant creatures of God’s hand are simply left to rot. So I’ll keep my focus on the happy lions…

We came home and I felt quite good about my wildlife encounters – the closest thing to wild living in a monastery…

But this morning, sitting in my room fairly early, I heard the sound of a cow which sounded quite close to my window. Out I looked and, behold, not one cow but a little herd of about 6 cows… munching away as cows do on the grass in our front lawn.

This is not normal… So I grabbed my cell phone and went to see about a picture. Most of the cows seemed to head down the path to some imagined greener pasture before I got there, but this one bull, seen above, seemed quite taken with our courtyard. He posed rather pleasantly for a picture. I’m not particularly afraid of cows, but bulls can be dangerous – and they are really big animals. So I thought best not to push my luck. I got my picture and came back inside.

Cows, I suspect, are not part of the natural flora of South Africa. But I suspect wrong. Cows have been in this region for a few thousands of years and the breed is a mixture of cows from India, Europe, and most particularly the fertile crescent. Who knew?

So baboons, mating lions, and cows are all local fauna doing what they do. I feel privileged to be here to see it.

And I am reminded of the fragility of life – all life. And that we, as great manipulators of the natural environment, have a particular part to play in allowing God’s other creatures to thrive, or at least survive.

If we take scripture seriously, early in Genesis we are given dominion over the earth – which sounds good. But then there are many additional directions given on the responsibility of dominion. In short, exploitation is not dominion.

But we seem quite proud of exploiting the planet and its resources. Just as those poachers who ended up as food for lions while attempting to exploit rhinoceroses, we do so at our own peril.