(RNS) The air feels a little thinner and the light seems a bit dimmer since Nelson Mandela departed this life.
We lost one of the most extraordinary people to ever walk this Earth — a force for good, a voice for justice, a man who embodied the ideals of mercy and forgiveness with boundless grace.
But even more than a political, social justice or ideological giant, in Mandela’s death I sincerely believe we lost the greatest spiritual leader of my lifetime.
He was neither priest nor preacher. He was never ordained; never donned a cleric’s garb or held the Word in his hand while extolling us about how to live.
Mandela lived his theology. He preached with his life. And his legacy is a scripture we will study for generations to come.
He did justly, loved mercy and walked humbly with his God and with the entire world — with those who would call him their hero and those who would count him as an enemy.
“For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains,” he said, “but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”
Mandela was no “respecter of persons.” Rather he treated all he encountered with dignity, no matter their color, creed, status, gender, sexuality, age, nationality or disposition.
His is a resurrection story. Robbed of his freedom, his intimacies, his health and even his ability to cry tears of pain (or joy), Mandela emerged from 27 years of unjust imprisonment transformed. He might very well have been disfigured by bitterness or hatred.
Instead, Mandela’s metamorphosis, wrought by what Archbishop Desmond Tutu described as “a crucible that burned away the dross,” was a thing of indescribable beauty, strength and divine grace.
He stared fear in the face and overcame it with perseverance, spiritual strength, faith and love.
When he walked out of Victor Verster Prison on Feb. 11, 1990, he spoke not of victory or revenge, but rather of humility and service.
“I stand here before you not as a prophet but as a humble servant of you, the people,” he said. “Your tireless and heroic sacrifices have made it possible for me to be here today. I therefore place the remaining years of my life in your hands.”
And he did just that. He led by example for the rest of his days.
After he was elected South Africa’s first black president, he invited his white jailer as a special guest to his inauguration, and he invited the prosecutor who had put him in jail to lunch.
Mandela modeled reconciliation and forgiveness personally, politically and culturally, leading to one of the most astounding developments in world history: South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
The commission gave an entire nation the opportunity to confess its sins, confront its victims and tormentors, ask for forgiveness and be forgiven. It was not an opportunity squandered, but seized. The healing that followed was unprecedented and serves as a model for the rest of the world.
Mandela did not wear his faith on his sleeve. He was not a particularly “religious” man, but if you read his life it is impossible not to see the heart of a man who knew the God of love.
After his death, I read something I’d never seen before — a message he delivered at the 1994 Easter gathering of the Zionist Christian Church.
According to Christianity Today, which posted his comments in their entirety, Mandela said: “The Good News borne by our risen Messiah who chose not one race, who chose not one country, who chose not one language, who chose not one tribe, who chose all of humankind!”
Although he did it infrequently, Mandela, in fact, could preach.
But his most powerful eloquence lay not in words, but in his actions.
He was imperfect as much as any of us, a fact he acknowledged with characteristic humility when he famously said: “I am not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.”
He was no messiah, but his unfathomable strength and boundless willingness to extend grace to others — perhaps especially to those who didn’t deserve it — seems to have been rooted in the One who came to reconcile all of creation.
I will miss his fierce but quiet dignity. I will yearn for his smile, his warmth, his ever-open arms.
And I, like millions of others now and in the future, will try to the best of my ability and for the rest of my days to live what he taught us: “It always seems impossible until it’s done.”
Go now in peace, Madiba, good and faithful servant. Ndiyakuthanda, Tata.
(Cathleen Falsani is the faith & values columnist for the Orange County Register. You can follow her on Twitter @godgrrl.)
YS/MG END FALSANI