By Brother Sixtus
In the summer of 1964, at age 11, I visited the New York World’s Fair in Queens with my sister and her family. Tops on my list of international pavilions to visit were the Vatican Pavilion which featured Michelangelo’s Pieta and the Jordan Pavilion which had on display a number of the recently-discovered Dead Sea Scrolls. Besides being awed by those exhibits, we rode boats through the more secular Pepsi-Cola Pavilion whose theme was “It’s a Small World.” If you took that boat ride yourself in the early 60’s or experienced it in any of the later incarnations at Disney parks around the world you are probably unable, like me, to get that ‘ear bug’ song out of your head:
It’s a world of laughter and a world of tears,
it’s a world of hopes and a world of fears.
There’s so much that we share
that’s it’s time we’re aware
it’s a small world after all.
I can’t explain why, but that song has been playing on a loop in my head since I landed at the Harare Airport on August 26. On that very afternoon not far from the airport on the downtown streets of the capital, police wielding rubber batons were firing tear gas and water cannons at peacefully and legally assembled demonstrators angry about “a deepening economic and political crisis in Zimbabwe,” according to reports in the N.Y. Times the following day. Such a dichotomy: laughter and tears, hopes and fears, Walt Disney and President Robert Mugabe. So, how does one reconcile these conflicting emotions and feelings?
For me, it meant becoming immersed as quickly as possible, and as much as possible, in the daily routine of the monastery of Christ the Word, a small English Benedictine community near the village of Macheke, 1.5 hours east of the capital. Essentially, they are a sister house to Saint Louis Abbey, both communities sharing the same motherhouse of Ampleforth Abbey in England. This large piece of property situated in a valley between two medium-sized mountain ranges has been known as Monte Cassino Mission since 1902.
I am calling this corner of the world home for a period of three months during a time when there are only three other monks in residence. The prior calls himself an Irish-Englishman; the only other priest was born and raised in Vietnam and left with his family at age 18; and the third monk, the young Brother Placid, is a local African boy whose first language is Shona and whose birth name was Simba, just like in The Lion King. Add a Polish-Slovak-American to the stewpot and it becomes a small world after all.
The community prefers to be as self-sufficient as possible, consciously choosing not to employ cooks, gardeners, housekeepers, etc., so as not to appear in any way whatsoever more privileged than the local population. The vegetable and fruit gardens are extensive and supply food for the community, as do the animals raised on the property. These include a herd of 40 goats, many geese, Muscovy ducks, chickens, quail and rabbits. The fence protecting the plants and animals is literally feet away from one of the windows of my round cell. Despite the fence, vervet monkeys still find their way into the area via low-hanging branches. And lately a band of about 50 rogue baboons has been frequenting the mission on a search for new water sources. El nino has produced a widespread drought over all of southern Africa with devastating effects on the wildlife and on farming.
Each morning a local farmer parades his herd of cattle past the monastery and chapel in order to allow them to graze on the mission’s veldt covered in whatever short grasses and low scrub are able to grow in the dry claylike ground. We do not benefit from the beef but every day several bottles of fresh warm milk are delivered to our kitchen for our coffee, tea and cereal. Into my cereal each morning I add sliced bananas or ripe mulberries straight from the trees outside my windows. There are also papaya trees and a small orange grove which bears fruit for homemade marmalade. This is truly a farm-to-table diet and there were locavores here before Americans ever heard of the word.
Despite the obvious differences between the two monasteries, there are many ways in which they are similar and this brings me back to the idea of the world really being a small place. Much like Saint Louis Priory School administered by the monks in St. Louis, there is a school on this mission with an enrollment of 460 boarders called The Monte Cassino Girls’ High School. It is run by the order of Precious Blood Sisters out of Germany and the local convent is now primarily composed of Africans with one German and one Pole. It is a rather prestigious school and one need only mention being a “Monte” graduate in this country or others and doors open easily.
Although the monks do not teach or work in the school they celebrate Sunday all-school Masses much like Priory’s Friday Mass, only with with more singing and dancing and with drums and maracas. We have a large mid-day meal with the sisters every Sunday and during those interactions I’ve come to discover that their concerns and joys as teachers and administrators parallel those of their Priory counterparts. The same can be said of the students who face the same doubts and fears as teenagers anywhere in the world poised on the edge of adulthood and worried about finding their way in university and beyond. I saw this first-hand eight years ago on a previous visit when I was invited to speak with a number of clubs in the school and share lectio divina with others. What I heard voiced by the girls could have just as easily been spoken by Priory boys. It’s a small world.
Many people have e-mailed asking for reflections and thoughts about my experiences in Zimbabwe, the days of which are drawing to a close for me at the end of November. In the interest of brevity, I would have to say, first and foremost, that the people with whom I have come in contact are resilient, proud, patient, extremely friendly, kind, warmhearted and spiritual. Their patience is manifest in the way I have seen them queue up for hours at a time, in the blazing sun, whether in the big city trying to get some cash out of a bank, or here at the monastery as they line up once a month during our charity food giveaway to those who qualify.
I have witnessed what are obviously strong and caring family relationships, evident among those who walk sometimes for miles to attend our Sunday school Mass. They don’t want to leave at the end of the hour-and-a-half liturgy. They linger, they talk, they pray some more, they share. Only then do they start on the long walk home.
I have seen the places they live in, often roughly-built, small shacks made of mud and local bricks with thatched roofs. Many of them don’t have much but they have what they need. And they seem happy and content with having that much. That’s a fitting lesson to close on. Being happy to have what you need, and not necessarily what you want.