The woman was older, but in a way that spoke more of experience and enthusiasm and vibrant life than of age, really, her gray hair swept back from her face and held in place with ornate combs. They were interesting things, those combs, bright and colorful against the sober shades of her hair, as bright as the red scarf she wore against the early March wind and wet of the city as we sat across from each other on the bus as it rattled and rolled through the heart of downtown. It was my first time in New York, and I had hours to go before checking into my room, so I had wandered, walking long blocks, winding through parks and shops and cafes, sitting on benches, trying to see and sense a little about the life of the city before a dense and drizzling rain forced me out of the open and onto the bus where I sat across from the woman with the dazzling combs and the brilliant scarf and the sharp eyed interest in the stranger who sat clutching a backpack and suitcase, wide-eyed with new experiences, across the aisle. She was powerfully attentive, this woman I had happened across. Interesting. And interested.
She was an opera singer, she told me. Had sung in all the big cities, had traveled and toured and wound her way through Europe. Had attended Mass in cathedrals full of stained glass and art and prayers in so many languages and so many places she had lost count. Of all the things about traveling, she told me, she loved Sunday Mass the most, for the way it felt in the mouth and the heart and the ear, for the way the words sounded true in her heart, even when she did not understand the language—although she understood many. French. Italian. German. All languages in which great operas have been written, languages she learned to become a better singer, a better performer—and then a better traveler, a better citizen of the world she was eager to see. The conversation wound along paths as new to me as the streets we were traveling, and as wonderful, as she told me about her love of new places, but her yearning for the old, until at last she had come home to the city where she had been born, and had grown up, her hometown—her center she called it. Her community. Her heart. Her faith.
She needed it, this place she called home, she told me, after years of wandering, of experiencing, of exploring the boundaries of her world. She needed her neighbors, her family, her congregation. The feel of Sunday Mass in a place where she recognized the old familiar faces—for even in a city as changeable as New York—the Lonely City some call it—on Sunday at Mass, surrounded by the same walls that had witnessed her baptism, her confirmation, her marriage, she felt the roots of her faith sunk deep. “People will tell you the city is hard—that people are unkind, unfriendly. But real New Yorkers—they will sweep you up in their lives. You just have to look for the people who really belong to the city—do you know where your stop is? Let me write it down for you. And you have to try the deli up the block, they make a lentil soup that will chase the chill away, no matter how cold it gets.” And with that she bundled me off the bus, pointing in the direction of my hotel, gesturing at the deli down the street, the little shop around the corner where I could find anything I had forgotten to pack, and a list of places to see or eat or sit and enjoy, with a nod at the church on the corner, “Maybe I’ll see you on Sunday. Mass is at 10.”
Three years later, this is what I think of when I think of New York. A conversation on a city bus, a brief encounter, a welcome, a simple declaration of faith in the middle of a crowded aisle, with the damp steaming in the air between us—a note of belonging. A reaching out. A benediction. For me, faith is an intimate thing, a foundation on which simple connections can be made in spaces of beauty and stunning grandeur—or in brief interactions with strangers in a strange place. And I remember that Sunday Mass where I snuck into the back row—the slant of light from the windows high above, dusting the wood beams. Her smile when she saw me across a different type of aisle. The prayers that were so different from my own, but full of the same hope and love. This, to me, is faith. A moment that allows us to reach out and change the places and people around us. To celebrate. To pray. To connect. Or to look out for someone caught in the rain in a new place, with a torrent of words, a welcoming smile, a list of places to see, and a hope to see you again soon.