It was a typical morning in Harlem. The phone rang every five minutes and the doorbell every ten. I was meeting individually with the postulants, the youngest members of my community, and listening to their struggles with prayer, celibacy, fraternal living, and leaving their family. Outside the streets were rowdy: car horns, street-cleaning machines, rap music, and our neighbor Linda who has schizophrenia, cursing and laughing as she walked up and down the street.
Savoring a brief moment of silence after meeting with one of the postulants, I whispered, “Where are you Lord?” I felt overwhelmed, tired and incompetent to do what God was apparently asking of me at this moment. Mostly though, I was frustrated because religious life was not as romantic as I thought it would be. Jesus told his disciples that whoever “would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). Surely those words didn’t apply to me, now, in this situation, did they? How could they?
“Father Jeremiah,” a brother’s voice spoke over the intercom, “a woman is on the phone who would like to talk to a priest.”
Sure, I thought to myself. Everyone wants to talk to a priest, as if we have all the answers, I mumbled sarcastically. “Thank you,” I responded, “I’ll be right there.”
Before I even finished saying hello she began. “I recently went to a parish mission…I have been away from church for years…I haven’t been praying…I realize that my life is empty, and I am frustrated.” And then she said it: “I want to know who God is.”
Suddenly she had my full attention. The noise from outside disappeared. The self-pity I was entertaining vanished and the burden I was experiencing from my responsibilities lifted. I was fascinated by her last sentence. “I want to know who God is.” It sounded so familiar.
For a brief moment I had a flashback to elementary school when I was an altar boy at Mass. This particular morning there were only about 15 people in church, each varying in age, ethnicity and social status. There was no singing, no large crowds, no long sermons. We listened to the Scriptures, prayed, sat together in silence, and knelt humbly as the priest held up bread and wine. The whole time I stood next to the priest, unable to comprehend the moment, but feeling myself being drawn into another world.
After Mass as I was walking over to school I stopped and said to myself, “I want to know who God is.” Where did those words come from, I thought. Even though I had just come from church I wasn’t thinking anything particularly spiritual. Most likely I was trying to remember if I completed my homework and what time baseball practice was that day. Yet those words, “I want to know who God is,” echoed within me.
A few seconds later the flashback had faded, along with all the distractions I was living in. Something had woken up inside of me.
“Does this make any sense?” she asked, sounding desperate for affirmation.
“Yes,” I said, as a tear began to take shape in my eye, “I think I understand.” We were both silent for a few moments.
“Would you like to get together so we can talk?” I calmly asked her.
“Yes,” she said, “when are you available?”
As we scheduled a time for our appointment and hung up the phone, I stood there repeating her words, “I want to know who God is.” A childlike grin came over my face as I laughed out loud.
“Of course,” I said to myself, “What else is there?”
+ Fr. Jeremiah Myriam Shryock, CFR