Contemplative Outreach South Africa: On Our Regional Retreat and the Passing of Nelson Mandela

On the 5th December 2013, seven of us met at Sediba mountain centre for our annual three-day retreat.   Sediba (the source) is set in the Magaliesberg Mountains, overlooking Hartebeespoort dam.  The silence and beauty encompass one immediately on arriving.

Sediba was built by a Catholic priest who had lived in Japan and India. He built it in such a way that only eight people can be accommodated in individual hermitages going up the mountain. He has since passed away, but one of his favourite quotes was from Gandhi:  ‚Äúlive simply so that others can simply live.” The theme of our retreat was simplicity. This is one of the praxis booklets from The Contemplative Life Programme from Contemplative Outreach (CO).

On the first night Brian, our co-ordinator, asked how each of us were. We all seemed to be in need of rest ‚Äì both physically and spiritually. He gave us a question from the booklet – ‚Äúwhat is of value to you in your life, and what is chaff?‚Äù  We would reflect on this in the privacy of our hermitage. We ended the evening with Lectio Divina.

In the morning we gathered for Centering Prayer and then proceeded to breakfast. It was at breakfast that Fr. Mike (who now runs Sediba ) told us quietly that President Nelson Mandela had passed away in the evening.  It came as quite a shock to me, even though Madiba (as we call him) had been ill for some months. I felt an enormous relief to be in silence rather than bombarded with newspapers and television. I realized what a great gift CO has been in my life, and especially at that moment. I gave thanks for both Fr. Keating and Fr. Carl visiting our country. I will relate further on Madiba‚Äôs passing.

Each day Brian gave us two sessions of teachings from the Simplicity booklet.  One exercise we did from the booklet was on the simplicity of seeing. Here we looked at the beauty around us, chose something from that beauty, closed our eyes, opened them again and drew in silence what we were ‚Äòseeing‚Äô without looking at the paper. We had joy in sharing with each other the experience; we had all become surreal artists!!

Another practise is being aware of how we are present at meals. Do we just eat whatever we see before us, or are we aware of eating while chewing our food. Do we listen to our bodies in choosing what we put on our plates?  I really tried practising this on the retreat.

Monica, one of the retreatants wrote ‚ÄúThe weekend on simplicity made me aware of the soft sound of nature with the drizzle of rain, the gentle breeze of wind through the leaves of the shrubs and the high sound of insects’ wings alerting each other of their whereabouts. As for the sense of smells, it was the perfume-like smell of some of the flowers on the shrubs. I enjoyed the meals after admiring the rich colour scheme of the food about to be consumed. This might all sound ordinary to people but it came from me who is used to reading while eating on my own, hardly noticing what I eat.”

Brian wrote, “Although I spent a lot of time preparing the material for the retreat and acknowledging in my head the importance of the single gaze, it was only in the wonderful atmosphere of Sediba that I could realise the spirituality of simple awareness. Being with people who understood how important that is made it a very special retreat. The material of the Simplicity praxis is of extraordinary richness.”

Each evening we had mass with Fr. Mike. At this mass Fr. Mike invited us to bring into the chapel all those who were in our lives. We also prayed for Madiba. I particularly brought into the chapel my brother, now living in New Zealand. During apartheid, amongst other things, he organised music concerts at the university to raise funds for children in detention.  In the late 1970‚Äôs, black children from Soweto,  and later across the country, started marching against being forced to learn afrikaans, which we all had to learn. Afrikaans (from Dutch settlers) was the language of the government. Some of these children were shot by the armed forces, and others detained without trial. Those concerts my brother organized were packed, but I was petrified that my brother would be arrested. He would come onto the stage and say ‚ÄúThey can lock us in prison, they can put us in solitary confinement ‚Äì they will never stop the music.”  That is how I saw Madiba ‚Äì the music of his love, forgiveness, humanity will never stop, not only in our country, but hopefully in the world.

During apartheid and then afterward, I have been involved with Catholic justice and peace. For me, CO and justice and peace work are two sides of the same coin. From that single gaze, our gaze goes to all those that are still living in poverty and unjust situations.

There was an African priest doing a private retreat with Fr. Mike while we were on retreat. On Sunday he should have departed before mass in the morning as he had some way to travel. Instead he stayed for the mass, as he said he felt such a bond with us. Also, a Dutch Reformed pastor (previously the church of the apartheid government) came to the Sunday mass. Fr. Mike invited both the priest and the the pastor to sit beside him for the blessing of the gifts of bread and wine. That was such a powerful gesture to me of the reconciliation of Madiba. The bond between us on this retreat was incredible.

On arriving back in Johannesburg, the newspapers and news were full of Madiba’s passing. Now it was not an intrusion, but a necessary retelling of the story. In the retelling, we remembered who we are.  We remembered the enormous pain of apartheid, of Madiba’s 27 years in jail. We remembered the joy of seeing him released from prison, and being made the first black president of our country. He united us in his life, but even more in his death. The unity at workplaces and in the shops was amazing.

I would like to finish with two quotes from Madiba which I think are applicable to Contemplative Outreach:

“It is never my custom to use words lightly. If 27 years in prison have done anything to us, it was to use the silence of solitude to make us understand how precious words are, and how real speech is in its impact on the way people live and die.”

“There is no easy walk to freedom anywhere, and many of us will have to pass through the valley of the shadow of death again and again before we reach the mountain top of our desires.”

Thank you to all of you reading this article. I ask of you for a  few minutes of silence in prayer for Africa, and particularly South Africa. We are still on the journey to truly becoming  the rainbow nation.

Hilary Tyghe