Laughing in the Upper Room
A funny thing happened in the middle of making a living
There’s an old Yiddish saying: “If you want to hear God laugh, just tell Him your plans.”
As far as my own life’s concerned, these days, I’m sure, He’s in stitches.
On Saturday, May the 19th, I completed a five-year odyssey and was ordained a Permanent Deacon for the Diocese of Brooklyn. Suffice it to say: this isn’t exactly what I’d planned for my life. It’s not exactly what my wife had in mind when she married me 21 years ago, either. But as John Lennon (British, not Yiddish) put it: life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.
The plans I’d made included a successful career in broadcasting, a nice home, a comfortable life, a happy marriage. To my astonishment, I achieved all that.
I’d worked with some of the giants in television—Charles Kuralt, Dan Rather, Ed Bradley—and, by chance or just dumb luck, managed to have a front row seat for some of the defining events of my generation, including the first Gulf War and 9/11. I’d amassed some attractive dust collectors— including two Peabodies, two Emmies, and four Writers Guild Awards. I was making a nice living. So why wasn’t I happier? In the middle of making a living, and making a name for myself, I discovered a yawning cavern in my life. Something was missing.
It started around the time my parents died, in the early 1990s, and I began to feel asense of my own limitedness—my own mortality. And the cavity grew in the wake of 9/11. After the towers fell, I spent two days in New York City, writing special reports for CBS News, unable to make it home because all the roads and subways were closed; in the days that followed, between the candlelight vigils and photocopied pictures taped to bus stops and the endless funerals accompanied by bagpipes playing “Amazing Grace,” I had a growing sense that there had to be something more. My cradle Catholicism had faded into indifference; mass was something I attended when I felt like it. My faith, if you can call it that, was patchy at best.
But after 9/11, I realized with a blinding clarity that the tidy life I’d established for myself could vanish at any moment. Then, one day, on the way back from picking up bagels, I passed a homeless guy on the subway, begging for money. I offered him a fresh bagel. He thanked me with so much enthusiasm, you’d have thought I’d given him a fresh cut of sirloin. When my train came, I looked over my shoulder to see where he’d gone. And there he was, at the end of the platform: he’d broken his bagel in half and was sharing it with another homeless man.
This withered old man who had next to nothing gave half of what he had to someone who had even less. Deep in the recesses of my Catholic memory, something stirred. “And they knew him in the breaking of the bread.” Something began to speak to me.
I realized: I’d been given much. What could I give back?
While on retreat at a Trappist monastery in 2002, I found my answer. There, I stumbled on something unusual: a deacon. He was from England, but at that time was living in France. I’d never met a deacon before. I’d heard about them, and once or twice I’d seen them, but my parish back in Queens never had one, and I was intrigued. (Deacons, I discovered, are married, and they have jobs outside the church. They are part of the Catholic clergy, and receive the sacrament of Holy Orders. They preside at weddings, baptisms and funerals, and can proclaim the gospel at mass and preach.) We spent a long afternoon talking about the diaconate, and I was amazed to learn that he also worked in broadcasting, for the BBC. He’d done some freelance work for CBS, too, and we knew a lot of the same people. Was God trying to tell me something?
The next day, I saw the deacon in action, serving mass in the abbey church and preaching a wonderful homily in three—yes, three—different languages. And it was then that it struck me. Here was a man much like myself, doing what I did for a living, and elevating his life to God in a way that was, to my disbelieving eyes, quite beautiful. Could I do this? As I sat in the abbey and heard the chants and watched him elevating the chalice, it dawned on me: Yes. Yes. You can do this. You should do this.
When I returned home and told my wife, she understandably thought I was nuts. But time and prayer and lots of long talks around the dinner table convinced the both of us that maybe, just maybe, this is something I could do, and should do, and soon. When I joined the diaconate program in September 2002 my life as I knew it was about to end.
What followed were five years of classes, homework, workshops, and retreats. Weekends were taken up with church work—as a lector or Eucharistic Minister. Evenings were spent on schoolwork. The comfortable and uncomplicated world I’d known became less comfortable, and more complicated, as I juggled all the different demands of my job, my marriage, and my schoolwork. More than a few times, I thought: am I out of my mind? What was I thinking?
My colleagues at CBS took this development in my life in stride – Katie Couric started calling me “Father Greg”—and over time, I became the one person everyone in the newsroom went to with a question about anything even remotely Catholic.
But what I remember most of all from those years of formation was the sense of unending anticipation—of waiting, and watching, and wondering. It was a long period of extended discernment. All of it came to an end, fittingly, just a few days after Ascension Thursday—the time when the apostles had been left alone, and were waiting for the Holy Spirit. At my Mass of Thanksgiving following ordination, I spoke in my homily about feeling like the apostles during that time before Pentecost—living in an upper room, unsure of what was about to happen, prayerfully yearning for the next part of their lives to begin.
I knew how they must have felt. And on May 19th, my waiting was over. I left my upper room.
Each of us at some moment in our lives has known that upper room, that place of uncertainty. We can measure its walls. We have all walked its floor, locked its windows, and prayed that no one will find us—just like the apostles in that dark valley between Ascension Thursday and Pentecost.
I think the message of those days before Pentecost is one of the hardest to accept: it is simply to trust. Trust that God’s promise will be kept, that he will not leave us orphans. Because when we feel abandoned and alone—when we flee to our own upper rooms—that is when God often makes Himself known.
It is a difficult message to absorb. Often over the last five years, I’ve had to keep reminding myself to trust—to place whatever concerns I had into the hands of God, and have faith that he would resolve them. I think it will be a lifelong struggle.
But I have learned that God doesn’t want us to spend our lives in the upper room. The lesson I’ve learned is this: open the windows. Let in the light. Have faith. And trust.
Because Pentecost eventually comes. Grace will abound. Wait for it. Look for it. And listen closely for it. Because, when you least expect it, while cloistered in the four walls of your life’s upper room, you just may hear the beautiful and unmistakable sound of God’s laughter.