One bright March morning in Midtown Manhattan, near Penn Station, I walk east. Early for breakfast with traveling friends, I am looking for a church, any church. If I’m lucky I’ll find one where I can escape this bitter wind. If I’m really lucky, I’ll find a few minutes of peace — which seems unlikely in the proximity of Macy’s and the Manhattan Mall.
I find the Church of Saint Francis of Assisi. I notice a sign, etched in a metal doorframe, below the main sanctuary: Shrine of Saint Anthony. I pull open one of the doors, each marked with a large metal cross. I realize, as I blink to adjust from the sunlight, there are stairs going down.
For a few seconds, I feel the way I do when I’ve come through a subway turnstile and see empty stairs to the platform. I calculate, the way New Yorkers do. Is it safe? When I walk down the stairs, will a homeless person be tucked under blankets? Will a menacing man be standing, waiting? Will it smell of urine and body odor? Of alcohol or bleach? I’m aware it’s always like this, especially in this city, it seems — in seconds everything can change. The last-minute decision to duck into a diner, the quick dash against the light. Those impulsive decisions can leave you gasping for air at a crosswalk. Or worse. Was I making one of those choices now? Would I be lost? Would I be found?
It’s amazing what we do in the face of fear, in the face of the unknown, in the face of stories of failure and violence and death. Every choice, big or small, every new job, every date, every pull on a door, every time we get out of bed, feet on the floor after a restless night. Every step seems like a miracle, really. Each one is defiant in the face of all that could happen, that might happen, that has happened. Every little step forward, every opening, each one is triumphant.
I take a step down the stairs. And again and again. Each stair is edged with rough black rubber, like safety stripes in a bathtub. There’s no criminal lurking at the bottom, no homeless person trying to keep warm. No one at all. Relieved, I hold the metal handrail and keep going. I am unsettled, still wondering what I’ll find. Was that unlocked door the mistake of a forgetful priest? Will I find some old church office — metal file cabinets, cluttered desk, mandatory painting of Jesus? Or a grim cinderblock room with a plastic statue and folding chairs?
[E]ven when each decision feels like a step off a skyscraper, sometimes there is nothing to be afraid of at all.
At the bottom of the stairs, to my left, is another door to open. Again, the opening, all the openings. Lately, I feel like I always have to do this — open doors, walk through. Like making those daily choices, I have to open doors in front of me when I’m not sure of the consequences. Hope and curiosity move my hand toward the handle, along with the knowledge that I have also walked past plenty. Roads not taken. Doors not opened. I try to think of things you can get without leaving your apartment, without opening doors. No one brings you anything in this town, well, except delivery and room service. But if you want to get them, you still have to open a door.
So I do it. I open the door. Beauty seems to rush at me on all sides. To my left in this entryway is glowing stained glass artwork, lit from behind. Although I can’t grasp the whole story, I see images of angels kneeling by firefighters. On the wall to my right is a wooden relief of Saint Anthony. The glass door in front of me is framed by worn wood.
I open it and I almost gasp. In front of me is a chapel. Around me is a beautiful underground room, cream-colored walls with dark wood paneling. Rectangular columns curve where they meet the ceiling, on each side a painting of a saint. Their names are painted underneath, appreciated by this non-Catholic. I am distracted by a statue of a baby Jesus dressed in gold to my right. It is impossibly quiet for Midtown. This is so much more than I expected.
We are so separate in this city, so siloed, but we are also bound together, here with our longings, our losses, our gratitude.
This is the reward for all that opening. Always, always, opening doors, because sometimes you will not find your worst fears at the bottom of the stairs. You realize that for all your dire imaginings, even when each decision feels like a step off a skyscraper, sometimes there is nothing to be afraid of at all. You stop the calculus of risk. Sometimes you step off the sidewalk, walk down the stairs, open the door and find something quiet and holy. And sometimes, you find other people there, too, people who also opened the door.
I walk through an open door into the chapel. The wooden pew groans as I sit down. There is an altar at the front. There are more columns with paintings of saints. It’s the people I notice, though, more than the saints. Fewer than 15. They are quiet. There is no priest. No Mass. Just people sitting, most perched at the end of a pew. Each one is wearing a coat. It’s not cold inside, but it’s so cold outside, we carry that cold with us. Most of us won’t stay long enough to warm up. And in this city of sirens and trains and trucks, every single person is silent. Sitting, kneeling, or standing, we are silent.
I am humbled and awed by what must bring us here. We are so separate in this city, so siloed, but we are also bound together, here with our longings, our losses, our gratitude. We are all so needy and desperate and fragile. We are paper-thin really, despite our bulky coats. Free time and cold wind brought me inside, but there is something else. There is some yearning, deep and wide, that I just can’t name. It feels holy. It’s in us, in our brokenness, and in the desperate hopes that got us here. Some would say it is the light within or a divine restlessness or some kind of grace. Maybe it’s the hope that there is more to this world than we can see. I can’t name it, but I feel it, a unity in our yearning.
Occasionally, someone stands or pushes a red button by a statue to light an electric candle. Then, I stand. I leave the chapel. Facing the doors I had walked through, I look right. Painted in gold over a shrine to Saint Anthony are the words, “Love one another.” On the way out, I open the doors without thought. As I approach the bottom of the stairs, I watch a man reach for holy water. I didn’t notice it when I came in — in the place I was afraid I would see a dangerous man or someone suffering, there was holy water, at the foot of a mosaic of the Virgin Mary.
I leave stunned and grateful that there is space for this, for us, underground in this tall town. We are all just trying, opening doors, walking down steps, reaching for something we cannot name, not knowing if we’ll find a violent person, a suffering person, or holy water. And still we do it, again and again. Here, in this hidden sanctuary, we were all together for a few minutes, in this sweet, holy mystery. I walk up the stairs. I push open the metal door and walk into the light of this big, bright city.