Being Rafiki

“Asante sana, squash banana, wewe nugu, mimi hapana.” Swahili playground rhyme used in the The Lion King

Rafiki is the character from the Lion King I find most interesting. He’s not on screen much, but when he makes an appearance, something’s up. A lot of times what he says is gibberish, his actions are obscure ritual, and when you least expect it, you find out he’s just playing with your mind. He’s not power in himself, but he taps hidden powers, reveals hidden knowledge.

Chapter 19 from the movie is the key scene for him: Simba is living in exile and has refused Nala’s urging to come home. It’s up to Rafiki to persuade Simba to return, but he knows a direct approach won’t work. So he acts like a fool, provoking the young lion’s curiosity, tells him just enough to get him interested, just enough to get him thinking, shows him just enough to open the vision he needs to see. Rafiki can use all the techniques, from the mystical to the direct, even clubbing him over the head to make a point. It is Rafiki that makes Simba realize that he can’t stay lost in his pain, but use it as a learning opportunity. Without Rafiki, Simba doesn’t return.

Rafiki is the keeper of more than memory: he’s the keeper of living, life giving tradition. He sniffs the wind, reads the leaves, and knows what’s going on before anyone else does. He unveils mystery while respecting and holding it in awe. When called on, he can strike a blow for a good cause, but his gift is making those around him better.

I wasn’t a priest when I first watched Lion King with my nieces, but Rafiki helped me a lot as I discerned my vocation. Priests are here for service, as Pope Francis has reminded us, but I think it’s important to remember we’re here to be the crazy monkey from time to time. Like God himself, we’re called to draw straight with crooked lines, to look deeper and see how our past leads us forward to a new creation.

Priesthood is part of all our baptismal callings: we’re all called to be a people of special insight, a people who can live with the vision of the next world, a people who reverence memory yet move forward, to accept change as good, to face evil unafraid, and to remember we’re here more to make each other better than do heroic things ourselves. When we recognize who we’re meant to be, who God has created us to be, then we can understand our place in the circle of life and where we need to go.


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