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The Words of the Prophets Are Written on the Subway Walls
By Angelo Stagnaro
Among my New York City circle of friends, I am considered to be the best read. This is not because I am the most educated or gifted with the highest I.Q. It is because I have the longest commute. When one lives in the outer boroughs, as our less enlightened, Manhattan-centric brethren call them, one can expect a bus or subway commute of as much as one and a half hours each way. When I first moved to Brooklyn and then to Queens, with a brief sojourn of six months on Staten Island in between, I came to realize that three hours of each workday that would otherwise be wasted could be better spent improving myself. I recall the first book I brought with me all those years ago: Thomas Merton's Seven-Storey Mountain—a book that every Catholic is allegedly supposed to read. I chose it simply because it looked hefty and would easily last me a few rounds on the subway.
It was only after many years of three-hour daily commutes that I was caught on the subway without appropriate reading material. One day I was running late and didn't have a chance to look through my must-read pile. I left my apartment in a flurry with my tie in one hand and a donut crammed halfway into my mouth. I ran to the subway station and took the stairs two and three at a time.
I politely but frenetically made my way to the turnstiles and was immediately accosted by several Jehovah's Witnesses, who smiled ingratiatingly. I write "accosted," though they physically did not make a move toward me. Instead, they broke the First Commandment of New York City life: Thou shalt not make eye contact with a stranger. They held out a copy of Watchtower magazine, hoping that I would take it. Since I had nothing with me to read, I was sorely tempted. But I ultimately passed up the opportunity, though I thanked them anyway. Considering how dour their theology is, they showed remarkable friendliness toward the people they hoped might stop and talk to them.
I descended the next flight of stairs into the darkened, relative quiet of the platform and was struck by how most subway patrons wait for their train in total silence. Certainly there were a few conversations here and there; but for the most part people waited stoically, periodically checking to see if their train, or any train, was coming.
When my train finally arrived, I stood in line at the door, waiting to enter. I stepped in and then slowly walked the length of the subway car, fruitlessly searching for a place to sit. Ultimately, I had to stand leaning against one of the car's doors, disobeying the injunction on the clearly posted sign. Without anything to read, I contented myself with my other favorite New York City pastime, people-watching. Admittedly, I prefer to do that on a sunny day while sitting in an outdoor café in Greenwich Village, preferably with a friend (after all, with whom am I expected to comment on passersby?). Having no one with whom to converse, however, and having nothing to read, I contented myself with watching my subway-mates.
It didn't take long for me to realize that nearly everyone else had been more successful than I in locating appropriate reading material. As I stared at what one seated woman held in her hands and tried to read its title—another pastime of New Yorkers—I realized the book had gilt edges and a thin, well-worn ribbon swaying underneath in time with the motion of the train. She was reading a Bible.
As my eyes wandered from person to person, I noticed several others reading what was clearly Catholic devotional material. Around me, I spied a "Divine Mercy" booklet. Two other people held rosaries. I personally was never one for praying the Rosary in public; I prefer my Rosary ring because it attracts less attention. I began to wonder how many people were praying the Rosary without the beads in their hands.
A peripatetic Protestant minister began to peddle his own form of Christianity the second he entered my car at the next station. He exhorted his brothers and sisters to shun sin and embrace the Lord Jesus. I listened to his homily and found it orthodox in its teaching. Admittedly, I am not one for flagrant and unbridled emotionalism; but after all, ad majorem Dei gloriam: the Jesuit phrase meaning, "for the greater glory of God."
This overt display of religiosity was not confined to Christianity. To be seen on the many people who shared my subway car were signs and symbols of the myriad faiths represented in New York City. Sikhs are usually identified by their turbans; but even if they choose to dress less conspicuously, they inevitably wear the traditional silver bracelet that marks them as devout. I also saw Hassidim and Muslims silently reading from their respective prayer books. Hindus, who decorate their foreheads with the bindi—the vermilion dot that is a symbol of purity and the "eye that sees inward"—were among some of my fellow worshipers/commuters. Yarmulkes, Magen David, the chai symbol or the Hamesh Hand identified our Jewish brothers and sisters. An embarrassment of riches of crosses and crucifixes (both traditional and Orthodox) of every size and shape hung around the necks of the Christians among us. Some pectoral crosses were so large and gaudy that even the most ostentatious of bishops would pause before donning one. The eight auspicious Buddhist emblems are easy to find among the ridership, as are pendants with Allah's name displayed on them in graceful Arabic letters. Generally, these are made of flashy, chunky white metal studded with fake diamonds, which tend to spoil the effect. A little way into the car stood three women dressed in chadors, the traditional Muslim full-body covering. They quietly chatted and giggled. As the train stopped in midtown Manhattan, several other women who had escaped my earlier notice left the train. They were dressed in Tibetan garb, replete with various symbols of their Buddhist faith.
One has to wonder how it is that so many people from so many religions had mutually come to an unspoken agreement that our subway was a place in which all religions can respectfully co-exist, side by side. No matter what their previous historical interactions had been, here Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus and others rub shoulders, literally. They treat one another with the respect and reverence that our common Creator asks of all his children, praising the Lord of all, each in his or her own way.
As adherents of each religion left at different stations, I reveled in the religious expressions all around me in our mobile interfaith chapel. I wonder silently how many churches, cemeteries, temples, mosques and synagogues the city's trains travel beneath. Under how much land dedicated to God's purposes did we obliviously and routinely pass as we sped to our ultimate destinations?
Though the terminally pessimistic would insist that civility leaves us as we enter this dark, subterranean world, believe me that there are many opportunities for putting into practice the lessons of love we learned as children. But if people were that naturally inclined to loving one another, we might not have had the need for Christ's sacrifice. The truth is, those who use New York City's subway are neither more nor less likely to show kindness or offer assistance than those in any other social situation (other than at a church picnic). People generally stand up to offer their seats to pregnant women or adults of either gender who hold babes in arms. The elderly usually need not stand for very long before some kind soul stands up to offer a seat. With so many opportunities to put into practice the lofty ideals of our respective faiths, people could dedicate their Lents to a nearly infinite series of acts of mercy without having to leave the subway system.
One would not have presumed that the New York City subway was such a hothouse of religious fervor. Maybe the physical journey is a metaphor for the spiritual journey. Maybe it's the fact that the subway seats face each other like choir stalls in old churches. Maybe it's simply that one's commute is the only time of day many New Yorkers have in which to sit still and "walk humbly with their God"—waiting their turn to rest ultimately in the Lord of all.
The subway car doors opened at my station, and I made my way to the stairs that would lead me back to the world above. I beheld them as if they were a staircase set upon the earth, with its top reaching to the life above. And behold, the children of God ascending and descending upon it. And as I stood there while the throng swarmed around me, I heard a gentle male voice behind me.
"Hello! Are you OK? Do you know that Jesus loves you?"
I turned to see who was speaking, only to find an elderly couple who proffered some of their literature. They were so gentle that I could do nothing but graciously accept their gift. I returned their smiles and thanked them. As I joined the souls ascending the staircase, I looked at the small pamphlet in my hand. I always enjoy reading Jews-for-Jesus literature. It's always full of witticisms and self-deprecating humor.
I managed to make my way up to the street and took a deep breath of the warm air of God's creation. I turned to look at the subway entrance from which I had just emerged. In the hour and a half I was on the subway between my home and work, I had gotten more church than I would on an average Sunday morning. I felt as if a genuflection would be somehow appropriate, but I chose instead to offer up my thanks for the respite, and I smiled as I remembered that the ancient Christians used to meet underground.
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