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.
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.
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.
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
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:
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!