Saturday, February 21, 2015

Jesuits, Rabbis, Strangers, and Awe.

I have a prayer partner.  Every morning we connect across the miles and exchange intentions.   Yesterday morning, we texted as usual:

How may I pray? she asked.

Not sure what I need.

I will ask Mary to accompany you today and meet every need that arises.

I smiled.  My friend is much more direct in her faith than I am, much more aware of those events that communicate God’s love and presence to her than I am, much more conversant with our Blessed Mother.  On the other hand, I have been reading The Jesuit Guide to Almost Everything, finding that both my formation and inclinations are much more Ignatian than I would have thought and that perhaps--just perhaps--I experience God and His saints much more than I realize.  One of the last passages I read before getting off the plane Thursday afternoon was this (a quotation form one of my favorite Rabbis, Abraham Joshua Heschel): more than an emotion; it is a way of understanding.  Awe itself is an act of insight into a meaning greater than ourselves…Awe enables us to perceive  in the world intimations of the Divine, to sense in small things the beginning of infinite significance, to see the ultimate in the common and simple.

In passing I wondered what Mary’s accompaniment would look like, and I envied my friend her ability to truly experience that presence, with Heschel’s sense of awe.

Later in the morning, I headed out from my hotel to mass, passing a storefront still decorated from Valentine’s Day.  I stopped in surprise—here in New York, on the route I chose to take, was a three story window decorated with gold and silver images of the Immaculate Heart of Mary.    I was taken by the image: red clothes, extravagant puffed hearts aflame, and the whole of the city reflected in the window.  My friend’s words came to mind.

Mass at St. Patrick’s these days is interesting—the interior is still covered with scaffolding and the daily faithful at compressed into a few pews, surrounded by orange cones and yellow tape and gawking tourists.    I took my place at the end of a pew, near one of the columns.  Ahead of me to my right was an older man, long, thinning, grey hair spilling over the collar of his worn, brown coat.  He held an old missal, gilt edges gone brown with use, the onionskin pages, well thumbed and stained, the ribbons faded and frayed.  

I suppose I noticed him because he was so oblivious to anything but his book and the cross on the high altar, lost in his own world of prayer: turning pages to reveal an old-fashioned image of Christ crowned with thorns, fingering and occasionally lifting his rosary, sitting, kneeling, extending his hands, book and all, in some private gesture of worship.  

Before long, a well-dressed man entered the pew right in front of me and next to the man.  He looked askance at him for a moment, then gathered himself for mass, quiet, reserved, typically New York in a long black coat with a black hat on the pew next to him.  The older man continued to rattle his beads and turn his pages until mass began.  His private devotions continued, beads hitting the wood of the pew, pages rustling, hands extended, even as his eyes were fixed on the priest at the high altar.  The man in front of me edged away a bit.

As the priest announced the peace, the strangest thought flitted through my mind. Please let him offer me the peace.  Please me see Your eyes in his.  I need to see  Your eyes today.

That’s about like asking for a tropical day in Antarctica.  New Yorkers aren’t known for eye contact, particularly with strangers.  I think it may actually be against the law up here.

Just then, the man with the missal turned right to me and reached his hand to mine and took it, enfolding it in his other hand, soft, warm, like the hands of a priest.  He looked right at me, so directly I wanted to pull away but couldn’t.  Wide, bright,  blue eyes, almost unblinking, set in a face worn by the years but open and untroubled.  It wasn’t more than a second before he spoke, but it seemed like an eternity.  The peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.  His peace be with you.  Then : He loves you, you know. He loves you. He wants you to know that.   You are child of the love of Jesus and of Mary.  He continued to hold my hands, looking straight at me, with no more words until the Agnus Dei began.  All I could do was whisper Thank you as  he dropped my hands and I turned to the well-dressed man—something I never do once the  words of the liturgy have taken themselves up again.  He shrugged his shoulders a wry look on his face and brushed my hand with his before turning back to the mass.  I can’t remember what he looked like, but I think I will remember the other man’s face for a very long time.

I will ask Mary to accompany you today and meet every need that arises.

We all need to look into the eyes of Jesus.  Sometimes we can’t escape the fact that we do.  And Mary's job is only and always to bring us Jesus.

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