Desmond Tutu and the still centre of the world

Anna-Liza Kozma on the remarkable public life of Desmond Tutu, Africa's conscience.

"When two people love each other, they want to spend time together."  

Simple but striking words from retired archbishop Desmond Tutu, as he explained his decision on Thursday, on his 79th birthday, to step aside fully from public life.  

In his case, though, what he meant was that he wants to spend time with God.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, one of the world's best known clergymen, announced his retirement from public life on Thursday, Oct. 7, 2010, his 79th birthday. (Reuters) (CBC)

No more appearances at rallies and conferences, no more interviews and charmingly quotable exhortations.  

How singularly different from the regular canards we usually hear when a public figure leaves the stage. When a hastily retiring politician mumbles something about spending "more time with the family" in a vaguely embarrassed way.  

To be fair, Tutu, long treasured for his infectious laugh, did add that he also looked forward to watching cricket and "spending time with the mother of my children."  

But first on his list was spending time with God.  

It sounds so simple. Yet what did he mean?  

Since his early crusades as an Anglican cleric against apartheid in the 1970s, then becoming Capetown's first black archbishop in 1984, Tutu has been a spiritual leader recognized around the world as the conscience of South Africa. 

I can remember, as a youngster growing up in neighbouring, what was then Rhodesia, the stories of him stepping into the middle of violent mobs to stop the lynchings during the worst of the anti-apartheid violence.  

Later, in the 1990s, as chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, he wept openly during some of the confessions and called for forgiveness because, as he put it so winningly, "resentment and anger are bad for your blood pressure and your digestion."

A quiet time

Listening to his announcement this week, you could have the impression that this master of conciliation, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, half-regretted having taken so long to put down his public burden and step into a more private, reflective mode. 

It was not the first time I've heard someone talk about yearning to "spend time" with God.  

Canadian writer Irma Zaleski once told me a story about a hard-working farm labourer who intrigued villagers by disappearing into the small local church every morning before sunrise and again at sundown, when it was too dark to work the fields.  

Eventually these people approached the local priest and asked him to find out what was going on. Could it be that their neighbour had done something utterly terrible he was praying forgiveness for?  

"Father," the man told the concerned priest, "I just sit there and look at God.  

"And He looks at me. And then we spend time in quiet, remembering how much we love each other."


Now I can't pretend to guess exactly what Desmond Tutu meant when he talked about spending time with God. But that story does seem to capture something of the appeal not only of the man himself, but of meditation in the midst of so much busyness.

Praise be. Desmond Tutu celebrates in front of Mexican President Felipe Calderon after South Africa's Siphiwe Tshabalala scored the first goal against Mexico during the 2010 World Cup opening match at Soccer City stadium in Johannesburg on June 11, 2010. (Christian Charisius/Reuters)

It is quite a feat for even deeply spiritual people to bask in the still presence of a benevolent deity no matter how pressing their workaday concerns.  

To give yourself over to what T.S Eliot described as "the still centre of the turning world."  

For most of us, it is all we can do to get up from the desk to drink a cup of coffee. Maybe pull in a few breaths of fresh air, bask in the sun for a couple of minutes or walk round the block before returning to our tasks. 

Little things to still the mental popcorn.

Even when you are already with someone you love, at home, say, with little kids on the loose, the stress can be consuming.  

Something that's always struck me at those junctures, as a kind of meditative pause, is simply sitting down in the midst of the chaos with a book, especially a picture book if you have a toddler to distract.  

There's something strangely and unfailingly soothing to adult and child about the combination of story and picture, ideally simple sentences, full of repetition, recounted slowly and out loud. 

With any luck, as any grandparent will tell you, the child will fall asleep.  

So Archbishop Tutu, may you enjoy spending time, wasting time even, with the ones you love. 

Your God, your children, your grandchildren and the woman who has been by your side this past half century. Maybe even a book.

And as you celebrate your birthday week, maybe a little less in the limelight, I hope you are comforted by the words of the modern Anglican chant: "May God grant you many more. May God grant you many more. May God grant you many more."