Is this not a miracle?


Last week I shared with you Mary Lou Kownacki’s description of the Benedictine way of Christian life – from her book: Peace is our Calling: Contemporary Monasticism and the Peace Movement. This week I share some of the multitudes of miracles she witnessed through her attentively observant wonder-filled living. I pray that as we see how she sees – we may begin to see as she sees:

From the introduction of her book The Blue Heron and Thirty-Seven Other Miracles, Kownacki writes:

“The real miracle is not to walk either on water or in thin air, but to walk on the earth,” Thich Nhat Hanh, the Buddhist monk wrote.

But who believes him?

This is a book about trying to walk on earth, about taking steps to see every moment as a miracle, as a blessing, as a love song from our Creator. The book is also an invitation, an encouragement to find the miraculous in the ordinary events of your life. Try to imagine how different life would be if we all recognised and revelled in the present, in the common, as sacrament. Come, let’s walk together on earth. Let’s celebrate the miracles happening to us moment by moment.

Monday morning
in the inner city.
My guru,
the boom box
on the neighbor’s tenement
about five yards from my
prayer corner.
This morning
I am offered
a choice of mantras:

“Born in the USA”
“Like a Rolling Stone.”

Koans to wrestle with a
from Zen masters
Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan.

Is this not a miracle?

Kownacki, Mary Lou. The Blue Heron and Thirty-Seven Other Miracles


She is still weeping
for the young deer
whose fresh blood
was splattered
on Interstate 80
ten miles ago.

Is this not a miracle?

Kownacki, Mary Lou. The Blue Heron and Thirty-Seven Other Miracles


O, the books I read,
the retreats I made,
the lectures I attended,
the beads that passed
my fingertips
to understand
what Saint Paul meant
when he told the
to pray without ceasing.

this morning
I listened
– for the first time –
to the sparrow sing.

Is this not a miracle?

Kownacki, Mary Lou. The Blue Heron and Thirty-Seven Other Miracles


If on my deathbed
a slight smile plays
upon my lips
know it was
that January walk on the bay
when we first met,
at dusk,
the light snow,
the thin ice beneath our feet,
your hand
holding my arm tightly,
the circling mist
daring us to continue
walking together
into the winter night.
And we did.

Is this not a miracle?

Kownacki, Mary Lou. The Blue Heron and Thirty-Seven Other Miracles


Balanced Living



Last week, Benedictine Sr. Mary Lou Kownacki died at age 81. You may not have heard of her before but if you have been at CMM over the years – you would have heard me repeatedly teach her interpretation of the Beatitudes. And if you have not, then later this month when the Lectionary readings sit us down to listen to Jesus’ staggering sermon on the mount, I will reach for her interpretation again. Not only a remarkable interpreter of scripture, but a courageous doer of justice and practitioner of mercy. She humbly walked this earth holding the hand of the poor, knowing that she was in fact holding the hand of God. She lived honouring the sacredness of life with every sacred fibre of her own life.

In her 1981 book, Peace is our Calling: Contemporary Monasticism and the Peace Movement, Kownacki beautifully describes the Benedictine way of Christian life. I include some of her description below and encourage you to allow her words to “scan” over your own way of life. Listen out for the words or images or sentence that beeps at you – causing your attention to pause and focus. Hover for a moment over the spot it has touched within you and ask: Why the alert?


The Benedictine way of Christian life was not begun to do any special work. Benedictines are to be living signs that strangers can come together in Christ, care for one another, hold one another up, challenge one another to grow. Our essential ministry is community.


Obedience is a promise to be a faithful listener. … Then we work to respond with generosity and courage. Conversion is a dedication to lifelong growth. We are never fully converted; our lives are a continuing process of listening to the Voice of God, opening our hearts to the Word and growing in love. Daily we pray, “Turn our hearts of stone to hearts of flesh.” Stability is a promise to be faithful to one’s sisters as a way of faithfulness to God. We establish the lifelong human bonds so necessary for healing growth. We agree to search for God together, making our journey as honest, as loving, as human as possible.


Benedictines look at the world God has created and say: “It is good.” We affirm moderation rather than severe asceticism; transformation within society rather than withdrawal from it.


Our common prayer, called the Liturgy of the Hours or opus dei, is based on the texts of the Old and New Testaments … If we are faithful, the Word of God enters our life and disrupts it. Often it impels us to disrupt the lives of others. Always it gives peace.


We think there is great wisdom in the words of the psalmist: “Be still, and know that I am God.” We try to create an atmosphere of prayerfulness, solitude, silence and leisure in our lives so the Word of God can penetrate our hearts and take root. As we enter into solitude we approach the elusive presence of God, open our true selves, and find inner peace. We come to know that we are made in God’s image and that God is love.


The intensity of the contemplative vision draws us, as it did Jesus, “to enter compassionately into the struggle, pain and suffering of the world.” Gradually the Spirit transforms us into contemplatives, impelled to action, who see with the heart of Christ: we find the Creator in all creation; we can look on the face of any woman or man and touch our sister or brother.


Each Benedictine community … is a life with a distinctive rhythm. The community gathers for prayer to mark the coming of light and darkness, the passing of night and day. There is time given to serving others and time set aside for reading and personal prayer. Sisters come together for meals and discussions; individuals are encouraged to spend time in silence and solitude. Periods are devoted to study and hours given to play. All creation is treated with reverence, all time is seen as holy. As the days open and close, as the seasons turn and the cycles of redemption are celebrated, a whole and healing life rhythm begins to flow into time.

The creative balance of forces – if she chooses to internalize them – allows each woman to become her truest self. At the depth of her being, at the ground of her being, she discovers love.

Kownacki, Mary Lou. Peace Is Our Calling: Contemporary Monasticism and the Peace Movement

Grace, Alan

PS: If you have not heard Leonard Cohen’s song Democracy then tap the link “staggering sermon on the mount”.

Lessons from the garden

Photograph: Jenn Forman Orth (Flickr)



Once a year over Christmas and New Year I go on an all-out gardening binge. A real bender. As with most binges there are some not so lekker consequences. Like getting up in the morning. Every year I am stiffly reminded that gardening is gym by another name. It is all lunges and squats, in the mud rather than the mirror.

My binge gardening consists mainly of pulling things out the ground. It always seems that the stuff I do not want to grow – grows obsessively. Without assistance at all – popping up here there and everywhere. Attaching to this and that and basically taking over everything in their path – including the path. Growing and going where they know they are not supposed to grow and go. All without a care in the world. Trespassing anarchists.

So, I pull them out and cut them back – hacking and chopping and digging – snipping and pruning just don’t cut it. Overwhelmed and impatient, I hire someone with a weed-eater thingy to mow the “invasives” down. But a week or so later they respond with revenge, spawning a 100 fold more. I multiply what I try to defeat. These plants demand to be respected enough to be removed at their root or not at all.

Conversely, almost everything that I want to grow, grows so s-l-o-w-l-y. Sloth-like. I wish the creepers would hurry up and creep up to provide shade, but they stubbornly refuse to stretch skyward. Why are they so slow to do what they are born to do and what their label promises they will do? Surely they can’t be afraid of heights. 

And it is these plants – the ones I hope to hurry up and grow, rather than the others that attract dodgy company. Parasitic company. This then demands loads of my time and attention. Gloves-off attention. Finicky-finger attention. The worst is the exceedingly passionate and persistent parasite called dodder laurel that goes by the common and disarming name, love vine. No doubt because it clings so tightly to the host plant. Each string-like-strand curling round the stems or branches of the host must be individually removed by gently undoing their sticky twines. There is no other way to do it without harming the host. There are no short cuts. Uncurling. Unlearning. Undoing attachments. Ultimately liberating and healing.

Finally, planting never fails to feel foolish. I look at the size of the tomato seeds with suspicion. Each seed simply looks too small to carry their promised nourishment. So, every season I must fight the temptation to not sprinkle a couple of seeds into each finger-poked-bed of soil. Living in a more-is-better-world, my planting mantra becomes: One is enough. One is enough. One is enough.

I am not sure if Paul was a gardener, but I have a feeling he may have been, after all he wrote about planting with Apollos watering and God making it grow [1 Corinthians 3:6]. More to the point in the light of my own gardening experience, Paul wrote: “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” [Romans 7:19]. There are few words in all of literature that so acutely describe our human condition as these. I invite you to consider the truth of them in your own life. If gardening doesn’t fit, what is the metaphor you would use to describe how this plays out for you?


New Year’s Eve: A Time for Reflection

Dear God,

We pray for another way of being:
another way of knowing.

Across the difficult terrain of our existence
we have attempted to build a highway
and in so doing have lost our footpath.

God lead us to our footpath:
Lead us there where in simplicity
we may move at the speed
of natural creatures and feel the earth’s love
beneath our feet.

Lead us there where step-by-step we may
feel the movement of creation in our hearts.

And lead us there where side-by-side
we may feel the embrace of the common soul.

Nothing can be loved at speed.

God, lead us to the slow path;
to the joyous insights of the pilgrim;
another way of knowing:
another way of being.

Christmas: The Original Defiance Campaign


On 26 June 1952 the Defiance Campaign against unjust laws in SA was launched. Until then in South Africa it was the largest non-violent resistance campaign with more than 8 000 people going to jail for defying apartheid laws and regulations.

Defiance Campaign Volunteers signed the following pledge:

I, the undersigned, Volunteer of the National Volunteer Corps, do hereby solemnly pledge and bind myself … to participate fully and without reservations to the best of my ability in the Campaign for the Defiance of Unjust Laws. … “

Elizabeth Mafekeng and Mary Thipe were two Defiance Campaign Volunteers. Elizabeth Mafekeng was born in 1918 in Tarkastad. Living conditions in her birthplace forced her to leave for Paarl in the early 1930s. Mafekeng left school at the age of 15 to support the family. Her first job was at a “canning factory where she cleaned fruit and vegetables for 75 cents a week”. She married a fellow factory worker in 1941 and joined the trade union in the same year. She became a shop steward and then served, between 1954 and 1959 “as President of the African Food and Canning Workers Union (AFCWU) and branch secretary in Paarl”. Mafekeng was known as “Rocky” among the workers in Paarl. A striking woman, she always began ”her speeches with a song or two, singing in a clear, rich and well-organised voice”. Her speeches were “fiery, militant and witty.”

In 1952 Mafekeng participated in the Defiance Campaign and the South African Congress Trade Unions’ (SACTU’s) 1957 ‘Pound a Day’ Campaign. In 1955, she skipped the country without legal papers to represent the Food Workers Union at a trade union conference held in Sofia, Bulgaria. She was met with police brutality upon her return. In 1959, the Government banished her from Paarl, to a remote government farm in the Kuruman district. Her banishment papers said it was ‘injurious for the peace, order and good administration of Natives in the district of Paarl’ if Mrs Mafekeng remained there. She was given five days (later extended to twelve) to say goodbye to her family, make arrangements for their care, (and) wind up her work … There was, of course, no trial, no public hearing and no possibility of appeal.

She refused to take her 11 children to that desolate place. On the night of her deportation the union leadership organised a large number of workers to bid her a safe journey. She got onto a train and started waving farewell and then quietly walked through two coaches and jumped off the train unnoticed. Rather than being banished to Southey and to “a future of nothingness,” Mafekeng fled to Lesotho with her two-month old baby, Uhuru, and sought refuge at a Roman Catholic Mission at Makhaleng. She was granted asylum and lived in a two-room home with her nine children in the small village of Mafeteng. With the unbanning of the liberation movements in 1990, she returned to Paarl. The FCWU built her a home in Mbekweni Township in Paarl. Elizabeth Mafekeng died on 28 May 2009, at the age of 90, due to ill health.

Mary Thipe was born in 1917 in a village called Ramhlakoane in the Matatiele district. She later moved to Umkhumbane and joined the liberation struggle in 1952, the year of the Defiance Campaign. She was arrested, detained and banned for five years for her political activities.

Thipe took part in the 1959 Potato Boycott – a consumer boycott to end the slave-like conditions of farm labourers in Bethal (Mpumalanga). She was involved in the Cato Manor Beer Hall March in 1960 – a women-led national campaign of boycotting municipal beer halls because their men were drinking sorghum beer while their children and wives starved.

Her activities attracted the wrath of the police. She was put under house arrest for 10 years which meant she could not attend church services, funeral services of her loved ones and was not allowed to be in the company of more than three people.

Every Monday morning, Thipe was required to report at the Cato Manor police station. This did not stop the security branch from harassing her even in her house arrest.

She had trained her children that each time police came in the middle of the night, they would wake up and stand behind her. She had also trained them to look at the police in the eye and not flinch. When one of her grandsons went into exile, the police intensified their terror on Thipe and her family. When the police threatened to find her grandson and kill him, she retorted by requesting that they bring his head back to her. She refused to show fear and flinch at their threats. In 1986 the police used a gang which was known as the A-team to burn Thipe’s house down. Thipe died of a stroke but not before voting for what would be her first and last time in 1994.

All information about Elizabeth Mafekeng and Mary Thipe are from South African History Online.

– – –

Now, long before Elizabeth Mafekeng and Mary Thipe volunteered to solemnly pledge and bind themselves to participate fully and without reservations to the best of their ability in the Campaign for the Defiance of Unjust Laws, there were two others who shared their spirit of defiance, as well as their first names. The Gospels tell us that the Spirit of God had come upon Elizabeth and Mary, and what is the Spirit of God if it is not the Spirit of defiance against all that is unjust in the world?

Christmas is the original Defiance Campaign against inequality and injustice: Divinely inspired, complete with surprising strategy… subversive recruitment… angelic agitation… stabled safe-house… star-guiding civil dis-obedience… shepherding allies… all set to song – Mary’s Redemption song… that still sounds: Won’t you help to sing / these songs of freedom / Cause all I ever have / Redemption Songs

May the courageous lives of Elizabeth Mafekeng and Mary Thipe give us insight into the courageous lives of Elizabeth and Mary of long ago.

In grace,