The subway station at Columbus Circle is massive. It’s three levels deep, and spreads beneath 59th street like a giant ant colony. The 1, the A, the B, the C, and the D converge here, the halfway point between Brooklyn and the Bronx via Manhattan. Uptown, downtown, even crosstown commuters flood the station running for connecting trains.
In the summer of 1999, I was one of those runners. I had a little job in midtown working for Fordham’s Public Affairs Office, and I lived in the Bronx with my brother.
New York is brutal in the summer, especially underground. There is no air conditioning in the stations, and the only relief from the oppressive heat is a warm rush of foul smelling air pushed ahead of speeding trains.
The heat and the stench is not the only inconvenience. At Columbus Circle there is a staircase so long and wide and steep, I’ve seen tourists stand at its base just looking up, mouth agape.
It’s on these stairs I hear an angel.
The voice cuts through the screech and rattle of dozens of underground trains. It rises above the din of thousands of hustling commuters. It stops me in my tracks.
Though my train is ahead and not below, my curiosity gets the better of me.
There on the landing stands a large Asian man. He is singing an aria in a language I suppose is Italian.
It is beautiful.
A small circle has formed around him. Strangely, there is no open guitar case asking for donations, no sign asking for help. He is just there, singing and playing a keyboard.
I watch the people around him, as I often do, running for their trains. More than a few pause and listen and smile before continuing on, others stay to watch. The performer has no idea. His eyes are closed. He is dedicated completely to his work.
Sometimes performers from the Metropolitan Opera House do this. They find a public space and perform free of charge just to practice, just to share their gifts.
Below this impromptu opera, at the bottom of the stairs is a woman and a stroller.
I see her hair matted to her sweaty forehead and the slumped shoulders of an exhausted parent. I go to her, but I’m too late.
A man in an expensive business suit grabs the front of the stroller and together they make it to the top. Without a word he sets the stroller down gently and continues on to his train.
I’ve seen this scenario, at this station, a hundred times before. Silk bloused business women in high heels, sweaty men in tee shirts, college students wearing back packs, all grab the stroller, all make the ascent together. She never asks for help but someone always does.
She yells out a “Thank you,” and they wave, or say “No problem”, never looking back.
It is beautiful.
I think of that staircase as I get reacquainted with my faith.
The little church in our town, Saint Columba, is small and simple. I went there this morning.
There is no mass and the door is always unlocked, so I go in. I take some pictures of the stained glass and the altar. I say a few prayers and listen to the quiet.
When I open my eyes I see a statue of Mary. Next to her is the Corporal Works of Mercy. On the other side is Joseph and the Spiritual Works of Mercy.
It is an interesting moment for me. Here I am alone in a dark quiet church, praying and enjoying the silence, yet before me are two lists urging me to get out and start interacting with our world and people in need.
In the midst of scandal and atrocious evil it’s been hard for me to go to church, to even say I’m a Catholic. I’ve become the “I’m more spiritual than religious,” person, filled with mistrust and disgust. In the church’s ongoing struggles I find myself feeling righteous. I feel validated that I question the Vatican to the point of disbelief. Who are they to tell me what to do, what to think, what to believe?
Questions swirl through my mind every day, but I don’t think sitting in a dark church is getting me any closer to a solution. I need to start living Christ’s example; by finding the good that does exist in the Church’s teachings and take action.
I’m nervous that by taking this stance and renewing my faith, I am somehow distancing myself from some people. I hope that isn’t the case. I want you and I need and I love you.
If you stay with me I can offer you companionship.
Whatever our identity, whatever our belief, whatever our burden, it’ll be easier to climb that staircase if we lift together. We each have gifts to share and a song to sing.
If we’re lucky, and we push through the noise and the heat and the foul stench, we may just hear an angel.
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