**Note: This post began as a personal journal entry, a reflection I wrote in prayer. It was a one-sided conversation with God, a musing of my spirit. After revisiting it and the questions I posed, I thought it might provide a brief review of what led me to Kenya and the few unforgettable months I’ve spent here. It does not encapsulate everything, and I will write a final post when I return to the states, but on this last morning in Bungoma, it reflects the questions that still wrestle in my heart. I likely reveal far too much, and my internal critique is certainly a bit too harsh. As I mentioned, this began as an honest conversation with God. Given that my image of God is revealed through relationships and other people, it seems fitting that this private conversation turns public.**
Dear God, you placed me here this summer. Why?
When the opportunity arose to come to Kenya and work with the Xaverian Brothers, I felt a deep urging from within me that said, “Go!” I felt I owed it to the Brothers for what they inspired in me long ago at St. X. I felt responsible to return the kindness, the tuition assistance, and the gift of education they gave me. I felt a longing to serve, a deep indwelling from my soul that desired some conversion, some inspiration.
As I pray upon these last several years, two years of graduate school at Villanova University and a year serving as a Rector at the University of Notre Dame, I feel like I have been doing little to nothing with my life.
Graduate school is inherently selfish. It is a dedicated time purely for self-fulfillment. Day after day, night after night, most of my time was spent with my nose in a book, and my eyes transfixed on a computer screen grinding out papers. It was a wonderfully intellectual time in my life, but in many ways, it felt like a waste. Was this really how I chose to spend my time? Before this, I was teaching, volunteering, and serving. Now I am freeloading at some private Catholic university so I can what, study Christophany?! What good did that help the world?!
Then came the opportunity to work at Notre Dame. I had already accepted another job offer and had competing offers from other places that would have offered a much better salary, more personal time, and a better work-life balance. Still, I chose the “Golden Dome.” Why? Why did I willingly renege a contract? Why did I turn down better pay, a better city, and potentially a better life? Because my ego wanted the resume boost. I wanted that globally known institution on my stupid LinkedIn page. The enneagram 3 in me needed the placid recognition. God, why am I like this?
And what did this year get me? Countless sleepless nights, buckets of tears, and feelings of isolated loneliness like I’ve never known. Nearly 24/7, I was at the beckoning call of 250 people. Juggling students on the verge of suicide, battling severe depression, all-hour drunken stupidity, academic pressure, disciplinary issues, unclogging toilets, personal family concerns, and a list of countless topics, I responded to their needs while neglecting much of my own. While I loved the students I served, I felt that much of my work was meaningless, uninspiring, draining, and serving no purpose. Moreover, adding to the fact that Notre Dame is one of the most expensive and elite places in the world, I often felt genuine tension with the sheer wealth and privilege of the place and my role in it. Did we really need to spend $45,000 on a glorified talent show? Does my work here really matter? Why am I wasting my time unclogging the toilets of some drunk kid at 3 am?! God, please tell me you brought me here for a reason. While my resume might look brilliant, the filth of the toilet stains my soul, and I long for more. I love the students and the men I am humbled to walk with, but my life still feels like I was serving no purpose and that I was quickly amounting to nothing.
St. Augustine writes, “My heart is restless until it rests in you, Oh God.” Well, God, I am undoubtedly restless. A wanderlust not for some magnificent landscape or rolling vista but for an internal veranda where I may settle down.
Is this a quarter-life crisis? Is this the musing of a madman? Is this the dark night of the soul? Is this some joke by God? Does life even have any purpose at all? Am I destined for the long loneliness? When it was time to decide to volunteer in Kenya, I jumped at the chance. Would this finally give my life meaning and purpose? Would being 8000 miles away from ND finally give me some space? Would I be wasting my summer? Shouldn’t I have taken a job or opportunity back home? Maybe this, too, will look good on my resume? God, I hope this “Go” I keep hearing is coming from you!
“During the “dark night” of faith, one must let himself be guided to reality not by visible and tangible things, not by the evidence of sense or the understanding of reason, not by concepts charged with natural hope, or joy, or fear, or desire, or grief, but by “dark faith” that transcends all desire and seeks no human and earthly satisfaction, except what is willed by God or connected with God’s will.”
~Thomas Merton, The Inner Experience
Arriving in Kenya felt like a fever dream. I flew in overnight from Dubai, where I saw some of the greatest architectural masterpieces. Only to spend the next few months on a continent where its land and people were segregated into pieces and forced to serve masters. I did not know what the hell I was doing here. I came purely based on some internal “go” and a debt-inspired desire to serve the Brothers. I did little to no research about this country. I did not know the language. I did not understand the education system. God, you must have a sense of humor because placing me here was a wonderful joke.
For the first few days, I felt confused and frustrated. Why did they let some random American come and teach in their school? Why was I taking the classes of qualified and skilled educators? If a Kenyan had asked to spend their vacation volunteering at a school, would they have been so warmly received? Would an American teacher so freely have given up control of their courses? Have I become another colonial imperialist descending upon the African continent, instilling “some elite, advanced, western knowledge on the lesser developed African people?” Have I become what I hate and despise? This is not why I’m here. This is not who I am. I came here to learn. I came here to serve alongside and for the Brothers. God, please give me guidance. Even now, I wonder why I’m here? Why I came?
As the days transitioned into weeks, the rhythm of life became natural. Teaching and adjusting to a new system of education became easier. The compound walls felt at times restrictive and prison-like. To leave the campus, however, meant a constant barrage of attention and an onslaught of shouts of “muzungu” (white person) from every stranger. So I refrained from wandering and opted for the comfort and homey companionship of the Brothers and students. With most days tucked within the surrounding walls of the school compound, the grounds eventually felt more like a hermitage reserved from the rest of the world. God, perhaps this was your purpose? To force me into a retreat? To demand a strict schedule? To restrict my movement and actions? Why am I here? What was my purpose?
As the weeks transitioned into months, everything here felt normal. Things that were seemingly different felt natural. The people, the routine, the culture, the laughter, and the smiles crossed the language barrier and resolved confusion. Eventually, American friends joined, and my solo time in Kenya was afforded a few weeks of companionship. A sickness struck and I felt a painful reminder of my restrictions, the limit to my ability to affect change. God you wanted me here, why won’t you let me work? I traveled and saw breathtaking wonders that I thought only existed on National Geographic. To watch a hyena gnaw on the remains of a zebra. To witness gazelles graze upon shrubs. To fathom herds of elephants roam together still feels like a dream. The wonders of the world are a miracle to behold. God, how I wish this land and our world nothing but goodness. Was this way you inspired me here? To witness a cage-less zoo?
My God, the struggle still remains. I came here and have met countless wonderful people. But at what cost? What good did it inspire? The long loneliness still remains. With only a few hours remaining, I still do not know why I am here. With only a few hours until I return home, I still lust for that internal veranda.
Yet, oh God, perhaps my image of you and my relationship with you has changed? The loneliness is less about the isolation but more about the desire for community, the longing for more. I doubt, in truth, I will ever be content. In all things, I find remarkable joy and absurd wonder, while also I see the cracks where something more is hoping to emerge.
God, as I sit here and witness this tasteless piece of bread in a golden encasement, I wonder how much life-sustaining bread could be purchased from selling your golden throne. As I listen to the Brothers chant centuries-old prayers, as I rest from celebrations at the accomplishment of the boys winning their football tournament, as I marvel at teachers who arrive tired and smiling at the crack of dawn after only having left merely hours ago, I am reminded that within our crazy minds and hearts is a profound sense of love. A love that does not reason and wonder why, but a love that becomes more passionate and wild with every moment.
God, in my musings, this makes little sense, but I pray that I remain lonely, lovingly lonely. Perhaps in my loneliness I will forever wander lustfully for a life with others, journeying towards that place where the veranda dwells.
“But the final word is love. At times it has been, a harsh and dreadful thing, and our very faith in love has been tried through fire.
We cannot love God unless we love each other, and to love we must know each other. We know him in the breaking of bread, and we are not alone any more. Heaven is a banquet and life is a banquet, too, even with a crust, where there is companionship.
We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community.
It all happened while we sat there talking, and it is still going on.”
~ Dorothy Day, The Long Loneliness