Last week, I attended a daily Mass in Swahili in a Kenyan coastal town called Malindi. It was an early morning, but the sun was already up and doing its best to burn away the storm clouds trying to take over the sky.
It was already hot, too – though my tolerance for heat, I’m told, is embarrassingly low. The walk from the Jesuit community to the Jesuit parish – St. Charles Lwanga – was a mercifully short one. We passed a handful of small homes on our dusty journey, though no one was out for us to greet.
The church building is new, and the parish community is growing. We turned a corner, and as the church came into view, we could hear the sound of song, voices already awake and clearly tuned to God, though I could not understand the words.
“We’re late,” I said, increasing my stride.
“No,” my Jesuit counterpart, Bryan Galligan, SJ, replied. “The community often gathers to pray before Mass.”
Fr. Sosthenes Luyembe, SJ, was the presider, one of the Jesuits from the community we were visiting. He emerged from the sacristy moments after we’d taken our seats, walking out to that triumphant song of those two dozen or so community members sitting all around us.
I’ve attended many Masses in languages other than English. But rarely have I attended a Mass in a language I so thoroughly did not understand, of which I had not a single word of vocabulary. I could follow along, of course – the universality of the Mass is a spiritual anchor – but I followed along in vague recollection rather than precise detail.
And so, my mind wandered.
Swahili is a language I do not know. Malindi is a place I’d arrived merely 24 hours earlier – and one I’d depart later that day. I could not understand the language of the Mass and I was ever mindful that I was a stranger in that place, hospitable as the people may have been. Still, I knew God was there speaking – to me, to each person gathered, constantly, lovingly, as is God’s way. So, my prayer was one of curiosity, seeking – what was God saying to me, and where, and how?
The chatter of the birds hidden away in the uppermost part of the church was unavoidable. During our tour of the parish campus the day before, Fr. Sosthenes had made a point of showing us the wiry mesh used to seal up the otherwise open windows, but still the birds found their way in.
Was God speaking through the chattering birds?
There was a moment during the Mass when the storm clouds temporarily pushed back the sun, and rain pelted the roof. It was a calming sound that was over nearly as soon as I’d identified it.
Was God speaking through the rain?
A little girl – perhaps three years old – decided she’d had enough of sitting. She wandered from one pew to the next, finally taking up a watchful position over the Communion line, bringing a slight grin to the faces of each person who passed her.
Perhaps God was speaking through this little girl.
In the spiritual life, we are always tempted to box God in, to assign God a specific time and place. During this hour, through these words, God can share whatever God’s got on the mind, we say. And then we focus all of our attention on this one point in time, this one place, this one form or method, in this one direction. We narrow our vision; we limit our own experience of the world around us.
We seem to strain our spiritual selves to coax some drop of wisdom from a proverbial stone when the stone is necessarily dry. And we consequently throw up our hands, frustrated.
Where is God? Have we been abandoned? The spiritual life is nothing but a hoax!
But our God is not one who will be contained, nor one who desires that we be
content with mere spiritual drops. Ours is a God who wants to deluge us with love, compassion and with God’s very self.
We miss that love, that delight, that divine smile, though, when we focus all of our attention on where we expect God to be.
God is dancing all around us. In the words of the Mass – yes, of course! Even when they’re words we don’t understand. But in the birds and the rain and the joyful squeals of little children and a million other places in each and every moment.
Let us not limit our gaze; let us not dictate where God will be. Instead, let us open ourselves up to God’s Spirit delighting all around us, inviting us deeper into God’s creation.
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Eric A. Clayton is the award-winning author of Cannonball Moments: Telling Your Story, Deepening Your Faith (Loyola Press) and the deputy director of communications at the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States. His essays on spirituality, parenting and pop culture have appeared in America Magazine, National Catholic Reporter, U.S. Catholic, Busted Halo and more, and he is a regular contributor to Give Us This Day, IgnatianSpirituality.com and Dork Side of the Force, where he blogs about Star Wars. His fiction has been published by Black Hare Press, the World of Myth Magazine and more. He lives in Baltimore, MD with his wife, two young daughters and their cat, Sebastian.