Monday, April 30, 2018

Being A Priest

Shortly after I was ordained a priest, a friend of mine asked me what my experience was like thus far. Somewhat hesitantly I said, “embarrassing.” He began to laugh; assuming I was joking, and then asked me again. “No, seriously, what is like to be a priest?” “Embarrassing,” I replied again, this time without hesitation.
I always knew I was called to be a priest. The most peaceful moments of my childhood were when I was serving Mass as an altar boy. Though I was too young to understand what was happening, my heart encountered this profound joy each time I served Mass. The candles, incense, and paintings were signs pointing me beyond this world. Though my childhood was blessed, I began yearning for this other world that I experienced each day at Mass.
The priest, I began to realize, had a pivotal role in this experience. He was not a coach, a sergeant, or a stage director, but simply a man, chosen by God to facilitate this transcendent experience. Whether he was celebrating Mass, hearing confessions, or giving last rites to the dying, the priest brought heaven with him through his priestly ministry. The day I realized this I remember asking myself, “What else could I want from life?”
What I found perhaps to be most remarkable was that the priest, at least the ones I met as a kid, were not the holiest, smartest or best speakers that I encountered. There was nothing that distinguished them in outward appearances from others. They were, like all of us, frail and broken, struggling with their own humanity, while trying to reconcile how God could call somebody like them to this vocation.
In my second year of priesthood I had the honor of baptizing my brother-in- law during the Easter Vigil. He was raised without any faith and after several years of marriage to my sister he decided he wanted to become Catholic. After I poured water over him three times, baptizing him “in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit” I saw something on him I had never witnessed before: a smile that radiated pure joy. Struck by the simple beauty of the moment I embraced him and said, “Welcome home.”
Perhaps my greatest joy as a priest is hearing confessions. Over the years I have heard countless confessions and have witnessed the immediate change inside a person once the words of absolution are spoken. Often people come to confession, burdened, anxious and afraid, yet they always leave confession with the hope that is born from experiencing the mercy of God. Once an elderly man, old enough to be my grandfather, kissed my hands after confession and said, “Thank you Father. You have given me my life back.” Immediately, tears flowed from my eyes and I was reduced to silence.
Finally, there is the Eucharist. Whether it is a friary chapel, a cathedral, or a simple country church, heaven enters this world through my hands under the appearance of bread and wine. In my first few weeks as a priest my hands would begin to shake during the consecration and I would ask myself after each Mass, “Did that really just happen?” In the midst of this confusion a fellow Franciscan said to me one morning after Mass, “Thank you Father for the Eucharist.” I was completely dumbstruck. Later in the day I realized that without the priest, there is no Eucharist. Once more, the tears flowed and I was again reduced to silence.
In all of these events, I, as a priest, am not a mere observer. I am, and I say this with deep humility, the bridge on which God travels to meet his people. The priest is, obviously, not the only way for this encounter to occur, but he remains a consistent and definite means of God’s presence in this world.
When I told my friend that being a priest was embarrassing what I really meant was that it is humbling. I am somewhat shy, never comfortable in large crowds and certainly never comfortable being any sort of leader. I was an average student in school, given more to daydreaming and writing than academic study. Like the Prophet Jeremiah I tried to tell God “I do not know how to speak, for I am only a youth” (Jeremiah 1:6). Regardless of what I perceived as apparent obstacles, God felt differently.
Seven years have passed since my friend asked me what it is like being a priest. If I were asked that question today, I would respond once again by saying, “embarrassing,” only this time I would be sure to add how grateful and joyful I have become for all the embarrassment it has caused me.
+ Fr. Jeremiah Shryock, CFR
Monticello, NY

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Letting Go

As a child, I often pretended my backyard was a baseball stadium. There, despite the close proximity of neighbors, I would yell, dive, grunt and cheer to various scenarios I was imagining. As time for dinner would draw near, my mom would open the window from the kitchen and ask me how much longer I would be. “Almost done mom,” I would say, “it’s the bottom of the 9th and there are two outs.” Then, as the thousands of fans were standing and cheering in anticipation of the final out, I struck out the last batter to win the game, as my teammates rushed the mound and carried me off on their shoulders.

Somewhere, probably around the age of 13 or so, I became self-conscious and started to wonder, “What do my neighbors think about me yelling and cheering in my back yard? What are other people going to think of me if they see me? Is this how a 13 year old is supposed to act?” These were sobering questions. I realized what I was doing was not wrong, but that life was calling me forward, and if I wanted to move forward, I needed to let go of where I was and accept where life was taking me.

If someone were to ask me, what is the secret of life? I would answer: letting go. This phrase, unfortunately, is often misunderstood and misused. It can sound at times cold and even harsh. I have heard people use this phrase as a means to justify their own selfishness. “I am letting go of this situation,” one might say, when what is really happening is that one is refusing an opportunity that requires generosity and self-gift. What I mean by letting go is not self-preservation but acceptance of life as it really is.

Every one of us possesses an image of what we think life should look like. When that image is frustrated we immediately think there is something wrong with life. We blame God, other people, and circumstances for the reason our image of life has been thwarted. Perhaps the real problem is not life, but our expectation of the way it should be.

As a spiritual director, I have often accompanied people throughout a discernment process and continue meeting with them as they begin their vocation. After three months of living their vocation I ask them how they are doing. The response is generally the same: “The community, my spouse, the ministry, etc. is great. I couldn’t imagine things to be any better.” As the months go by, the conversation often changes dramatically. Generally, things remain good, but the community, spouse or ministry is no longer the perfect supplement to their life. They discover, much to their surprise, that their vocation looks nothing like they once imagined it would.

At this point a natural question arises, did I discern properly? The majority of the time the person has discerned properly. He is now being invited to let go of those former images about how his life is supposed to look, and embrace the life God is giving him. This invitation from God, though frightening at first, is exactly the food our hearts crave. By abandoning ourselves completely to God beyond what we can see and understand, we begin to experience that our life, though not perfect, contains exactly what we need to grow in faith, hope and love.

Perhaps this is the greatest test Christians face. We often assume that because we are following Jesus our lives will look and be a certain way. Once when the disciples were arguing about who was the greatest, Jesus informs them: “He who is least among you all is the one who is great” (Lk 9:48). This was not the answer any of them expected or desired; yet if they were going to keep following Jesus, they had to let go of what they thought that should look like.

We begin by pursuing the life we want for ourselves, but end up living the life God wants for us. After the Resurrection Jesus says to Peter, “Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you fastened your own belt and walked where you would; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will fasten your belt for you and carry you where you do not wish to go” (John 21:18). It is only by letting go, with childlike trust, that we allow God to lead us beyond anything we could have imagined.

Fr. Jeremiah, CFR
Monticello, NY

Monday, April 9, 2018

The Contemplative Mind

It was an ordinary weekday Mass.  There were about 20-30 people in attendance, most of whom, I’m guessing, were on their lunch break.  In the front pew there sat a mother with a young boy.  As I walked past them on my way to the altar, the young boy’s face grew mesmerized as he looked at my vestments.  “Wow mommy,” he said, as I got closer, “check out his clothes!”  I laughed to myself and winked at him as I walked by.  

The Mass proceeded as usual.  After I read the Gospel, I began to give a short homily.  “Mommy, who is that man in the painting?” the young boy cried out.  Everyone, including myself, smiled and we all shared a brief moment of laughter.  The painting this boy was inquiring about was an image of St. Francis praying in a cave, hanging on the wall directly to the left from their pew.  Despite everyone’s good sense of humor at what had occurred, the boy’s mother appeared mortified.

Immediately after Mass she came running towards me.  “Father, I’m so sorry my son interrupted your homily,” she said, with a panicked look on her face.  I introduced myself and assured her there was nothing to apologize for.  I looked down at the boy.  He was staring wide-eyed at the painting in the sacristy of the Last Supper.  I bent down and asked him, “What do you think of that painting?”  “Wow,” he said.  Smiling back at him I said, “Yes, I agree.”

Jesus says in the Gospel,  “Unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 18:3). Children approach life more as a mystery than as a problem that needs to be solved.  They are usually curious and receptive to reality in all its wonder.  They are keenly aware that there is more beyond what they can perceive.  Hence, the reason I believe, children are the happiest group of people.  Unlike us adults, they are not stuck in their minds.  They live on the level of what I like to call, a “contemplative mind.”  

For most of us adults, however, reality is only what our thoughts and senses perceive.  In the face of tragedy, for example, many people will conclude there is no God.  What their minds and senses are faced with appears to contradict this possibility.  How could a loving God allow this, they ask?  Their logic is consistent; however, it is limited by their own minds, or what I like to call our “thinking minds.”    

St. Paul writes, “We look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen; for the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal(2 Corinthians 4:18).  What St. Paul is contrasting here, I believe, is the difference between the thinking mind and the contemplative mind.  The first, he reminds us, is limited, while the second peers into eternity.    

As long as we live in this world our thinking minds serve a necessary function: they remind us of the extraordinary gap that exists between what our minds can comprehend and what actually exists.  After Job has asked God a series of questions from his thinking mind, God responds, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” (Job 38:4)  This response, though humbling, is not meant to discredit Job’s questions, but to remind him that he stands before the Eternal and Infinite One, and not a finite creature like himself created from the dust of the earth.    

Shortly after I entered religious life at age 23, a wise monk told me, “God is like the air, completely available, yet once we try to grasp at it, it is gone.”  At the time, I was not able to understand his point because I was convinced I understood God.  Many years later, I can honestly say that I still do not understand completely, but thankfully, there are children to remind me that I don’t have to.