There was a man today on the subway, holding a rosary with a silver crucifix, rubbing the beads between his thumb and finger, winding the chain around his hands, eyes closed and whispering softly some sacrament. “Bless me, father,” but probably a “Hail Mary” or “Our Father, who art.” Faith, genuine personal faith, is something I am naturally in awe of. I have my own beliefs, but they are vaguer than finite, ideas rather than dogma. This man had faith, and it was making all of his fellow riders nervous.
He was not performing a show; he was creating a private space for himself in an urban bustle. Praying on a subway train is not affectation, New Yorkers are too skeptical of outward displays of suburban or Middle American values. A man can roll down the street on a unicycle with 30 tattoos, a lip plate, wearing a kilt, but the scene that shocks us most is a man in khakis and a button up plaid short-sleeve in the throws of religious ecstasy, or at least a privately held moment. What a weird time to live.
He prayed over the rosary three or four times in 25-minutes, going bead-by-bead as is sometimes customary. At each successive stop, the attention of his fellow passengers grew. Stolen glances became balls out stares that the closed eyed man failed to notice. As new passengers arrived, someone would look up and nod in the man’s direction, more gazes for the circus freak. After a few stops an uncomfortable rustle passed through the car. What did this man know that we did not? What signs were out there? Was it time to go find Jesus, to save our souls, to drink the Kool Aid? Glances were exchanged, shoulders shrugged, and attention returned.
As we neared my stop for work, I stood up. I had been one seat to his right. The man made the sign of the cross, kissed his crucifix, and, with the solid metal point near Jesus’ feet, touched his forehead, chest, shoulder and shoulder again. “Amen,” he whispered, looking up for the first time. His eyes ran over the crowd that was now blatantly staring in his direction, no one pretended to do otherwise, and the discomfort of the whole passed onto the one. Confusion passed over his face. What had I been doing wrong?, he seemed to think. One could argue that he had taken religion into the one place it didn’t belong, beneath the streets, closer to hell than heaven. But New Yorkers always tolerate the shouting man in the robe, “The end is coming! Repent! Jesus Saves! Jesus Loves!,” so what had this man been doing wrong? He shuffled his feet, gripped his hands, pulling the rosary up into his folded fists, hiding it from his fellow straphangers. And now he looked ashamed.
It was one of the oddest rides of my life. I’m generally in awe of faith, as I have said, and this seemed to be a man of genuine belief. He was stealing a few moments before walking up to whatever life he had, and it made everyone around him skittish. He may as well have stood up and said, “You’re all going to hell!” It might have had the same effect. The people were skittish. Religion and faith are different things, not really relatable. Faith is personal, a relationship between you and your Divine Whatever. Inner thoughts and private moments, knowing and loving. Religious is communal, supportive, judgmental, a haven of sorts, a club to which you can belong. Someone of faith can be supported by their religion, but being religious does not necessarily transfer faith. It’s not a guarantee. Religions can be both positive and negative. It can give people strength, or start wars. Faith is what it is. To me at least. Somehow this man had brought his faith onto public transportation and it became religion.
As the subway neared my stop he got up and walked to the end of the car, sliding open the door and passing between to the car behind, presumably where he would somehow transfer a peculiar brand unease to the riders there, through no fault of his own. I felt sorry for him. And I felt sorry for us.