As I think back on the ways in which I have saluted our church’s oldest living Archbishop Emeritus over the course of my life, my mind’s journey returns time and again to prayer.
Desmond Mpilo Tutu is for me synonymous with prayer and a reckless belief in the God who answers and must answer prayer — and in particular, prayer for the marginalised and the destitute. His prayer life is above all the thin but strong thread that characterises him in all his varied ministries, be it his advocacy for peace with justice, for the integrity of the environment, for sanctions against the perpetrators of injustice or for the ordination of women.
I have known and called him by various salutations: Father Desmond, Dean Desmond, Bishop Tutu, Arch, Archbishop Desmond, Arch Emeritus and now Tata. Each of these have reflected different milestones in the way his prayer and public lives have impacted mine.
As priest and pastor to his flock in Johannesburg and Lesotho, he had the strong sense of vocation he needed to carry his parishioners, whether as an eagle, metaphorically taking their faith to greater heights, or literally reaching out to them on horseback in the remotest mountains and valleys. Such ministry requires you to be steeped in prayer, with a deep connection with God, if you are not to drop your parishioners from your grasp.
As pastor, priest, bishop and ecumenist at the South African Council of Churches, Bishop Tutu was on his knees in the chapel daily, praying for the end of apartheid, for those in exile and for peace in the world. It was at a turbulent time in our country, but he had the gift of leading the staff into a deep silence, leaving no one in any doubt that they were hearing their God in the stillness. I had the privilege of working there as a student in my holidays, and although I was not there for long, his prayer life was contagious; once it grips you it never lets you go. Outside the chapel, you were intensely aware that when he spoke or wrote it reflected this intangible yet vividly real prayer life.
In my memoir, Faith & Courage, I recount his appearance in Jabulani Stadium in Soweto early in 1985, and my admiration for his courage in confronting publicly, without fear or favour, what he regarded as evil. At that time he was Father Desmond and Bishop Tutu, a combination of a priest with a pastoral heart steeped in a total belief in the God who triumphs over evil — the evil represented by the apartheid system which drove him to public prophesy, despite the risks he faced at a time when death squads roamed the land.
As Archbishop and chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the tears that flowed when he broke down in sorrow would heal many. And the gift of tears were not only for the survivors and victims, they were also for perpetrators and wrongdoers, tears that join us with Jesus who wept, and still weeps, for Palestine and Israel today. The staff at Bishopscourt testify to moments when only prayer could explain events, and even those at the TRC who were people of no faith were at a loss to explain significant moments.
As Archbishop and then as Arch Emeritus, he celebrated the Mass at St George’s Cathedral on Friday mornings for nearly 40 years, going home afterwards to continue his prayers at home, where I would sometimes join him. Throughout his ministry and beyond, he has insisted on receiving prayer sheets issued by dioceses and parishes, and can be seen buried every morning in lists and lists of people and places, quietly praying for each person or intention individually. He never missed an opportunity to drop a note or send flowers on significant milestones.
When you visit him in hospital, the first things you see alongside him are his prayer book, Bible and intercessory folder. When you pray with him, he will pray in turn, reminding you of what you might have left out (on one recent occasion, my sister who had just died), lifting to God all of creation as it groans, and asking for hope and peace, light and love to be shared among all.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu used to say that an effective prayer life would never allow you to remain on your knees. No, it would compel you to get up and go out into the world to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, release to the prisoners and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.
Perhaps his most important, but least-recognised legacy as Archbishop is that he taught us the real, life-changing, world-changing power of prayer to empower us to carry the Gospel to the world. The fruits of his prayer were encapsulated in an epitaph by which Tata could be remembered in future:
He loved. DM
Encounters with Desmond Mpilo Tutu: Visions for Justice, Dignity and Peace is available in bookstores, or through African Sun Media office: [email protected] or (+27) (0)21 201 0071.