Across the years I have thought of myself as a settler, not a pioneer. While I inhabited challenging positions in Jesuit higher education, the anchor never swayed far from the bank. I love international travel, always to come back to the security of my Midwestern roots and zip code. I have traveled and studied on six continents and have come to believe Martin Buber’s observation, “All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware.” My recent migration to Midtown Manhattan is no exception.
This is not meant to be a “travels with Johnnie” piece but rather validation that opening new doors and doing new things keeps us curious and that curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.
One such experience was the December holiday season of Christmas and Hanukkah. It is a very festive time in New York City, when Christmas trees and menorahs vie for attention and sometimes in very interesting combinations and juxtapositions—like a menorah on top of a Christmas tree or little trees replacing candles in the menorah. I saw it all! I shared this season with thousands of tourists, who moved along Fifth Avenue like schools of salmon navigating locks.
The night they lighted the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree amid tens of thousands of cheering onlookers, I walked home with great peacefulness, having discovered a new sense of belonging; that great tree was for everyone regardless of state or status. Back in my room, I spotted my menorah, a gift from generous Jewish friends. I lit a candle. And as I watched the flame dance across the window, casting shadows on the walls, friendships across the years embraced me. The season took on a dimension I did not plan or expect, a clear proof that God hides things by putting them all around us.
Then there is my parish experience. You all know Jesuits like to have a bully pulpit on the weekends. So I went in search of such a space. I found a home at a small, neo-Georgian church with a long-standing music program and a reputation for being a church of “singers.” They happen to sponsor a concert series of “music before 1800,” so I knew Corpus Christi Parish was home!
My first service was an extraordinary experience for me. The congregation was so diverse: Haitian, African-American, Caribbean, Italian and Irish, neighbors, Columbia University students and faculty. It was a treasure chest of life and livelihood. And could they sing, and, indeed, did they sing! Such a rich gathering of color and complexion I have not witnessed since my San Francisco days. It was a pronounced sign of the church universal, a gathering that spoke, or rather sang loudly of Eucharist. That morning on the train home, I felt a deep sense of gratitude for my priesthood and those who welcomed it. Again, God hides things by putting them all around us.
Another place God hides things is in the density of cities. My previous digs had an expansive view of the Missouri River and an Iowa horizon. My present room has five windows, all with the same view: brick walls—of various shades, of course. An occasional shard of sunshine invades my russet canyon, much to the delight of my philodendron. Having never experienced such an inscape, my curiosity does engage my imagination. Who lives behind those red drapes; why is that television set on 24/7; and what is with having Christmas lights in March? What do they think looking my way? What do they make of the dim light that marks my morning prayer time? As I glance at shadowed bricks and casements, I recall that the history of the Christian tradition is inexorably linked to urban society. St. Ignatius loved the great cities of Europe. I suspect he knew what I am discovering, that God hides things all around us.