the world within
so small a skin
sun and rain
joy and pain
and gift of others
to nourish me
Schoenstatt November 2017
When you walked through the city
So beautiful and so naked,
You left a thousand women crazy
And impossible to live with.
You left a thousand married men
Confused about their gender.
Children ran from their classrooms,
And teachers were glad you came.
And the sun tried to break out
Of its royal cage in the sky
And at last, and at last,
Lay its Ancient Love at Your feet.
Daniel Ladinsky, I Heard God Laughing: Renderings of Hafiz (Sufism Reoriented: 2000), 93. Adapted from Richard Rohr, Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer (The Crossroad Publishing Company: 2003), 135-138.
It is a daunting task to distil a long life (97 years!) into a few short words of tribute. There are so many memories, my own and yours. I hope you recognise her in my words.
My earliest childhood memories are of “Langlea”, a home of big spaces and generous love. Listening in the early morning for the tea to be delivered, a sign that I could climb from my bed and join Nanna and Bumpa in their room; playing on the rowing machine while Bumpa shaved and brushed his hair, parting it carefully, brush in each hand; standing beside Nanna at her dressing table, mesmerised by the treasure trove of face-cream, nail-varnish, hair-spray, and her amazing collection of morning instruments, from cuticle-trimmer to a silver-backed hairbrush that had been her mother’s; then rushing off to dress myself for breakfast at 08:00. The rhythm of life: tea at 6; breakfast at 8; tea at 10.30; gin at 12; lunch at 1; tea at 3.30; whisky at 6 and dinner at 7.
Nanna was born in 1912 and grew up in a world very different from today; a slower paced world, where a holiday trip to Port Alfred took two weeks by ox-wagon and another two weeks to get home. Nanna embraced technology and knew how to use the throttle on her bright yellow sports car, and in her 90’s ditched her trade-mark typewriter and embraced the computer and emails.
Nanna sought to control her world. She had a pioneering and reformist spirit, perhaps a product of her youth, embedded as it was in colonialism and the mines. She took on life and sought to beat the chaos out of it. She was known to intimidate Bishops and was not afraid to confront the Nationalist Government policies in her involvement with the “Black Sash”. In the 40’s and 50’s she involved herself in Sophiatown with the likes of Trevor Huddleston and she built the first crèche in the area (in memory of her mother, Ida). Her generosity extended to paying for the education of a number of black clergy children, and through her involvement in the Ekutuleni Anglican Mission touched and influenced the lives of many.
But in the midst of everything, family took centre stage. She sought to protect, to nurture and to shape. And our memories of her are bound deeply to her love and care for us. She lost her mother, Ida, at 19 and spoke in recent years of the deep sense of loss she had carried throughout her life, missing her more and more as the years passed; and so perhaps we know who met Nanna as she stood at death’s open door. As a young teenager I remember her sitting on the side of my bed in the Blue Room one night, sharing the pain of seeing Pop-pops die, and reminiscing on his importance in her life. Bumpa’s death left her bereft and hopeless, and it took Simon moving in as a young Wits student to eventually bounce her back, with YCS students toyi-toying in the Drawing Room and young, black revolutionaries at the dinner table. James’ advent into Langlea was more genteel, but both gave her reason to live. She was remarkable in adapting to the worldview of a younger generation, and without sacrificing her own principles, was able to be accepting; and meals were often a space for sharing life and a good wine. The big family gatherings were always a source of joy to Nanna, and she loved having her children and grandchildren around: the pool, the swing, the “jungle” are all part of my happy memories of uncles and cousins and aunts and relatives; and the food and the laughter. Her great-grandchildren, too, were a source of joy. I only remember her angry with me once, when Simon and I had used the hot-water bottles as trampolines in our beds, and mine had burst ... requiring the bed to be remade!
Most of all, what stands out for me about Nanna is her faith in God and her commitment to prayer. God was never far from my relationship with her, and she was the source of my earliest awareness of the spiritual world. This seems at odds with her ability to hold life-long grudges and to be almost vitriolic in her condemnation of others, and of those we love. She was not unknown to manipulate us with her wealth; and the disparate manner with which she treated sons and daughters, children and spouses was often a mystery. She wasn’t unaware of this side of herself, but it was part of the chaos of her own humanity that she never managed to beat into submission. This more difficult side of her personality showed mainly when she perceived her children to need protection, or was jealous of the time she lost to those we love, or was just afraid that she may be forgotten; or was challenged in her reformist stride; and in recent years by her loss of influence as age took its toll. Underlined in her copy of THE OBLATE RULE C.S.M.V. IN SOUTH AFRICA are the words, “Despise no one, but honour all whom you meet or serve.”
I share below a response to my sermon last week, from a friend I haven't seen in 30 years, on a far continent. An audio copy of the sermon Transforming Discontinuity is available at http://bit.ly/ad9QlP - please have a listen!
My friend's response:
Well. That was quite the most extraordinary experience!! I recognized your voice from 30 years ago. But I remember a shy, uncertain little fellow behind the voice. Now I hear a mature man speaking out with conviction and confidence. Are you aware of how you have changed?? Apropos your sermon. Just incredible. I would never have believed it.
The content of your sermon was also really thought provoking and inspiring. Inspiring because it made me think of discontinuous change. i.e. that change I experience today is not necessarily linked to what happened yesterday. As a psychologist I know that predictability is of key importance in our lives. And therefore your words make me wonder what affect unpredictable and discontinuous change has on us. I see this at work and your words make me aware of the needs of my colleagues. Their vulnerability and anxiousness about what tomorrow will bring.
Also, your words brought a memory back to me of a particular event I experienced while working in the UN. I was helping 3 children who had lost 4 of their siblings and their parents during the war. We had to extract these three young people because the oldest son was going to testify for the prosecution and their lives were threatened because of that. I took part in the extraction and we fetched them with one hours notice in a UN helicopter. They will never return to their home country and now have new identities living “elsewhere” as we say in the UN.
While I was in contact with them, I was notified by a UN inspector that the remains of their family had been identified in a mass grave through DNA samples. The UN DNA tested the whole of the respective nation for this purpose. Since they were not able to return home, I volunteered on their behalf to visit the mass grave, fetch their family and ensure that they received a proper burial according to the Muslim faith.
While standing in this grave with the remains of a small 4 year old boy in my arms his body wrapped in a blue UN packet, I felt so incredibly alone and bereft. So this is the “end station” of war I thought. Suddenly I was aware of a presence by my side. Saw no one. But the intense feeling that Jesus was standing at my side with me. His support for me and his care for me enabled me to do what I had come to do.
In the UN, every day is full of discontinuous change. And trauma. You mention both repeatedly in your sermon. And I can testify to the fact that the certainty that the Lord in whom I believe is with me always.
Thank you Mark!!