CLOSER TO ME
How a Johannesburg orphanage became my monastery
I’d been in Johannseburg for over a month.
Getting to use my camera helped me find new energy throughout my time in South Africa. It felt good knowing that Deanna was right about her gut feeling. It didn’t necessarily get easier. Time still trickled. I still missed Deanna. I still wasn’t always positive I was making a difference. But I had some sense of purpose. It wasn’t one I could articulate, but I knew there was more to my time there than met the eye.
I continued to tutor and supervise homework hours. The kids and I got used to each other. This part of the day never became as disciplined or as structured as I would have envisioned, but I learned how to give the kids enough space to get the restlessness out of their system before they were ready to do a little bit of studying.
I never really knew what to expect from these tutoring moments. I would often wind up doing things I was beyond unqualified to do, like tutoring James with his homework in Afrikaans, a language I didn’t speak at all. That time, I ended up giving him a tutorial on using a dictionary.
Neo continued to be the hard worker in the group. He was extremely good natured and pleasant to be around. I learned more and more about his hopes and plans to become a pilot. He wanted to first join the Air Force to get the experience before switching over to being a commercial pilot. He needed certain grades to be accepted by the Air Force and ever since he learned that he’d been working as hard as ever. As the ambitious type myself, I could relate to his sense of determination.
“How many countries have you been to?” asked Neo.
“Hmm... maybe somewhere around thirty five.”
“When I’m a pilot, I’m going to visit more than you.”
I wanted so badly for that to happen to him, for him to see forty or fifty or sixty countries and for that dream to come true. I thought of how great it would be for him after his difficult childhood that included losing family members. I thought of how great of an example that would be for the kids at the center who were younger than him.
“I’m cool with that,” I told him. “As long as one of those countries is the United States. California, specifically.”
I still managed to have a lot more spare time in South Africa than I was used to. While the kids were at school, I didn’t always have much to do, and my internet access was still quite limited.
During my first weekend, when everyone in the center was insistent that I go into hibernation to overcome jetlag, I ended up reading three of the books I packed in their entirety. I had a small stack of about six still remaining. I knew I needed to pace myself when it came to reading.
One day, while the kids were still at school, I picked up a book from that stack and it would end up being one to make a tremendous impact on my life. It was a book about the Jesuit faith tradition and Ignatian spirituality.
About half my family comes from a very Catholic background, including my dad. I didn’t have much of a Catholic upbringing, but I was raised to believe in God. As I grew up, I continued to follow Jesus and I started to take ownership of my beliefs, rather than simply just accept them as the way I was brought up.
Along the way, I realized that my experiences so far led me to associate God with things like church and Bible studies and prayer almost exclusively. Those were things that had a positive impact on my life, for sure, but I wanted a fuller spiritual life. I wanted one that was integrated into everything else I did, not just Sunday mornings. I figured that if God was the author of my life and all lives, then I should be able to connect with him through just about anything.
While I was on tour, I stayed with a pastor in Michigan who I ended up talking to about this idea. He told me that I might be interested in Saint Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit tradition. The biggest idea in that tradition was the desire to constantly be with God, or as he put it, to experience God in all things.
This idea really resonated with me. I didn’t want my experience of God to be limited to certain rituals. I wanted to it to spread to anything I did, whether that was traveling or teaching or flying an airplane.
The book I bought seemed to hae a lot of potential as a primer to the Jesuit tradition. I wasn’t reading with much of an interest in conversion, simply in learning to experience God in new ways.
The idea of prayer wasn’t very new to me. “You’re just talking to God!” I was told, again and again in church. “And you should do it every day!” So I did.
My approach to prayer was a bit of a formula. I would thank God for the good things in my life, and then tell him about my needs.
There were times, like right before I started dating Deanna, where I knew I needed to make a big decision. When I prayed during those sorts of times, I would surrender those things to God and admit that I wasn’t in control of their outcomes. I would tell God that I trusted him to be the author of my life, and it was during those sorts of moments when I felt the closest to him. I felt comforted by him, with a sense of peace entering the room.
Despite how incredible those moments were, I only really prayed like that when I was at a crossroads. Most of the time, I would reenter a rhythm of asking God for stuff and trying to remember to say thank you.
I recalled going to youth group meetings as a teenager, seeing some more dramatic prayers. I would see bright faced, charismatic young adults stand in the center of the room with their arms outstretched saying things like, “yes, God! Yes! You are so GOOD! God! You are the ultimate authority! You deserve all the praise! Yes, yes, yes!” Sometimes these prayers would go on to recite passages of Scripture back to God. It was a very poetic and impressive prayer to witness, and it also didn’t make much sense to me.
Why would we start quoting God back to himself? If you took all the emotion out of it, isn’t this just telling God stuff he already knew? While I didn’t doubt that people were sincere as they said prayers like that, it started to reignite concerns that my faith was little more than escapism and being disconnected from reality.
I started to imagine how strange it would be if Deanna, in the middle of one of our conversations, simply started telling me things I already knew about myself. “You like to travel! And… and… your hair is straight!” What if she started to recite my old emails and books back to me?
Of course this isn’t a perfect analogy, and I understood it was important to show God reverence. I just thought the way we did it struck me as a little bit odd.
This thought became a rabbit hole. If God, by definition, knows everything, all the unsaid thoughts in our minds and hearts, then did we really need to tell him? What could I possibly ask God for that he didn’t already know I needed? Of course there is a part of Scripture which informs us that oftentimes, “we have not because we ask not.”
I started to wonder about how exactly I was supposed to pray. I knew there had to be more to it than asking for stuff and logical fallacies.
I didn’t exactly expect my time in South Africa to turn into a monastic retreat, but perhaps I should have. I had the time to learn and to discover things about prayer. After all, with a name like Christ Church Christian Care Center, three of the five Cees were holy ones.
I started to dive into the book I had packed.
Through the process of reading about Jesuit approaches to prayer and time-tested practices I never knew about before, I began to realize a few things about prayer that cleared up a lot of the ambiguity.
First, I started to see that prayer was all about maintaining a relationship with God. Like, an actual friendship.
I would have already agreed that having a relationship with God was the most important thing about faith, but I hadn’t really paid enough attention to the role communication had played in our relationship. I immediately thought of an old friend of mine. Sam and I had lost contact a long time ago, but the shaggy haired snowboarder helped shape what I understood having a relationship with God to look like.
Sam lived a lifestyle that revolved around three things: partying, snow sports, and most of all, God. It seemed like an odd mix of activities, but he had an unmistakable joy and sense of peace about life. One time he told me about how sometimes he’d notice something funny and just laugh to himself and share the moment with God. “I think, God, that was funny,” he told me. “Thank you for that!”
As I recalled Sam’s relaxed, intimate way of experiencing God, I realized that prayer didn’t always need to be an extremely formal ritual full of composed words, petitions, and passages. Anne Lamott says that the most simple, essential prayers are just Help, Thanks, and Wow. Like a relationship with any friend, a relationship with God was about sharing moments and things that are on our hearts.
That made me feel comfortable with the discomfort I had with asking God for needs he already knew about. Sometimes you do tell a friend something he or she already knows just for the sake of sharing a moment and being closer to each other.
This also made me realize more deeply that the purpose of prayer wasn’t to ask for stuff. It was simply to be together with God and to keep an open line of communication.
Along with that awareness came a realization that I had a pretty one dimensional perspective of prayer. For a long time, I worried about what would be the right thing to say in prayer. I hadn’t been paying much attention on listening. If prayer is communicating with God, then it’s not just about telling him things. It’s about hearing from him.
I realized prayer could surround the simple act of listening. It seems like a simple enough idea, but it was one I had neglected for a long time. I had gone to many prayer circles and prayer gatherings, but those seemed to always consist of people taking turns to say prayers. Moments of silence were often felt to be awkward and whenever one came up, people would rush to say something to fill the gap.
In a healthy relationship, there’s more listening going on than there is talking. I realized that if I wanted my prayer life to become healthier, I should probably put more of an emphasis on trying to hear what God was trying to tell me.
That also scared me a little bit. I had heard people tell stories about hearing from God– usually a deep, internal sensation that was still so crisp it might as well have been audible. There may have been a time or two where I thought I experienced this myself, but it was rare.
A part of me was jealous of people who regularly had this strong certainty that they had heard from God. It would be nice to be sure I was hearing from him that often. Another part of me was skeptical. For every Mother Teresa who received her calling to charity through hearing God, there are also serial killers and schizophrenics. The human brain is capable of some extreme inventions, and I wouldn’t want to be mistaking my own wild imagination for the voice of God and acting on a made up authority.
As I read more about the Jesuit tradition, I learned some helpful practices.
Centering prayer was a good way to practice listening. Being still enough to find God at the center of one’s being without the aid of images or words. It comes across as very Eastern in nature, and as my friend Tim says, Christianity is an Eastern religion, after all. The belief of God’s dwelling within us is a foundational to the Christian faith, and St. Augustine wrote about realizing that God is “closer to me than I am to myself.”
I began to try and practice this on my own. It was difficult at first, and it’s often not until you try and center yourself and be completely still that you realize how restless and active your mind can be.
I followed the book's suggestion to pick a single word and to use it to bring myself back to center. When I felt my mind wander, as it often did, I would simply tell myself, grace, and release the thoughts that had been pulling me away.
It took a few tries for me to get used to the newness of this practice. It was totally new to me and it felt like I was taking on the impossible task of “thinking about nothing.” But each time I did it, I felt more refreshed and enriched.
I realized that the aim of this exercise wasn’t so much emptiness, but openness, clearing the airwaves for what God has to tell you, show you, or allow you to feel. I never did get any booming, obvious commands or voices speaking to me while I was in South Africa. Not once did the ceiling of my room peel back to reveal God telling me I needed to adopt all of the Zulu Boys. But I did remember that I was building a friendship with God, and at some points during a good friendship, there's less spoken between both people, and simply a silent togetherness that bonds both closer.
That’s the way it went for me at 5Cees. This practice drew me closer to God, and I felt more comforted and more amazed by his presence.
Spirituality and religious traditions can often get warped by people. I know many who are turned off by the entire idea of it, thinking that it leads people to either an intellectual shutdown or radical attitudes of thinking they’re better than everyone else. I’d seen these tendencies play themselves out before, so I could relate to the distaste many people had for this sort of thing. I experienced a bit of it myself.
But I also discovered that faith, more than anything else, is about experiencing God’s presence. It isn’t about the avoidance of problems, and it isn’t about perfectionism. It’s about being connected to the source of Love and life and removing distractions that get in the way. On the flip side, it could also mean adding practices, experiences, or even hobbies that help enhance that connection.
I would learn about several other spiritual practices through the book and I took the time to practice them in my room at 5Cees. I realized that the amount of open time I had throughout the day gave me such a unique opportunity to connect with God in ways that would be difficult to learn during life’s regular frenzy. In ways I never expected, 5Cees was becoming my monastery. Not only could I further connect with God, but I even had dozens of kids to Love and to serve, allowing me to pass God’s Love further.
I tried passing this on to the boys I had been mentoring. After all, Pastor Mike requested I teach them the ABC’s of the Christian life, and this seemed to be one of them. A lot of the concepts I learned were difficult to make relatable to them, but I did my best to simplify. Neo seemed to understand a lot of it. Bonani and Magketha were quieter.
I also started to bond more with Elias, the fourth of the boys Pastor Mike wanted me to mentor. One day, Elias took me on a walk around Hillbrow that allowed me to see more of how down and out it was. He walked me by the apartheid museum. I got to see in the daylight places that would have been unwise to go near at night. Run down apartments had been taken over by gangs and turned into brothels or drug hubs.
Elias looked at me.
“Here, it helps to have tattoos,” he mentioned. “If you have a tattoo, they’ll think you spent time in prison and they won’t mess with you.
I noticed Elias was walking around with his forearms awkwardly twisted to face outward. On the inside of the bicep, he indeed had a tattoo, but it was one of the least intimidating tattoos I had ever seen. It was a very cartoonish five-point shooting star, with a big, bold outline.
“It’s actually my rugby team’s logo,” he filled me in.
“Well, I guess it’ll keep us alive,” I replied skeptically.
When I got back to my room, I was surprised to find two envelopes that were slid under my door. One was from Deanna, the other was from my friend, Elaine. She was my teammate while I was on tour and we bonded over all the driving.
Both letters commended my time in South Africa, left me with a lot of encouragement, and filled me in on what was happening in their lives. Deanna’s came with another letter inside and instructions not to open it until Valentine’s Day. Elaine’s also came with a small amount of Vietnamese currency, a coupon for a boutique in Queens, and a Chinese New Year red envelope containing a dollar. Emergency money! she inscribed.
The following day I got a letter from a friend in Pennsylvania. He knew how much I loved Vietnamese pho and didn’t know how I would make it in Johannesburg without it, so he included directions to a Vietnamese restaurant he found in the city’s outskirts.
The day after that I got a postcard from one of Deanna’s high school friends and my a mutual friend of ours living in Germany. Then I got a letter from an old college friend who had spent time in Johannesburg herself.
Almost every day for the remainder of my stay, I got letters. Letters from different people in my life all appeared under my door around the early afternoon. The content of the letters were so encouraging, and I went from feeling isolated to feeling extremely cared for. It was another boost of encouragement and another answer to prayer. And I just knew deep down Deanna was behind it. It was one of the sweetest things she’d ever done for me, and she’d done many sweet things.