02 February 2015

how michael got his groove back.

I am not as strong as I thought I was.

Sure, I expected moving to a foreign country in the developing world, encountering an entirely different culture, and being surrounded by widespread abject poverty to be difficult, but I figured, "Hey, I got this. No problem."

Little did I know that doing so would stretch and push me to my limits, challenging not only how I see the world around me, but also how I see myself. And it has not been pretty.

At some point, probably in a moment of desperation while curled up in the fetal position on the floor in the corner of a dark room listening to Joni Mitchell, I said, "God, need a little help here."

And then it dawned on me. For the better part of our first year in Tanzania I felt entirely distant from God, and without much of a connection to my faith. But wait a second...am I not a missioner? Am I not supposed to be someone particularly holy? Ha! Now that's a joke. It takes enough energy just mustering up the mental strength to go to church. But still, much like Jack Nicholson and Diane Keaton realized in the Hampton's, something's gotta give.

So I gave myself a personal pep talk. Then when that didn't work, I told Ashley to give me a pep talk. And that's the beauty of marrying your best friend: they look at you with eyes of love and know what you need before you even say it, without any "I told you so." Plus I was not alone. Ashley and I were struggling with the same thing: how to keep a grip on life amidst so much change and chaos.

Thus, it was time to get our groove back, so here is what we did: we developed a spiritual practice. By that I mean a routine set of activities to engage our faith and keep us grounded and hopefully somewhat sane. Here are the components of my spiritual practice:

Spiritual Direction

Spiritual direction...what's that? Sounds kind of hokey. Despite my Jesuit background, I had never before sought spiritual direction. But after meeting an American priest in Mwanza trained as a spiritual director, Ashley and I decided to give it a go.

In a nutshell, spiritual direction is an ongoing conversation with a spiritual director meant to nurture one's spiritual life, better enabling the one being directed to pay attention to God's personal communication with him or her and to live out the positive consequences of that relationship.

Spiritual direction is not counseling or therapy. It focuses on religious experience: God's movement in my life. These are not extraordinary events. Rather, it is an awakening to the presence of God in the mundane and ordinary of everyday life. The spiritual director does not give advice or solve problems. Instead, a spiritual director helps the one being directed to respond to God's invitation to a deeper relationship.

Practically speaking, I meet with my spiritual director once a month (though it began as once every two weeks) for about one hour. I talk about things I am struggling with, almost always related to living out life in this foreign country. My spiritual director asks questions to get me thinking about how God may be speaking to me through that experience, or just to get me thinking about things another way. And it's been really wonderful. As a result, I have been slowly developing a chest of tools I can draw upon in various moments and situations that empower me to respond with love and compassion.

For example, I know that there are certain situations (or even people) in my life that are just always tough for me. Whenever I encounter them, chances are I am either frustrated or angry inside. So why continue to live that way? Now I make an intention about that experience (or person) before I encounter it (or them). This means I say, "Look God, I know I'm about to do X and X always makes me feel like I am being punched in the brain so rather than continue to feel like I am being punched in the brain I'd like to pray now, ahead of time, for the strength to enter X with a heart of love and a sense of peace. Help me to see your presence in the face of all those I encounter. Cool? Thanks."

Praying the Daily Examen

Keeping with the theme of Ignatian Spirituality (read: Jesuit), I resurrected a prayer practice that I did as an undergraduate student at Boston College: praying the daily examen. This form of prayer serves as a reflection on the day's events in order to detect God's presence and discern his direction for my life. While there are some variations, there are five basic steps to praying the daily examen. Below is the format and approach that I use.
  1. Become aware of God's presence. Simply sit still for a moment, concentrate on my breathing, and recognize that I am in the presence of God.
  2. Review the day with gratitude. Think about the events and interactions of the past 24 hours and give thanks to God for all the good in it. Don't get caught up in the negative emotions at this point. Just think about the big (e.g. happened upon a large stack of money) and small (e.g. my dog didn't vomit on me today) reasons for being thankful.
  3. Pay attention to your emotions. Now go back over your day again, but this time more slowly. Focus on how you felt during each of the events and interactions of the day. Happy or sad? Relieved or scared? At peace or frustrated? Ask, yourself, "Why?" Think about what was going on at that moment. It's here where I often learn or see surprising things about myself or the day.
  4. Ask for forgiveness. Pick one or two things or themes from the day that you picked up on in your reflection that maybe you're not proud of or you'd like to work on. Pray about those. Ask for forgiveness if that is needed, or for the strength to work on that area of your life.
  5. Make a commitment to screw up less. Now commit to working on those one or two areas during the next 24 hours. Don't overwhelm yourself with too much. And don't promise to be perfect.
Those five steps take me 15 minutes, but it could be 5 or 30. It doesn't matter. I try to pray the examen every morning, reflecting on the prior day. Many will do the daily examen each night, but I tend to fall asleep if I do it in the evening. 

I have found that, when I really make a conscious effort to review the events of my day, I become keenly aware of emotions or trends that otherwise would have gone ignored. And as a result, I feel more attuned to the presence of God in my life. The more I pray the daily examen, the more easily I am able to spot God's presence in the very moment as opposed to only seeing it in hindsight during prayer. It has been a powerful tool for me. 

Reading Good Books

You know what's awesome? Getting all of my books for free. Yeah, for real. It's called the public library, and it's amazing. Even more amazing is that Ashley and I can check out books for free from our home library in the United States via our Amazon Kindle e-reader while living in Tanzania. Pretty incredible.

So after finding myself in the aforementioned fetal position, I made a concerted effort to read some books that I thought might be helpful. It's amazing how people or things can enter your life at the very moment you need them to. So it was for me with a particular book I recently read called A New Earth by Eckhart Tolle. I would say it was one of the more transformative books that I have read, probably because it met me at the right moment in my life. But this is not a review or even a description of that book. The idea is that, one component of my spiritual practice is to read from time to time books that may have something to say to me on a deeper level - books that will challenge me and make me uncomfortable. Being uncomfortable is a good place to be because it will require you to grow in some way in order to regain comfort, at which point it is probably time to get uncomfortable again.

There you have it: three simple and probably uninspiring components of my spiritual practice. But it's working for me, albeit in baby steps. What's your spiritual practice? How you do stay spiritually or emotionally healthy? Think you're above all that and don't need to take stock of your interior life? I suggest you think again. And then maybe talk to someone wiser than I am.


  1. I always like the pictures , they always seem to capture Michael's essence in my mind

  2. Wow, what a good "keeping sane" system. I think I might try a few of your techniques :) P.S. I freakin literally laughed out loud when I saw the daladala pic. aka hell on wheels. My family were like "whats so funny??!!"... it's funny cuz it's true.

    1. And to think...that sketch version daladala looks safer than the real thing.