Saturday, April 15, 2006

In His steps

Caravaggio, The Entombment
(click on picture for larger image)

Just before 8 p.m. last night, I arrived at St. Patrick's Old Cathedral, on Mott Street in lower Manhattan, for the annual "Way of the Cross" procession through downtown.

The event was organized by Geoff Gentile, one-half of the RCIA team at the Church of Our Saviour. He's in his 20s, and most of the 80 or so people who showed up on that rainy evening looked to be in their 20s and 30s. The crew included at least one priest, a St. Joseph's seminarian, and a Franciscan friar.

Speaking of the rain, I had bought an umbrella on the way to the meeting place, but right at the point when we did our first Station there outside the old St. Patrick's, the rain stopped. A good sign.

Over the course of four hours, as we did the 14 Stations, we walked through the Lower East Side and the East and West Village — as far east as Tompkins Square Park, as far west as Washington Street, and as far north as Union Square Park. Wherever we went, the wooden cross went first, lifted high by one of the men. A few other participants carried tall torches, which also served to relight walkers' candles. Many walkers carried palm leaves; a few palm leaves were also draped around the cross.

We did the Stations mostly outside churches — Catholic ones — including a Latino church, a Polish one (St. Stanislaus), and one that I think was Slovenian (St. Cyril's). The diversity of ethnic churches within a few square miles was a beautiful reminder of Catholicism's universality.

We did most of the other Stations at parks. At Union Square, we found ourselves beneath a stunning statue on a high pedestal of Mary holding the baby Jesus, with John the Baptist standing by. (I cannot find any mention of this online and would love it if someone could tell me more about it.) I've walked by that spot numerous times , mostly during the years before I was a Christian, and I don't recall ever noticing it before. It's a mysterious reminder of Jesus and His Mother, placed in one of the city's most famously anti-Christian locations (which has hosted countless communist and socialist protests over the years).

We also did one Station, the second, at a place where thousands of innocent people had been killed. It was at Margaret Sanger Square, at the side of Planned Parenthood of New York City's headquarters.

As we walked, we usually sang — "Ave Maria" (a chant, not the song), "Were You There," "Misericordias Domini," "Ubi Caritas," "Salve Regina," "Our Father," and the like.

I was reminded that the Protestants have nearly all the best songs. No Fanny Crosby tunes wafted through the cool evening air, neither was there "And Can It Be" or "Amazing Grace."

On the upside, no one volunteered "Our God Is an Awesome God."

We walked past posters for Madonna's tour, which is called "Confessions." We sang praises to God in Latin as we passed shops with names like The Shape of Lies. We chanted about the Lamb of God when we walked past the satanic-themed Slaughtered Lamb Pub. We sang "Ave Marie" all the way down Christopher Street, past the homosexual cruisers and the display windows of leather and chains.

We also walked past Weinstein dormitory, where I lived for four years when I went to New York University during the late 1980s. We went through the streets where I had been so unhappy as a college student, suffering from depression and believing that if there were a God, He didn't care about me. We proceeded within 100 feet of where a fresh-faced college student handed me a pocket Gideons New Testament back then, which I held onto over the years even though I didn't read it much, and which I finally began reading in earnest in 1999, weeks before I received my long-desired faith.

I felt sad for a moment as I wished I'd learned the beauty of the Church in college and saved myself years of wandering in the wilderness. But then I thought that God must have known what he was doing. Perhaps if I'd entered the Church back then, I wouldn't have had a strong enough foundation to cleave to it. Also, my relationships with some of my family members have deepened since that time; loved ones accept my conversion, who might have distanced themselves from me had I converted back then,

As the procession wound its way through the Village, our songs echoing through the night, I had the distinct feeling that we were bringing salt and light. That, and an unmistable sword.

I had a mental image which had also come to me when I had my First Communion, that I think I got from Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time. It's an image of the globe sheathed in darkness, but every so often a patch of light breaks through. It's like patches of new, healed skin emerging on a leper — and the healing keeps leading to more healing.

It felt so radical to take back the streets with song and prayer. We weren't blocking anyone, nor accosting anyone. All we were doing was being a living witness to Jesus' love and lordship.

I loved it, and I was so thankful to be part of a Church that would witness so boldly, peacefully, and powerfully. I want to pray outside abortion clinics now. I want to do processions everywhere.

People on the street had the predictable reactions. One young drunk asked us what we were doing; when someone told him, he said, "It is a Good Friday!" Another young man made a big show of saying, "I'm not with these guys, I have nothing to do with these guys, " as we passed by. A young, fashionable-looking woman eating in a restaurant put her fork down and turned her head to the window , mystified by the parade. Another woman, a bit older (40 is old for the Village), stopped as we passed her and smiled with apparent approval.

After singing and chanting our way down Christopher Street, we did the 12th Station at St. Veronica's Church on Christopher Street, across from the Archives building, where Monica Lewinsky lives. Then we walked to St. Vincent's Hospital, to observe the 13th Station at the Wall of Hope and Remembrance, where families and friends of 9/11 victims placed missing posters during the weeks following the attacks.

As midnight approached, we did the final station at St. Joseph's on Sixth Avenue and Washington Place. I had been there before; the church donates its basement to the local charity Caring Community, to prepare meals that are delivered to the elderly and shut-ins.

After the last prayer was said, one of the participants, a young man who had sung in a fine tenor voice, called out, "And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it."

I had been thinking of the same verse, John 1:5.

The darkness didn't know what hit it last night. But come Easter morning, the sun will shine brighter there in lower Manhattan — and everywhere.

Praise God!