Finding God in the City
Can a city dweller hear God’s voice clearly or does the constant cacophony drown out His voice? If St. John of the Cross is correct in asserting that it is “great wisdom to know how to be silent” then is it foolish for the serious seeker of Christ to live in the city?
Saint Teresa of Calcutta, whose greatest works of mercy occurred on the chaotic streets of India, expressed that finding silence is essential to cultivating our relationship with God:
“We need to find God, and He cannot be found in noise and restlessness. God is the friend of silence. See how nature – trees, flowers, grass – grows in silence; see the stars, the moon and the sun, how they move in silence…we need silence to be able to touch souls.” – Saint Mother Teresa of Calcutta
Yet there have always been many holy souls who have preferred human nature to the other kind. The late Fr. Richard Neuhaus regarded New York City as “the prolepsis of the New Jerusalem”, facetiously questioning why someone would deliberately live anywhere else. St. Louise de Marillac, patroness of disappointing children and widows, devoted her life to working with the poor in Paris rather than seeking solitude in the countryside. Even Thomas Merton, who was later to live in a hermitage in Gethsemani, Illinois, found happiness and contentment at Columbia University. For these men and women, finding silence in the city was possible because they distinguished the the temporal from the spiritual: saints hear God’s voice both in solitude and amidst the masses because they know to listen for His whisper not outwardly but in the depths of the heart.
While one can have a relationship God regardless of where they live, it is undeniable that the city does influence its inhabitants. Like the emmet – ant – which loses it’s way in Blake’s “Dream”, some lose Christ among the multitude of paths the city presents.
A few years ago I was at St. Pancras station in London, waiting for a train which would take me to Paris. As I had an appreciable wait, I decided to venture down the street to see if there was a nearby Church where I could pray. Unable to spot a spire amidst the masonry brick buildings which lined the street, I attempted to stop walking so I could consider whether to abandon my search. As men in business suits and kids with headphones on bumped into me without looking up to make eye contact, I suddenly realised that while I was surrounded by people on this frenetic street, I was disconnected from their lives and reality. Moving to the edge of the sidewalk so that I could avoid getting trampled, I spotted an advertisement for a cell phone company. The poster presented two men and a woman, each in an indignant posture and donning a scowl. In layered irony, the large mega-corporation lamented the impersonality of the communications industry in England. The caption declared, “I am not a number”.
“Not a number’? I considered the truth of that statement as I looked upon the countenances of the models on the poster. I began to recall the prototype structures which I had passed along the way; aside from the number outside each door, there had been little to differentiate one from another. I recounted the expressionless faces of commuters on the subway; no one spoke to anyone else and most passenger just stared at the floor. I thought of the swarms that had passed me by on the street without even so much as a nod of acknowledgement or a smile. And then I recalled the words of Byron: “was Jerusalem builded here, amongst these dark satanic mills?”
“Not a number”? Not even a number.
The stark reality is that most of us are no ones to most everyone. None of us are likely to ever meet the people in that advertisement and even if we did we’d never know them. Their lives, their personal crises, their hopes, their dreams, their disillusionments and tragedies: all of these are unknown to us. Even the most prominent of people face a similar fate. Even if a person obtains global prominence, their legacy will likely be factual, cold and, eventually, lost:
Who was the most famous person
In the empire of Trebizond?”
Blank complete – no body knew that.
I asked: “does it really matter?”
“Uh no”, they answered quietly.
I said: “I do not know either;”
“nor do I really care so much!”
“Such is fame!” I told my class.
– Wieslaw Nowak, May 9, 1997
St. Francis was very blunt in expressing the reality of our temporal nothingness, a reality made obvious in the city. Having walked to the top of Mount Subiaso and gazed upon the vastness of Perugia, he memorably exclaimed that we are nothing but worms. Speaking at the turn of the century, he could scarcely have envisaged the literal significance his statement would attain for those who commute to work each morning by subway. Whether the analogy be worms or Blake’s emmets, there’s something unsettling about a life in which we find similarity with the subhuman.
As bleak as the metaphor may be, St. Francis found in it not despair but hope. Focusing on the transcendental rather than the temporal, he realized that it was only in God that he could find eternal meaning. Unconstrained by temporal limits, God was able to know him to the fullest extent and to the depths of his being. Moreover, He was able to love him both completely and eternally, across time and space. Only by placing his temporal condition juxtapose God’s eternal ambition for his soul was Francis able to obtain the strength and courage – the grace – to renounce this world completely and pursue a relationship with Jesus with such unprecedented vigour.
Although Francis’ eventually chose the green martyrdom of monastic life, it was his vocation rather than the intrinsic nature of cosmopolitan life which led to this decision. He had already renounced the world in his heart long before he did so externally. What mattered to Francis was not where he was, but that he was where he was best able to separate the spiritual from the temporal and embrace Christ most fully. The challenge presented to the modern city-dweller is to see Christ within her neighbour and embrace Him fully in her vocation. The temporal reality of our namelessness stands juxtapose one of God’s greatest miracles: that Jesus invites every person into a personal relationship. He knows us, loves us and has called us by name. No person is a number who is a child of God.