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Thursday, September 9, 2010

Sr. Janice & Food for Thought

Sr. Janice McLaughlin, president of the Maryknoll Sisters, spoke this afternoon to an overflow crowd of Maryknollers in the Founders Room about her 2009 Orbis book, "Ostriches, Dung Beetles and Other Spiritual Masters." The author of several books, Sr. Janice considers this her most spiritual book.

How did this book come to be? Although she didn't realize it at the time, It ended up being her farewell gift to Zimbabawe.

As a child Janice was always interested in nature. She remembers looking at tadpoles or going fishing with her father on the lakes and rivers around her native Pittsburgh. Waiting to get a fish to nibble was her first experience of contemplative prayer.

With her assignment to Africa (Rhodesia) she was overwhelmed with the beauty of nature and the people, with their faith, their joy and their hope in the face of terrible oppression. Visitors to her mission in the millennial year inspired her to see as much of Zimbabwe as possible. About the size of Texas, Zimbabwe has about nine million population. For New Year's they drove to Lake Kariba and visited the game parks.

All along the way to Victoria Falls they saw magnificent wildlife. Janice listened to the game guides, who explained animals and plants and was struck by the description of the baobab tree and how it survived in dry, hot climates and can live for more than 1,000 years. When it gets a disease, it expels it from within, leaving a gaping hole yet healed. Janice wondered whether we could do that spiritually. She began to take notes.

Janice also learned to appreciate the lessons taught by animals from her dog in Africa.

Lions are playful and enjoy leisure. They are family-oriented.

Zebras are each original. Like Maryknoll Sisters, there are no two alike. Babies can find their mothers even in a huge herd.

Elephants live in matriarchal families and they truly never forget. They communicate with sounds imperceptible to humans from a distance of 50 kilometers. They mourn their dead. They gently caress their deceased and leave. After a year they come back to find the bones and do a dance with them. Elephants separated from their families go rogue.

Giraffes symbolize flexibility. Their agile tongues get around thorns to get to tender leaves. They regulate their blood flow when they drink. They have much to teach missioners about being adaptable.

Wildebeest exemplify cooperation. They give birth together. This assures some will not be eaten.

Herd animals cooperate in keeping watch and helping all avoid danger and get through hard times.

Rhinos are examples of stability and this unfortunately makes then easier to shoot. Poaching is on the rise in East Africa and the rhino may disappear in less than 100 years.

The hornbill shows unconditional love. The male seals its mate into the hollow of a tree where she and the babies are totally dependent on the male. Her chapter on the hornbill begins the book and is the most personal for Janice. Her neighbor in Pittsburgh was a policeman who had to take care of his sick wife and their daughter, working two jobs, dedicating himself totally to their well-being.

When she was imprisoned in Rhodesia and faced the death penalty, she felt the comforting presence of God. Like the female hornbill imprisoned in the tree, she was totally dependent on God for her survival. She doesn't think people need to wait till they are arrested to experience this loving presence of God.

Zimbabwe means "House of Stone" and one can see rock formations from the Rift Valley. These formations were used for thousands of years as places to worship. Africa makes you appreciate the wonders of life and nature.

A poor man from Zimbabwe was one of two artists who illustrated the book. She learned he died recently of cerebral meningitis. So many of the people she knew and worked with on Africa have since died of AIDS or other debilitating disease. Yet despite all the suffering, there is a peace and tranquility that emanates from Africa.

Lastly, the dung beetle Janice sees as perseverance, never giving up, forging ahead despite overwhelming odds---like writing this book! Each chapter comes with discussion questions and suggestions for action.

Her book is on sale in the Maryknoll Gift Shop for $11.60

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