While I lived in South Africa, I got to know a remarkable Quaker, John Broom. He taught me the real basis of sainthood: understanding and honoring the difference between the human self and God.

As a young man, he had settled in Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) and become a partner in Deloitte and Touche—not an accounting firm, but the accounting firm in southern Africa. He owned a small fleet of cars, some horses, a mansion, helped start a golf club.

Then one of his clients, a farmer, overextended himself building an irrigation dam and didn’t see how he could avoid bankruptcy. John looked at the books and wasn’t hopeful.

“Is there anything you can do for me?” the client asked. John, who had never been religious, heard himself saying, “I don’t know—I guess I’ll pray,” and went home and did that. That same evening, ideas started coming for adjustments that could prevent a crisis until the dam (actually a good investment in itself) started to pay off. He hurried back the next day for another conversation with the farmer. Within a year, the farm was out of danger.

John, for his part, was powerfully intrigued by the notion of God’s compassion for human limitations. Continuing to think, “Well, there’s always prayer,” in the face of the immense problems surrounding him, he set to work—this was in the late 1970s—preparing the country economically for majority rule, and by the time it came he had built up a nationwide training organization for aspiring black commercial farmers. He even served in the finance department of the new black government.

A couple of decades later, I interviewed him in his modest apartment in Cape Town. He brought out a folder packed with business cards of an astonishing variety: people with expertise in retail, services, mining, manufacturing, import, and export. It really seemed, as I paged through the book, that after Zimbabwe had achieved majority rule, and the international sanctions fell away, the country’s economy might have diversified and advanced, particularly with John’s help. He had written more than a hundred investment plans and even obtained a multi-million-dollar industrial development grant from the German government.

But the new Zimbabwean regime made excuses and stonewalled, and in time John realized that not a single permit was forthcoming. Officials also reduced John’s agricultural organization to uselessness, at the same time resisting the “willing buyer, willing seller” model of land reform that the international community insisted on. Havoc and devastation prevailed from 2000 on, when the government took matters into its own hands through violent confiscations. Long before, John had seen it coming, and seen his own inability to intervene. He set off—with only the possessions he could fit into a compact car, since those were all he was allowed to take—for South Africa. There he studied painting but could not stay away from assisting small businesses and charities, activities that have continued through his eighties.

He is not vituperative about Zimbabwe. He is forthright in explaining the officials’ rational motivations, and diligent in applying what he learned. He knows he must work around Africans’ distrust of Westerners. “They think we’re magic, because of ATMs,” John told me. “We command money to come out of walls, and out it comes—but that doesn’t work for them.” (He was right: I had often stood fuming behind a laborer as he submitted one wish after another and the genie beeped its impatient refusals.) John is encouraged, on the other hand, by African ingenuity in narrow circumstances, as when a (nonpaying) client of his had come up on his own with a money-management system: “This pocket is to buy stock, and this one is to pay my help, and this one is for the tax man.

I think John’s energy and good cheer come from his understanding that the human ego is too weak to endure on its own either extreme of fortune. If things turn out as if a superb wisdom has guided them, then their earthly doer or director is in danger of believing that more power for himself is indispensable if the world is to become a better place. And if someone believes that outcomes depend on him personally, how could he avoid the immobilization of cynicism or shame after he finds, as is commonly the case, his sincere efforts on behalf of others meeting with huge disappointment?

This is why prayer seems to me to be not just an emotional comfort or a ritual necessity, but a practical means of staying sane in a world like ours. If I were an outright atheist, I would still pray, by imagining what God would be like if there were a God, and inexorably concluding: “A heck of a lot better than myself.”

Sarah Ruden has published several books, including, most recently, The Face of Water: A Translator on Beauty and Meaning in the Bible and a new translation of Augustine’s Confessions.

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Published in the 2013-05-17 issue: View Contents
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