A Brief Review of
Ostriches, Dung Beetles, and Other Spiritual Masters:
A Book of Wisdom from the Wild.
Paperback: Orbis Books, 2009.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]
Reviewed by Marilyn Matevia.
Maryknoll Sister Janice McLaughlin has written a delightful devotional, the modern equivalent of a medieval bestiary – but without the zoological flights of fancy. Drawing on knowledge gained in years of missionary and humanitarian work in Africa, and friendships with park rangers and guides, Sister McLaughlin profiles 26 representatives of the continent’s indigenous animals and plants. She highlights the unique adaptations, characteristics and virtues of each, and then – through rich, thoughtful, and personal vignettes – shows how these same virtues enhance human lives and communities. Each chapter concludes with a few short readings from Scripture, and suggestions for further reflection and action. Illustrations by Charles Chazike or Justin Gope accompany each profile.
The book is charming, and yet not at all “fluffy.” Her vignettes are often poignant and sensitive. While the connections to the animal profiles and virtues could be strained and simplistic, in Sister McLaughlin’s hands, they are perceptive and thoughtful. Reminiscent of the poet’s tactic in Job 38-41, Sister McLaughlin celebrates some of God’s less alluring but no less remarkable creatures – the Dung Beetle illustrates perseverance, the Hammerkop (a 1-pound bird that constructs 100-pound nests!) exemplifies ambition, the Porcupine illustrates justice, and Warthog resourcefulness – along with the more charismatic representatives, such as the Cheetah (solitude), Elephant (communication and community), Hippopotamus (humility and self-acceptance), Lion (playfulness and leisure), and Rhinoceros (stability). Her suggestions for reflection are, at times, probing, and the suggested actions can be challenging. These make the book useful both for personal meditation and for small group (adult or young adult) discussion.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com