This is my place. This is my time. This is my discipline.
The subway rattles, shakes and rolls. The tabloid headlines scream out in boldface. Who was killed? Who was maimed? Who won the lottery? The kids sitting next to me and standing above me are talking about school. One lone soul in baggy pants with the crotch at his knees is doing his homework, scratching the answers to algebraic equations in a workbook while trying to contribute to the conversation around him about girlfriends and teachers and music. Others have music playing in their earbuds. Very loud. All I get from where I sit are drums and bass.
At least the kids are easier to ignore than the old people. Old people standing on a crowded subway while I sit are the worst distraction of all. Old people who get on at 168th Street or 145th Street, after I’ve settled into one of the few seats. Old people who can barely reach the bar above my head. I hear their sighs. I feel their packages at my toes. Looking down, I can see their tired feet, the women in hose that bunch at the ankles. I avoid looking up, wary of meeting the gaze that will say, “Give me your seat, please.” I avoid noticing how old they are by focusing on the small book in my lap or by closing my eyes and thinking about God.
This is my place. This is my time. And if I really believed in the integrity of this devotional time, I would get up and offer my place to someone who probably deserves it more than I do. But that would mean stopping my prayer time for a moment, leaving off the meditation that I desperately crave. But I already have stopped. There’s no choice. I look up and lock eyes. I offer my seat. The woman shakes her head no. I insist. She shakes her head again. She says something to me in Spanish and indicates by her gestures that she doesn’t mind standing. I look at what she’s reading. I can make out a few words about God and prayer. I smile. This is her place too. We’re not alone. Where two or three are gathered in my name, I’m there with them.
I close my eyes again and concentrate. Without even gazing around, I know there are others here too. I’ve come to know them by sight over the years. There’s the woman with the red chapped hands who takes a rosary out of her frayed overcoat pocket and fingers the beads with one hand while holding on to the pole with the other (unless she, fortunate one, has found a place to sit). There’s the young Orthodox Jewish man with a thin brown beard barely covering his pink cheeks and chin. His prayer book is a mystery to me, the pages going back to front, the words right to left.
There are Bible readers with black, well-thumbed books, passages circled and underlined in multicolored ink. I avoid their eyes because when they see what I’m reading they invite me to their neighborhood Bible study groups, and although I admire their commitment, this morning I don’t want to hear their textual analysis. I don’t even want to hear their witness, however moving their tales might be. This is not my time for community—except for the silent community that we create as we pray separately together on our journey south to make money for mortgages, rent, groceries, spouses and children, pizza and a movie on Saturday night.
Despite my best antisocial efforts, someone I know sits down next to me and I have to talk. My neighbor and I happen to find ourselves on the same train, in the same car, on the same bench, and although I can tell he’d rather read the newspaper folded open in his hands and I’d rather look at the book in my lap, we make conversation. Of course, we could avoid talking about anything important by sticking to the weather, and then he could wander back to the front page and (if I proved brave enough to expose my fumbling efforts at faith) I might stray back to this little green-bound pocket edition of the New Testament and Psalms.
Instead we connect. We discuss a mutual friend who’s seriously ill. We talk about frustrations we have as parents of boys who are close in age. “How’s your son doing in soccer this year?” “Is he planning to play baseball in the spring?” “What do you do when he doesn’t do his homework?” We share our love of community and discuss the odd, awkward way our apartment building makes us a community.
At Fifty-Ninth Street, where we both get off the A express train—he goes upstairs to take another train and I wait for the local—we bid each other goodbye. How much time did we spend together? Twenty minutes at the most. But the time wasn’t wasted. We’re good friends. We exchanged news and advice. We talked. And as much as I’d dreaded the interruption of the business I’d set out to accomplish, I was grateful for it in the end.
“The Holy Spirit is the Lord of our time,” a minister once said to me when we were discussing time management and how frustrating it was that you could never get done exactly what you planned to get done. “We give ourselves goals, deadlines, schedules, timetables,” he explained to me, “but in the end, the Holy Spirit is the Lord of our time.”
I understood what he meant. The interruptions— the problem phone call, the crisis at home, the sick colleague whose job we must fill—are holy obligations as serious as the devotional time we’ve set aside to be with God. Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift at the altar and go. First make things right with your brother or sister and then come back and offer your gift.
So morning after morning, I come to this place in a world of distractions and I pray. I don’t clock myself, but I use the subway stops as markers, guiding me in my discipline. I read from the 181st Street station to the 125th Street station, usually from the Bible, occasionally from what my wife calls a “God book”—a work by some metaphysical sage, recent or not so recent. Then at 125th Street I close my eyes. It’s the express train, no more stops from there to Fifty-Ninth Street. At least five minutes (but as I say, I’ve never clocked it) of uninterrupted time. This is my time for God.
It’s so little. I’m almost ashamed to admit to it on paper. There are other times too, I hasten to add. There are spot prayers uttered at work between taking a phone call, making a trip to the water cooler and wrestling with new apps on my desktop. There are letters that are really prayers as they capture a wish or a dream or a hope for someone else. There are formal prayers said at church on my knees, or grace at dinner with the kids, thanking God for the minutiae of a day. There are those prayers I say in bed at night when I can’t get to sleep because of worries about friends or work or family. And then there are the songs that are prayers lingering in my head like the incense that clings to my jacket after a High Church festival Sunday with the thurifer swinging the billowing censer while smoke-sensitive choir members cover their mouths with handkerchiefs.
But this early-morning time of prayer feels like the most important. Without it, my day would fall apart and I would forget whose I am and what I want to do and what I believe. It’s the time without which I would exist only for myself, without which I would be consumed by petty demands on my time and petty distractions of my ego. I would be pulled into a thousand pieces by the various roles of life I play—friend, singer, son, do-gooder, student, worshiper, committee member, faithful correspondent, telephone talker, writer, editor, husband, father.
It’s my time. It’s my place.
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