I love having “spiritual assignments.” A recent one, suggested to me, is to note the moments in my days when I feel “the presence of God.”
I’ve enjoyed this assignment very much and am delightfully surprised to find that I can feel the presence of God at almost any time, but there are definitely certain times when I find the presence of God more than others.
I feel the presence of God most certainly at day break. When I was living in the States and my life was crazy busy, I still managed to get up early enough to see the morning come in. There is something very special about the stillness found in the early-morning hours of dawn. I’m finding myself here in Africa, too, making sure to set my alarm for waking when the night is still dark, but will allow me time to see the first pink of the morning light and then sit in the stillness as the dawn breaks. It continues to be a favorite part of my day.
There is another part of the day that I feel the presence of God strongly, if I pause long enough to listen and feel. It’s the time of day in late afternoon, when the light changes. If there is a breeze blowing or a strong wind, I feel the presence of God.
I DEFINITELY don’t feel the presence of God when I’m working on the computer! And seem to feel God’s presence mostly when I’m OUTSIDE, out of doors, not inside!
I have three stories of finding the presence of God since coming to South Africa. I’ve already told you one—about the intimate moment I shared with my African “grandmother” when I was trying to comfort her by massaging her feet. (So actually, I have four stories!) These next stories share a similar theme: suffering and attempting to provide comfort.
I’m often struck by the suffering of animals. This was the case for me in the States as well. I worked as a meter-reader for a utilities company for a few years and there were many days when I would come home and cry myself to sleep at the suffering (of dogs) I had witnessed in the course of my workday. At home I could do something about it: I could call the Humane Society (or even the police) and make a report.
When I first arrived at my permanent site, I noticed a starving dog. She had the coloring of a Rotweiler but the shape of a Dalmatian. She was so thin that she seemed a walking spine with an attached ribcage. I would see her in the soccer field in front of my hostel (when I was residing in the hostel) and she seemed to come regularly to forage (for garbage left about by the college students).
Although my heart is very tender for suffering animals, it is not so tender that I’ll “take them in.” In my self-centeredness, I’ve decided I can barely take care of myself, let alone another living being. So, when I would see this creature, I would tell myself, “Don’t look at her.” I would see her somewhat regularly and would always think, at her wasting away, “She’s not long for this world.”
One afternoon I watched her approach and she had a loopy, staggering gate. She was below my window looking for food to eat, but she could barely stand.
I said to myself, “I can’t watch this anymore” and went about looking to find her something to eat. I knew this was a bad idea with potentially unwelcome consequences: if I fed her, she would come regularly; I would become attached, etc. But no matter, I could not endure this suffering a moment longer.
I was on the bottom end of my week’s worth of groceries but I did have three raw eggs. I broke open the eggs and placed them in a dish and carried them out to her. It was all that I had that a carnivore would eat.
As soon as she saw me approaching, she fled. I could have cried. Well, I did cry. I gingerly placed the dish of raw egg in the grass, hoping she would come back, but one of the eggs slipped out and fell into the grass. I left the dish anyway. I spent the next few hours bawling my eyes out, but crying was a good thing. It was my first in Africa and overdue. Crying your eyes out seems to clean the soul like nothing else.
I never knew if she came back for the eggs. The dish was empty the next day, so I knew SOMETHING ate the eggs.
I saw her only once more, when the grass in the soccer field was quite tall. She wasn’t in great shape, and again, her gait was uneven and wobbly. She bounded out into the tall grass and lay down. The grass was so high I couldn’t see her.
It was an especially hot part of the day and I couldn’t imagine why she would choose this spot, out in the middle of the field, unprotected from the hot sun, to lie down. I wondered if she had chosen this spot—and this time--to die.
I tried to find her, out in the tall grass the next day, but could not. I still look for her bones in the burned, dried grass of the soccer field, but cannot any sign of her.
I felt the presence of God in the suffering of that animal.
Another morning, I was sitting on a concrete bench, outside the college library waiting for it to open. It was a cool morning and I remember enjoying how good it felt to sit in the warm sun. The bench I was sitting was placed under a large pepper tree and I heard a large, crashing noise as something came falling down out of the tree and around me.
A pigeon, obviously dying, came crashing out of the pepper tree to lie dying at my feet. His last gesture was to spread his wings, surely in hopes of cushioning his fall, and he lay at my feet, belly and head down, with his wings outspread. He lay in a way that I could see his body expand and contract with his dying breaths.
There was nothing I could do for this creature but stay with it, be present, and witness his death. I was willing and able to do this; I felt it my obligation to be with this dying creature. It took him quite a few minutes to die and college students and staff walked by us, glancing down at the dying bird, and curious, I’m sure, as to what I was doing.
I stayed with that dying bird and I felt the presence of God. They were exquisitely beautiful moments.
On my walk to the primary school, I pass two especially heart-wrenching cases. One is of a starving dog, chained and fenced in someone’s yard (he is a family pet). He is chained to his dog house and has about 1.5 feet of lead to move about. So, he doesn’t have room to move about.
The dog is very thin and his eyes are cloudy (a sign of malnutrition). He makes his poo as far away as he can, which isn’t far at all, and it mounds up in a big pile, but he must lie very near it, in the way that he is chained. He is there, lying on the cold ground on the freezing mornings, and he is there, lying in the hot sun, in brutally hot afternoons. Every day, he is there.
On my same route, there is another creature suffering in the same manner, except this creature is significantly larger: it is a cow. Now there is something significantly more horrible about watching an animal of this size being contained in such a way: it is tethered, with very little rope, and made to live in its excrement. I’ve seen it lying down, although with the little length of its tether, cannot imagine how it does so. On most days, I find the suffering of this animal more than I can bear, and I choose to walk by a different route.
One day, when I was feeling especially brave, I walked by to see my favorite suffering animal. As I approached, I was somewhat startled to realize that this cow had something live, lying at its feet, and was licking it in way that a mother cow would lick a calf.
“Oh no, please don’t tell me that this poor, tortured creature has given birth,” I thought to myself. But as I came nearer, I could see that the creature lying at the cow’s feet was not a calf, but a dog. There was a dog tethered in the same area near the cow, and tethered in a way that the dog and cow could be near each other, if they reached far enough on their respective, cruelly-short ropes.
The dog was lying on his back, his legs in the air, and the cow was stroking the dog’s belly with its tongue, much in the way a human would “rub a dog’s belly.” The dog’s little leg was bouncing with the joy of the ticklishness of the sensation.
These poor, suffering creatures, were providing a measure of comfort to each other. In all of this African filth and cruelty, these beautiful, blessed, suffering creatures were providing comfort to each other.
And I felt the presence of God.
Ps. The photo is one of mine, of the African sky. And I feel the presence of God when I see it.