I live in New York City; not a great place to be if one’s in search of solemnity. That’s a problem, at least for me, because I find it hard to pray when I’m in constant flux or motion. For better or worse, I’m a denizen of the city that never sleeps, but I refuse to become part of the city that never prays.
The other day I was profoundly moved by something I saw on the subway. I was traveling home during rush hour and there was a construction worker riding with me, engaged in an elaborate cycle of prayer. He got down on his knees several times, in the middle of the train, reciting from a well-worn Bible. He spoke with the familiarity of someone who didn’t really need the text, but enjoyed holding the pages anyways.
You get pretty used to people evangelizing on the subway, letting you know the myriad ways in which you’re damned. This wasn’t that. This was clearly for no one’s benefit but his own. In the middle of a crowded N train, he carved out time to pray. I sat, transfixed.
I admired his bravery. Faith has always been something I perform in private—in my own home or the comfortable security of a congregation. Public displays of religiosity have always put me ill at ease. And on the subway, in particular, I avoid any behavior that might draw attention. He didn’t care. He was far more concerned about his connection to God, than what his fellow riders thought of that connection. He chiseled time for stillness in the environment perhaps least conducive to it. His faith inspires me.
He reminded me that a connection with the divine isn’t something that just happens. It requires effort, discipline; the intentional creation of peace amidst chaos. In his book The Sabbath, Abraham Joshua Heschel talks about Sabbath rest as a palace within time which we build. Too often we are so concerned with matters of space, trying to shape our physical surroundings, that we forget God’s commandment to focus on matters of time.
We are called to nourish our connection with God, to build our own palace in time. The man I saw was building his, brick by brick, kneeling in the subway.
Ben Perry is an Assistant Editor at Time, Inc., a graduate of Union Theological Seminary in NYC and a member of Bedford Presbyterian Church.