A spiritual biography of the South African confessor, by Michael Battle

THE name of Desmond Tutu is known the world over. We might well feel that his life story does not need further exposure. But Michael Battle approaches his subject with special resources.

He is an African-American university theologian, who made a particular study of Christian spirituality, paying particular attention to Saint Augustine and Saint Bernard of Clairvaux. He came as a young man from the United States to South Africa as the apartheid regime was finally collapsing; he was ordained a priest by Archbishop Tutu and remained on the Archbishop’s staff for approximately five years as a chaplain.

Thus, although he did not know the specific cruelties against blacks during the worst period of the racist regime, he was very close to Dr. Tutu at the time when the latter was becoming known as the inspiration and director of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. In this very complete book of nearly 400 tight pages, he sheds particular light on the understanding of the inner resources and motivations of Dr. Tutu, in terms of Christian spirituality.

Any account by Dr Tutu that does not include his spiritual motivation is bound to be incomplete; as Battle points out, on any ordinary working day, Dr. Tutu spent eight hours in silence and fellowship with his Master. This is the key to his extraordinary resilience and productive energy (the book’s bibliography lists 168 books, brochures and other publications).

Battle regards Dr Tutu as South Africa’s “confessor” – in a very exact application of that etiquette. In Dr. Tutu’s life story, Battle identifies the classic succession of phases of “purgation, enlightenment and union”. The book is therefore valuable because it offers a working model of the application of classical analysis of the spiritual process as both a personal and a collective instrument.

Professor Battle is clear that classical Western spirituality, although it is a very fruitful instrument, cannot be held responsible for all that Dr. Tutu is. Dr. Tutu brings two other vital resources to Africa:

First of all, he’s a great storyteller – and a prankster – in a less crazy environment, he could have made a good living as a comedian. He can pierce pretentious nonsense, whether in ecclesiastical systems or in political manipulation.

Second, he brought his deep awareness of the overriding African value of Ubuntu, the feeling that we are people through our relationship with people. It can free spirituality from any tendency to focus only on oneself; he gives priority to forgiveness, and he insists on realism in reconciliation; he thus gives meaning and substance to the place of “union” as the final element of the mystical process that Battle takes as the basis of his interpretation map. And that informs his understanding of “heaven” in a particularly illuminating conclusion to Dr. Tutu’s worldview.

ALAMYArchbishop Desmond Tutu was invested during a Friday morning celebration in St George’s Cathedral in Cape Town in 2008

Battle recognizes that apartheid was primarily a spiritual rather than a political reality. Christian spirituality affirms the existence of evil: under the apartheid regime, the final request of the Our Father had a definite relevance. Dr Tutu and his colleagues knew this all too well, and it was deeply so for many years before Battle entered the scene.

And it was not limited to South Africa. British political and financial interests bore a great deal of responsibility for promoting the deleterious state of civil war which tore the Zulu people apart and nearly disabled the 1994 electoral process. This defamed Tutu personally, injuring him and him as well as his Church. The “Principalities and Powers” ​​operated both personally and internationally; and this provided an important element in the spiritual process which the author identifies as “purgation”.

As a practical example of using the classic mystical formulation, the Book of Battle is both unique and valuable. I wouldn’t say that without his kind of analysis, there can be no valid assessment of Dr. Tutu; but the use of Dr Tutu as an example provides a practical and usable model for the application of the mysticism of authorities such as Saint Bernard. Without such an example, the writings of the mystics may seem theoretical and abstract, inaccessible to ordinary people who have little command of this terminology.

In Battle’s vision, however, with his claim to the ideas of Ubuntu, the application of the mystical process is not only for the salvation of a person; it represents the process that has taken place at the corporate level in South Africa. Under the leadership of Dr. Tutu, this country has experienced purification, enlightenment and union. The process was neither complete nor consistent, but it was real, and is both noticeable and entertaining. And, although Dr. Tutu was not the only facilitator or inspirer, he brought personal spiritual discipline and an interpretive worldview to tackle a chaotic and dehumanizing situation.

If there is any sense in which South Africa can be said to have experienced salvation, the Archbishop’s ministry must be recognized as a vital element in the process. For this, the identification and clarification of the process by Battle is a valuable interpretive tool, both for personal and corporate reflection. It becomes an inspiration for thanksgiving and a model for Christians to recognize something of God’s ways with us.

The Right Reverend John D. Davies was a mission priest and university chaplain in South Africa from 1956 until his residence permit was canceled in 1970.

Desmond Tutu: A Spiritual Biography of the South African Confessor
Michael battle
£ 40
Church Times Bookshop £ 32

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