I was never able to remain in crowds. In elementary school as soon as the bell rang for recess students were off like a pack of dogs chasing a ball into the playground. A quiet country field became a spectacle of childhood games. I too was like the rest of the kids, excited to do something, anything, after almost dying of boredom from the morning classes. The excitement for me, however, was short-lived. After playing kickball for a few minutes, I would often leave the game, sit against the wall, and gaze up at the sky. For those few moments of pondering the sky life appeared to me like an ocean, wild and free, and there was a presence inviting me to swim in its waves.
When I was a senior in high school we students were obsessed with scoring high on the SAT’s, visiting our favorite colleges, attracting the opposite sex, and embodying the latest trend. Our frantic attempts and failures at self-realization awoke in me a hunger for something more. I began reading books of poetry, philosophy, religion and literature, and writing about my desire to see reality in its purest light, rather than live behind a wall of shadows. While reading and writing I felt like a child again, in the presence of a loving parent who was inviting me to explore this road less traveled.
After graduating from college everyone I knew went in three different directions: sending out resumes in search of a job, applying for graduate school, or preparing for marriage and family life. Of these three, the only one I considered seriously was graduate school for either writing or philosophy. I realized, however, the only reason I would choose graduate school was to make myself more appealing to future employers, something that was not bad, but something I was not interested in. I would often visit the nearest church where I could be alone in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament to think and to pray, but mostly to listen. There I often felt like I was in a dream in which everyone was sleep walking, and this mysterious presence was inviting me to wake everyone up. Enlightened by this presence, I chose another path. I gave up everything I owned and moved to New York City to begin living a life of poverty, chastity and obedience.
Looking back, the way I understand my vocation to religious life is the desire for something more. A part of me was attracted to the same things my friends were: marriage, a career, a family, and the many other good things of the world. For me, the problem with them is that they were not enough. When I sat in prayer, and I imagined a “normal” life, I knew immediately that could not satisfy me.
Some of my more idealistic and philosophically oriented friends understood my vocation to be a social protest against capitalism and a heroic decision to fight for the rights and protection of the poor so as to eradicate human poverty. Even now, after many years of living with the poor I still chuckle when I think about their misunderstanding of my vocation. Who did they think I was after all? By entering religious life I wasn’t protesting or fighting anything or anyone. I didn’t choose religious life in anger against the government or social conditions, but to joyfully follow Him “who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.”(Revelation 1:8)
Every Christian, by virtue of Baptism, is called to follow in the footsteps of Jesus. What is unique about religious life is that it attempts to be radical. It is not admiring His life from a distance or even walking hand in hand next to Him. It is complete discipleship, following the Master not only where He goes, but how he lived while on earth. Hence, religious life is sometimes referred to as the “perfect imitation” of Christ. Perfect, not because those living religious life are perfect, but because the way of life they are choosing is the exact life the Son of Man lived while on earth. Through the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience the religious radically imitates Christ. (Jn 4:34, Lk 9:58) Like Jesus the religious chooses poverty for the sake of becoming rich in what matters to God. He chooses chastity for the sake of a greater love. And he chooses obedience because he wishes to be led ultimately by the Father.
In a culture that is obsessed with sex, status, and material possessions the religious becomes a prophetic sign pointing to something more. To the married couple the religious reminds them that their love for their spouse must be pure, holy, and life giving. To the youth the religious provokes wonder and amazement in front of a way of life that society does not consider intuitive. To politicians the religious reminds them that there is a higher law, and that God’s ways are the true path that leads to human freedom. To the atheist the religious challenges them to reconsider, to probe deeper into their own hearts and discover the presence in which they “live and move and have their being.” (Acts 16:28)
It has been thirteen years since I left everything to follow Jesus. In that time I have lived a full life. I have been ordained a priest, preached all over the world, buried my own mother, spent endless hours with the homeless, prostitutes, drug addicts, and those suffering from mental illness, spent days and weeks alone with God in a hermitage, and lived in places I would have never imagined like Harlem, Newark, New Jersey, and Fort Worth, Texas.
Yet the most remarkable aspect of my life is the growing intimacy I experience with Jesus as I stumble along each day following in his footsteps. Poverty, chastity, and obedience have purified me, humbled me, strengthened me, and have forced me to “seek the things that are above,” (Colossians 3:1) transforming me into a mature human being and an ardent disciple of Christ.
Religious life certainly is not perfect. The rules and customs can seem outdated, too idealistic, and even inhuman at times. Sometimes my fear, pride, or stubbornness prevents me from simply being led “where [I] do not wish to go.” (John 21:18) The people in religious life struggle with human problems like depression, fear, scrupulosity, self hate, and insecurity. Even our superiors sometimes give commands that are not based on reason or even good discernment but on their own brokenness. Through this imperfect reality one is given the opportunity to follow in the footsteps of Jesus who “was oppressed and afflicted…despised and rejected by men…wounded for our transgressions, and bruised for our iniquities.” (Isaiah 53:7:3:5)
Despite my struggles with broken humanity, I have never once considered leaving religious life. Why would I? It has always lived up to its promise of leading me to something more. I have discovered a treasure in a field, and like the man in the parable “in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.” (Mt 13:44) Yet as I grow older I am becoming increasingly aware there is still more of God, more human experiences, more life that I have yet to encounter. In many ways I still feel like a child, fascinated by the simplest discovery yet far away from perfect maturity. Currently I am living a more contemplative expression of Franciscan life, one that includes large doses of silence and solitude. The reason is not because I want to avoid people, but because I am falling more deeply in love with the silent presence of God, who is continuing to invite me, even in this desire, to still something more.
+ Fr. Jeremiah Myriam Shryock, CFR
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