I am back from NYC, where I stayed at the apartment of a friend of a friend in East Harlem. I have always enjoyed a building that smells of roast chicken, and cheap laundry detergent, and Raid. The sirens from the cop cars at the projects across the way, the free wi-fi at Burger King, and the friendly cries of “Americana!” also went toward making me feel at home.
I was tired the first day and thought, briefly, that I “should” go to a museum, or a gallery, or some sophisticated person-type thing, but I chose instead to lie in bed and look at the leaves on the tree outside my window, and listen to the sparrows. I am as driven, perhaps more driven, than the next person, but I am also deeply resistant to the cultural mandate of “busyness.” How are you? we ask. I’m busy, we reply, as if that’s an answer. I always think being too busy is a sign of some egregious failure on my part–a failure of faith; a failure of being true to my deepest self.
So I was busy but I wasn’t too busy. I walked up to Corpus Christi on 121st for 8:00 Mass on Monday. Thomas Merton was baptized there and though I am not a huge Merton fan, I am grateful for him, and his work and life. Simone Weil, during her brief time in New York, also attended Mass at Corpus Christi, and though at some point I always somewhat impatiently part ways with the good Simone, I am also grateful to her, and sympathize with her, and see that her suffering, like all suffering, is a mystery that none of us are equipped to judge. I had lunch with my dear friend of 20 -plus years Ann. She has always been beautiful and she still is. We walked a bit in Central Park, near the West 80’s, afterward. I walked every chance I got, as walking is how I come to know a place. Walking and sharing a meal and looking at people’s faces and going to Mass.
Monday night, I spoke at a series called Theology on Tap, at Slattery’s Midtown Pub.
Tuesday night I had the huge honor and gift of meeting Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete who I simply loved at first sight, as probably everyone who meets him does. At some point I had to set aside all thought of I’m not smart enough, faithful enough, worthy enough to meet this wonderful man and just say No, you’re not, so why not try to make him and everyone else know you’re glad you are to be here?
He has the humor that comes from deep, deep pain–which I related to instantly–and his very presence softened me, humbled me, mystified me, reminded me, and opened the window onto a whole new way of seeing, that to follow Christ is something very different than I, for one, like to think it is. Following Christ has nothing to do with health or balance or drawing up a checklist of the pros and cons and making a reasoned decision.
Following Christ means utter, blind, almost insane (in the eyes of the world) abandonment. We love to spot and judge the people who we think have abandoned themselves less than us. But to meet someone who you know has abandoned himself more is, in the best sense of the word, terrifying. You melt, like a moth in a flame, and at the same time you realize you’re being called way, way higher.
As I made my way around around New York, I thought a lot about how all the experiences of my life had fed my creativity. I thought a lot about an observation (thank God we had at least one that night) of Msgr. Albacete’s: that sin doesn’t generate pain; being forgiven for sin does.
Suffering doesn’t lead to joy; joy leads to suffering. It’s only in experiencing the risen Christ, however momentarily, that we see our habitual blindness, our tragic cowardice, our desperate, doomed efforts to serve both God and mammon.
My last morning, after cleaning up the apartment, packing, and checking my subway map, I had 45 minutes before I had to take off. So I walked down E. 106th, and saw that the doors to St. Cecilia’s Church was open, and went in for awhile and prayed. I can never understand those people who want to tear down all the churches and give the money to “the poor.” That’s what Judas wanted to do. For one thing, we’re all “the poor,” and for another, what do we have to give the poor except Christ? What do any of us have to give Christ except our two-dollar candles, our paper flowers, our prayers, our hearts?
Then I walked over to the Conservancy Garden in Central Park, which was so achingly beautiful that I actually knelt and made the sign of a cross in front of a robin. Joy generates suffering because joy never lasts, joy reminds us of our deaths, joy has at the middle of it that I wished I didn’t look so old, that the leaves were beginning to turn, that everything in me wanted to spend the rest of the day in that garden instead of taking the Air Train to JFK and sitting in a teeny plane seat for 6 hours.
And yet to know that every train ride, meal, conversation, walk, flower, is unique under the sun: never to be experienced again; never to be repeated! To know that New York was a friend now: because I had people to pray for, because I had joined my suffering to theirs. Turning to leave, for once I wouldn’t have had it any other way: wouldn’t have changed a single second of my morning, my trip, my life.