'Ponder anew what the Almighty can do'

On a cool May morning in 2007, I found myself in the last place I ever expected to be: face down on the hard floor of a Catholic basilica, as a choir chanted the Litany of the Saints and I received the Sacrament of Holy Orders. Moments later, the bishop’s hands rested on my head and I became, incredibly, a permanent deacon.

How on earth did this happen?

If I had to pinpoint a date, it would be Sept. 11, 2001. I was a writer and producer for CBS News, and that morning, they put me to work in the television newsroom, writing hourly updates for an event unlike any we had covered before. That night, Dan Rather opened the CBS Evening News with these words: “Good evening. This is a day you will remember for the rest of your life.” I didn’t realize then what that really meant — and how everything in my world was about to change.

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 the world had shifted. And my priorities had shifted, too. Again and again, I was reminded that everything I’d worked for could be gone in an instant. I thought of the old Peggy Lee standard: “Is that all there is?”

There must be something else I was supposed to be doing, right?

Leaning on faith

I turned to what had kept me grounded in the past: my faith. I found myself suddenly praying more. I read Thomas Merton. I spent more time in the pews for daily Mass. I went on retreats. I started to pray the Liturgy of the Hours. I actually considered, for a time, becoming a lay Cistercian. Then, while on retreat at a Trappist monastery in 2002, I met someone I hadn’t expected: a deacon from England. I’d never met a deacon before. I was intrigued. We struck up a conversation after Mass and spent a long afternoon talking about the diaconate. 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. And it was then that it struck me: Here was a man much like myself, doing what I did, and dedicating his life to God. Could I do this? As I sat in the abbey and heard the chants and watched him elevating the chalice, the thought came to 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 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. Taking a leap of faith, I applied for the next class in the diaconate program in September 2002.

What followed were five years of classes, homework, workshops and retreats. Weekends were taken up with church work; evenings were spent on schoolwork. Life became a lot more complicated. More than a few times, I thought: Am I out of my mind?

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.

As I preached in my first homily:

“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,” I said. “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.

“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.”

Wonder and awe

I’ve certainly seen that, again and again, in the ensuing nine years of my ministry as a deacon. It’s been there in every baby I’ve baptized, every marriage I’ve witnessed, every Benediction I’ve celebrated. The grace of the sacrament has helped me to find the words to preach at the funeral of a deacon classmate who died just months after ordination. It’s given me fuel to rewrite a homily at 2 in the morning, and the desire to evangelize online and in print and to be present to people in their time of need. Eventually, it led me to leave CBS News and to work on behalf of the poor, including victims of war and terror in the Middle East.

It’s taken me places I never expected. And it’s enriched me beyond my wildest imaginings.

I look back on that May morning when I lay before the Lord, a stone floor beneath me and a vaulted ceiling above me, and I’m reminded how improbable it all seems. How did this happen?

I recall the words of an old hymn from my childhood, “Praise to the Lord”:

“Ponder anew / what the Almighty can do ...”

Every vocation, I think, comes down to that same sense of wonder and awe.

You never know what he can do — and then he just goes and does it.

Deacon Greg Kandra serves the Diocese of Brooklyn, New York. He is the multimedia editor for Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA) and blogs at Aleteia.org.