Spiritual Advice from Ostriches, Boabab Trees, and Dung Beetles

Sister Janice McLaughlin, a Maryknoll Sister who lived and worked in Africa for thirty-five years, has written a charming book entitled Ostriches, Dung Beetles, and Other Spiritual Masters. During her time in Africa, Sr. Janice  “reveled in the breathtaking beauty of the African continent.” She was fascinated especially with its vast array of wildlife. Over the years, she collected information on this wildlife and began to see spiritual wisdom in specific animals and plants. Her book blends information, her experiences, and scripture quotes with questions for reflection and action. Today, with the help of Sr. Janice, let’s see what spiritual advice we can glean from these three examples from the African continent: ostriches, boabab trees, and dung beetles.


The ostrich: caution

Ostriches: The ostrich is the world’s largest bird, often standing over nine feet tall. Although it is unable to fly, it can run up to forty-three miles an hour! Its strong legs serve as a formidable weapon. “One swift kick can fell a lion.” The ostrich is often depicted  as burying its head in the sand. In reality, it doesn’t do this, but, when it senses danger, the ostrich does press its long neck to the ground to become less visible. This “cautionary approach” is worth imitating at times in our lives, says Sr. Janice. “Taking precautions in face of danger is not cowardly; it is often the wisest thing we can do,” she says. Her scripture references include Jesus’ words, “Do not store up treasure for yourself here on earth… (Mt. 6:19-21) and his parable of the ten bridemaids (Mt. 25:1-13). Sister suggests: “The next time you have to make an important decision, stop and take time to think of the consequences of your choices.” Learn from the cautionary ostrich.


An inquisitive cautionary ostrich.

Boabab Trees: Boabab trees can teach us about healing and reconciliation. At first glance, these large trees look rather strange—as if they were planted upside down. These amazing trees grow in hot, dry climates where little else will grow. The fruit from this tree is used in various toothpastes and creams. But boabab trees possess another amazing attribute. When disease strikes the tree, the tree explodes from within to rid itself of the disease. This can leave huge holes in the tree. Although the tree may look ugly, it is actually healthy once again. Sr. Janice suggests that we, like the boabab tree, must “learn to expel the anger and bitterness we carry through life.” She cites Jesus teachings on forgiveness: Mt. 5:43-45, Mt. 18:21.

boabab trees and car

The boabab tree: healing and reconciliation


Sometimes the holes in the Baobab tree are so large, people actually live in them.

Sometimes the holes in the Baobab tree are so large, people actually live in them.










Dung Beetles.  Sr. Janice writes: “There is hardly a more comical sight than the humble dung beetle pushing a ball of dung more than twice its size.” Why does it do this? The ball of dung will be both food and nest for the female’s eggs. She begins her task by fashioning the dung into a perfect sphere so its easier for her to push it to an underground tunnel. After filling her tunnel with balls, she then lays a single egg in

A persevering dung beetle.

A persevering dung beetle.

each ball. In doing this strenuous work, dung beetles not only insure their own survival, they also help spread countless seeds (which were expelled in the animal droppings) all over the African plain. Sr. Janice has watched dung beetles pushing a ball up a hill, only to have it slip and roll to the bottom. Like Sisyphus in the Greek myth, the dung beetle returns to the bottom and starts all over again, never stopping until she has reached the top. Sister sees the dung beetle as a symbol of perseverance. She writes, “Such perseverance is a reminder that achievement takes effort and persistence.” She cites Jesus’ words, “Stay awake, then, for you do not know on what day your Lord will come” (Mt. 24:42-44).

So there you have it: spiritual advice from God’s creation: be cautious at times, expel your anger and bitterness, and persevere, persevere, persevere.

Did any pieces of advice speak to you today?

What advice have you received from animals and plants in your own life?

PS: Last week I celebrated my birthday: I completed my 70th free trip around the sun! My family threw a wonderful party for me with great food, old photos, games (“How well do you know Aunt Dolly?” That’s me!), and a cake with real daisies on it made by my cousin Sr. Ellenan Mach. I also had to whack a Justin Bieber pinata to smithereens (I solicited help from my grand nieces and nephews.) And in the evening we sat around a campfire chatting as the night descended. It was a great celebration!

One of my Jesuit friends, Mike Harter, was in Rome recently and had the privilege of meeting Pope Francis in person. For my birthday card, he sent me the following picture:

mike and pope

As I turn 70, my heart is filled with gratitude for my life–especially for faith, family, friends–and wonderful readers like you! Thank you for following my blog! I’m most grateful!

No Comments

  1. Kathleen Magiera on September 22, 2014 at 5:28 am

    Happy B-Day Sr. Melannie!

    The idea do expelling anger and bitterness resonates with me. I roll those emotions around me to much at times. I like the idea of making a hole and letting it go.


  2. mary james on September 22, 2014 at 7:11 am

    All three of these creatures of God give me good advice. I do love to
    have a symbol and something short and sweet to carry me
    through the day! thanks so much! Isn’t amazing how God speaks
    through ALL creation.
    I also thing it is a wonder to contemplate the fact that the lowly
    dung beetle “knows” that a sphere will move easiest of all figures.

    • Marietta Wethington on September 22, 2014 at 9:23 am

      Happy Birthday, Melannie! Enjoy the new year of your life.
      Thanks for Sunflower Seeds. Love your writing.
      Marietta Wethington, OSU

  3. Nancy Bonshock, SNDdeN on September 22, 2014 at 9:16 am

    Happy birthday, Melanie! Thank you for sharing your wisdom and wit with us.

  4. Deb on September 22, 2014 at 9:20 am

    God’s blessings as you begin your 70th year of life!
    It is amazing to me that your articles always come at the moment I need them most. Today, your message contained advice to overcome some difficulties that I am currently facing.

  5. Joanne Bennardo on September 22, 2014 at 9:30 am

    Dear Sister Melannie, It’s fascinating and inspirational to think that God’s creation is full of singular purposes, which are individually and collectively in relationship. You ask what advice nature brings to us. Maybe the answer lies, simply and humbly, in embracing God’s creations, including those of us who walk on two legs, in love, sharing, and learning from one another. Furthermore, may our learning move from our minds into our hearts today. Thank you for a beautiful reflection to begin the day, and something to strive for throughout the day and week.

    As you remember your birthday celebration, may God’s graces and blessings remain with you throughout the year. Peace, Joanne

  6. Anne Busch on September 22, 2014 at 9:44 am

    Happy 70th Birthday! I really enjoy your Sunflower Seeds every Monday. I hope you have a year filled with every good thing….

  7. Janet Ashe on September 22, 2014 at 9:50 am

    Happy Birthday. This year will be my 60th free ride around the sun. What a wonderful way to put it. Your poetry and blog have helped me navigate my life. Thank you so much!

  8. Mary Schneider on September 22, 2014 at 10:28 am

    Happy belated birthday wishes; I will celebrate 3/4 of a century here on God’s beautiful earth later this month. I found I am never too old to enjoy learning about new things and places; the ostriches, trees, and beetles are fascinating! Thank you Sr. Melannie. Continued good health to you. Thank you for helping me grow spiritually.

  9. Jean Shott on September 22, 2014 at 10:51 am

    Reading your blog reminds me to look past my everyday – work, laundry, cooking, etc. I enjoy these “mini-vacations”. Congratulations on your birthday – I know you are a few years older than I am, but age is just a number to me. In my head I’m 33, even though my body sometimes feels like 83. (I’m actually 63). I feel that you, too, are “young in spirit”! Your blog also brings me closer to you, something I treasure.

  10. Cathy on September 22, 2014 at 11:25 am

    Happy Birthday! Nothing better than celebrating with your family around. My youngest child turned 30 yesterday and our evening entertainment was the three stair-step toddler grandchildren – the simple things to treasure.
    Your blog today reminded me of the fiction series The Number 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith which is set in Botswana. I have grown to appreciate Africa more and the main character’s philosophizing often leads me to the same type of reflections as you do, finding God all around.
    Many happy returns and good health wishes.

  11. Joy Martin on September 22, 2014 at 12:09 pm

    Happy Birthday! Your words resonate with me & make me think…
    which helps my spirit grow…keep on keepin’ on!!!

  12. Maggie Dunn on September 22, 2014 at 1:03 pm

    So many gifts into today’s writing. I treasure new thoughts from inspired writers. Makes me smile often.
    Your “70th free ride around the sun” is one of those treasures. 🙂 This will be my 80th free ride. I will have such fun sharing your words this next month of my birthday…..and they will be your words, not mine.
    Perseverance, perseverance,perseverance!! Thank you Lord.

  13. Dawn Petrill on September 22, 2014 at 1:28 pm

    Happy Birthday, Sister Melanie! Your post piqued my curiosity because it contained Ostriches, my 14 year old son’s favorite animal! He’s autistic, and I think the reason he likes them so much is because of a children’s program called, “Olive the Ostrich”- where Olive uses her imagination to solve mysteries while her head is in the sand.
    I was surprised to learn that ostriches don’t bury their head in the sand, but they do contemplate life with their head on the ground!
    But today it was a bumper sticker about a dog that inspired me. It read, “Wag More. Bark Less.”

  14. Ellen on September 22, 2014 at 1:58 pm

    Happy Birthday! The world is a better place with you in it. Thank you for today’s reflection – especially the dung beetles and their patience and perseverance.

  15. Suzanne Sayer on September 22, 2014 at 2:30 pm

    Happy birthday, Sister Melanie. I love the description of your party–sounds like much fun! As others have mentioned, I like the idea of a “free ride around the sun”-earlier this month I celebrated my 65th free ride! Medicare! A gift of a different sort! The BD card is quite clever!
    Even though the dung beetle ‘s task seems yucky, I do admire its perseverance.
    Thank you for the weekly blog! Many blessings today and in the year to come.

  16. Pat on September 22, 2014 at 2:37 pm

    Happy Birthday Melannie, Thanks for the gift of your life ! Thanks for extending God’s many blessings that God has gifted you with,
    with all of us. I love the insights into beetles, upside down trees and ostriches as well as all your other reflections

  17. Sr. Celeste Albers on September 22, 2014 at 2:41 pm

    A belated happy birthday to you, Melanie! Three years ago Sr. Janice spoke at our assembly, and I have that little book you are talking about. That dung beetle is the most amazing to me, and I love that example of perseverance. The following week when I had a Word and Communion service with a couple who were homebound, the husband who had been a farmer for many years said he had seen the dung beetle at work!
    I am so grateful for your 70th “free trip around the sun”. Your weekly reflections are such a gift to me! Keep up the great work you are doing through your prayerful writing!

  18. florence on September 22, 2014 at 3:57 pm

    I had never heard the expression, free trip around the sun. I will share it with my friends. In June I had my86th free trip My husband had his 90thin February, but then his free trips stopped and he met the Lord and is at peace with no more medical interventions
    I enjoy y0ur contributions in Living Faith. I look forward to them. You are an enjoy.

  19. Barbara on September 22, 2014 at 4:22 pm

    I share a connection with you; I also celebrated my 70th this August and co-celebrated with my 18 year old granddaughter’s August birthday! Yours sounded like so much fun; I might have to try a pinata next year! And as far as messages go, the birds give me messages every day; of their beauty, their grace, their perseverance. They give light to my life.

  20. Sr.M.Francismarie on September 22, 2014 at 4:57 pm

    Belated birthday greetings! Thanks for your weekly reflections on the marvels of creation. They are such an inspiration to me weekly. I so enjoy the gift you are to us all!

  21. Dorothy on September 22, 2014 at 5:31 pm

    Your inspiration gives me insite & increases spirituality in me. Perseverance for sure… Thank You for your blog… You are a Blessing to us all. God Bless & many more Birthdays…

  22. Peggy Svoboda on September 22, 2014 at 6:04 pm

    Happy Belated Birthday, Dolly! Your family celebration sounds just perfect. I’m so happy that your blog keeps us in touch. Several things about today’s resonated with me. Thanks for the insights!

  23. Maryann on September 22, 2014 at 6:35 pm

    Happy Birthday Sr. Melannie! Your blog is always enlightening and comforting. Thank you for sharing it with all of us! This week, the story about the Boabab Trees spoke to me. I had never heard of them before, but the message of, “Learn to expel the anger and bitterness we carry through life,” was particularly relevant. Good to move onward and enjoy all of our trips around the sun!

  24. david Batsche on September 22, 2014 at 7:38 pm

    Happy Birthday Sister Melannie .

  25. Peggy May on September 22, 2014 at 7:49 pm

    Thank you for the picture in words of Africa and the facts about the Osterrich, Barboa tree and Dung beetle. How amazing that they have a spiritual significance for us.
    I look forward to your newsletter every week. You have wonderful thoughts and thankyou for sharing your practical wisdom. You are a friend and soul sister.
    Many more Happy Birthdays!

  26. Jill on September 22, 2014 at 9:38 pm

    Thank you Sr. Melannie for your gift to your readers each week! I always have something to look forward to on Mondays!

    Best wishes for another happy and healthy trip around the Sun!

  27. Cathy Baier on September 22, 2014 at 10:56 pm

    I love the message of the persevering beetle! it’s an inspiration to keep trying!
    I read Living Faith every morning on my Kindle but don’t always lookat the author before reading. But I always know when it’s one of your reflections Sr. Melannie!:)
    Happy Birthday!–your personal “Happy New Year”!

  28. Susan on September 23, 2014 at 8:41 am

    Happy Birthday Sister Melanie. I am new to your blog and I am enjoying it very much.
    I found that the huge old trees that grow back East with their branches reaching skyward towards the heavens inspire me. It reminds me to lift my own hands in praise of God.

  29. Linda on September 23, 2014 at 9:07 pm

    Dear Sister Melannie,
    Although it may be your birthday, it is we who receive the gifts..the gifts of your gentle perspectives on this daily ‘journey around the sun’!

  30. Andre Sequeira on September 24, 2014 at 10:28 am

    Dear Sr Melanie

    This message comes from nearly the end of the earth, Perth Western Australia. Originally from Mumbai, India, I read some of your books sold by St Pauls when I visted home afew years ago and since then you are one of my favourite authors. I was thrilled to come across your blog where I can keep getting some sunshine from your sunflower seeds as they sprout in our lives. What a joy to wish you on your 70th free ride around the sun. I absolutely love the way, you are able to connect with God intimately in the everyday events of life and how you share that connection with such skill and sensitivity. The description of your recent birthday is a testament of the shared joy of your family and you for the gift of life. Being a fan of Pope Francis and you, I love the card by Mike Harter …. just for you. Thanks for sharing.

    Love & God Bless

    Andre Sequeira [Perth]

  31. Pat Sylvester on September 25, 2014 at 10:15 am

    Happy belated Birthday Melannie! I too will be turning 70 this year.
    I enjoyed your birthday article too and how you and your family celebrated.
    I am catching up on your blog and truly enjoy reading your articles.
    Thank you for writing. I am spreading the word . . .
    Thank you for making the ordinary extroadinary!
    May you continue to celebrate Life!
    Love, Pat

  32. Cathy Baier on September 25, 2014 at 6:53 pm

    having trouble seeing any comments on the blog today…is it an online problem?

    • Melannie Svoboda SND on September 26, 2014 at 11:22 am

      Yes, Cathy. The comments disappeared for a little while. The tech people had to upgrade my blog. It’s working fine now and all the comments are back. Thank you! Melannie

  33. Patti on September 30, 2014 at 11:04 am

    What a beautiful observation! Thank you so much for sharing… Birthday wise I’m only two years behind you. Hope your day was the best ever!

  34. Ann on October 3, 2014 at 12:57 pm

    It is obvious that you recognize God’s presence all around you…………even in the tiny dung beetles!! Thanks for sharing your beautiful and insightful observations!!! A belated birthday wish for more awesome days ahead!!!! Your life is a gift and a blessing.

    Ann 🙂
    Manitowoc, WI

  35. Sr Madeleine,csjb on October 3, 2014 at 4:37 pm

    Hi Melanie, many blessing on your 70 birthday. Fond memories if retreat at cape May and you at my community’s prov chapter, 2011 lol madeleine

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