Walking down the streets of New York City for hours on end, I noticed so many faces; all strange and new, different and complex. Sitting on the subway was my favorite for people-viewing. Most everyone seemed to be numbing themselves with buds in their ears and a phone screen in front of their face. Some were staring ahead into the abyss of the grimy windows to the cement wall blurring past. As we stood on a crowded afternoon train where there was no place to sit, another train traveling the opposite direction seemed to fly by at twice the speed, offset by our own rail. As we caught a quick glance into the lit up windows of other people sitting in the southbound train, my little sister said quietly, as if to herself, “a slice of life“. When my daughter asked what she meant, she explained, “You saw that train fly past? And for a second you could see into the windows, the people on the train? It’s like a quick picture; a sample of life.” We were all silent for a few minutes after that, trying to skim the top layer of what all that really meant.
It’s easy to get swept away in a crowd or a mass of strangers and feel unimportant. It’s easy to feel like a number when you get off the plane and see a sign that reads “There are over 19 million people in this city”, or to visit Ellis Island and see pictures of ships full of crowds that spent months traveling to become citizens of this great nation, where opportunities to be what you dreamed you could be meant risking your own life, or even worse, the lives of your own small children.
Traveling for these immigrants meant weeks on the sea, poor accommodations, exposure to illnesses, uncomfortable sleeping arrangements (if any) and possible starvation. Everything they owned was on their backs, and if they failed to pass some standardized testing, “authorities” may think they were so different it qualified them as “abnormal” (crazy). These people were stuck in a holding facility (like a jail cell) for sometimes weeks on end without any communication of release, while their family members may have slept on a bench outside, wondering if they would ever be permitted to begin their new life.
As we head toward Holy Week and the last part of Lent, we can review our progress of the three pillars of Prayer, Fasting and Alms-giving, and ask ourselves if we look at each person as a soul, precious to God, created for a purpose and mission in this big world. Let us not numb ourselves in our virtual worlds and social media, but reach out to someone in kindness and concern. Everyone is hurting or carrying a cross of some kind. It can be the greatest act of charity and alms-giving to set aside our own woes, stop nursing our own hurts, and look deep into the eyes of a stranger or even someone who makes us uncomfortable because we don’t understand them, and seek to understand before seeking to be understood, as St Francis taught us.
PRAYER OF ST FRANCIS
Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace;
where there is hatred let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master,
grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console;
to be understood, as to understand;
to be loved, as to love;
for it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
-St. Francis of Assisi