Gracie walked into the café quietly, her curly hair tied like a bundle of yarn above her head. She was dressed in brown cargo pants and a tank top. It was hot in Manila, and if it were the social convention, she might have spent the day in her underwear.
She walked up to the man at the front table, looking around the small place.
“Is God here?” she asked.
The man at the podium looked around the café, a little confused. It wasn’t hard to see that there was a lull in the place, and there were literally no patrons sitting at any table.
“Ummm…. I don’t think I see anyone, Miss. Maybe you have the wrong restaurant?”
“No, this is the right one. ”
Gracie looked around again just to confirm what she and the man could both clearly see.
“It’s OK,” said Gracie, with a look of resignation. “I would still like to stay. May I sit by the window over there? ”
She sat down at a nearby table, and proceeded to pull the bands out of her hair, letting it fall like a cascade down on her shoulders. She scratched her head and pulled at some knots in her thick hair. She hadn’t showered for a few days. The water was down at the orphanage.
“But it’s raining outside,” she thought, “and this is advantageous for at least three reasons. 1. I can at least feel clean walking down the street even if I’m not actually getting clean. 2. If it doesn’t let up, it’s only a matter of time before I can get a bucket bath, and 3. if I close my eyes, the drip-dropping of the rain will remind me of home.”
“Lord, thank you for the rain,” she said out loud. “Thank you for how it washes everything and makes the world new. For how the sky looks so much clearer when it’s done, a little piece of heaven looking down on us.”
She kept talking, “Angelo is so close to staying with us. He’s been hanging out with the other boys at the compound and even slept a few nights. He shows up for almost every meal. Please pray that he stays longer and that, ultimately, we could find a good family for him and all the children.”
It was difficult to get street kids to stay in one place. They were so used to life on the streets that being in an environment like the one at the orphanage was too boring, too routine. Still, some stayed. And some of those who stayed were able to find homes either in the States, or in Europe, or, if they could, in the Philippines. Sometimes they could even find relatives in nearby towns or villages. The internet was making everything a little bit easier when it came to tracking people down. But still, the children couldn’t find a home, couldn’t be given an education, couldn’t be well-fed if they didn’t stay off the streets.
“Gabriela is getting older and almost ready to leave. Please find her a job where she can take care of herself and her brother. You know the job market is not good at all right now.”
Gracie went on like this for awhile, bringing up, one by one, the names of the 46 children at the orphanage and the various children she saw often who liked to hang out near the place. She prayed for Sister Bernadette who was sick in a hospital in the downtown area. She prayed for her parents, her friends, and anyone else she could think of, asking every now and then if she missed anybody, and then praying some more.
But after awhile, the names stopped coming to her and she stared out the window. She saw her reflection in it and wondered if that was all she was really doing: speaking to her reflection.
“I don’t know what’s happened, Lord. I used to feel your presence so close to me. I feel so alone here. I mean, I have the nuns, and the kids. And I came here for them. But ultimately, I came here for you, and I don’t know where you are anymore. I confess my sins, and I don’t feel forgiven. It’s like the priest might as well be quoting Winnie the Pooh as absolving me. I wake up every day with this chain on me that I can’t explain – like my body is carrying some extra weight. I think I’m beginning to understand what mom meant when she said there were days she couldn’t get out of bed. But I can’t afford to do that. There’s so much to do here, and I’m drowning.
The sisters tell me I glow with the presence of Christ when I’m around. IT’s like a cruel joke. If they only knew…”
She started crying, and quickly wiped the tears away when they started coming down.
“I don’t feel anything. And I can’t express how hard it’s been. I used to find so much joy in talking to you. I remember being 7 years old and telling you about what I learned in science – how volcanoes work and what the water cycle is. I told you everything. You meant everything to me. I don’t know where you are now.”
She looked around the room, as though trying to find God somewhere she hadn’t looked.
“The sisters talk about their spiritual experiences, how they feel your love for them or what great new thing they’re learning. I read the Bible and it’s… ok, I guess. It just doesn’t move me anymore. Yes, David killed Goliath. And yes, that means we can slay our metaphorical giants. I’ve heard the stories a thousand times. I think I get the point.”
She looked down at a thread unraveling on her tank top. She wrapped and unwrapped the thread around her finger.
“I love these children. I want so badly for them to have the kind of life I had – two parents who loved them. I want them to know you. But it’s hard to give them what I don’t have myself. And no matter how often I come to the Eucharist, or in prayer, or in the Word, I just feel dead inside.”
She sat there waiting for some kind of response, but she had come to this cafe for years now, and it was always the same. No God. Just her sitting at an empty table.
What was so frustrating was that her darkness came upon her just as she started her ministry in Manila 11 years ago. Up till then, her spiritual life had had its ups and downs, but she had a strength and depth to her that many of her peers did not have. During her time in the Philippines, she cried more than she had ever cried before. She wept for the children and for the poverty she saw around her. She laughed more than she had ever laughed before, feeling the love and pride in the many children who were able to rise above their circumstances. But in all of it she felt abandoned, like a wife waiting for her husband to come home, but he never does. And her ache was so deep, some days she felt almost unable to bear it. But there was one thing she could always hold onto that woke her up in the morning and pulled her through the day.
“I know one thing is for sure: you brought me here. I know without a doubt that this is where I need to be. And I don’t know for how much longer I’m going to feel the way I do. Maybe this will never go away. But I don’t need to feel you to be your hands and feet in the world.”
She straightened her back and ended her monologue with the same petition she had spoken for years since coming to Manila:
“Give me grace for today, and it is enough.”
She quietly got up from the table and walked towards the door, giving one last look toward the place she was sitting, hoping that maybe she would get a glimpse of him after all.
She saw nothing.