Praying on a New York City subway train? Those who view New York as chaos incarnate might consider such an undertaking impossible. In fact, though, many commuters find some of the very conditions of subway travel to be ideal for prayer. If you are lucky enough to have a seat, the fixed position is itself an important aid. Another is the rhythm of the car as it speeds from stop to stop, an almost gentle rocking motion. Finally, there is the soundnot so much a roar as a constant hum that blocks out the kinds of discordant noises one hears at street level. The hour matters too; morning is best, because the mind is not yet filled with the day’s impressions and the body has not succumbed to the exhaustion of the late afternoon as riders head home from work. Taken together, these circumstances create an ambiance conducive to prayer.
During my own daily commute from Nativity parish on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, I not only try to pray myself, I see prayer happening around me: a supportive awareness. The pray-ers are interspersed among headphone listeners, outright sleepers and readers of various newspapers and novels in paperback or hardcover format. One sure sign is an open Bible, often balanced on top of a pocketbook or briefcase.
On a cold January morning I happened to be sitting next to an African-American woman who had hers open to Psalm 42, with the first lines highlighted in yellow: "As the deer longs for the running streams, so my soul longs for you, O God." The verse expresses the feeling of many whose lives are filled with stressful demands.
The woman was middle-aged, and on the whole it seems to be older people who use their Bibles for subway prayer. To my surprise, however, one summer afternoon I noticed a young man opposite me wearing a white T-shirt with Queensboro Community College printed across the front; on his head was a baseball cap turned backwards. Hardly, one might think, the type to be reading a Bible. But that’s what he was doing, and quite intently. The search for God is not limited by age.
The Bibles can range in size from pocket New Testaments to the full Bible with a zip-up leather cover in black. Some have tabs along the side; others have the words attributed to Jesus printed in red. But it is not only Scripture that serves as a basis for prayer. Another source is The Daily Word a series of booklets that provide a religious meditation for each day of the month. Nor are all Christian writings: A rabbi in black was reading a Hebrew text during one trip. Other pray-ers apparently need no written helps and yet seem to be in conscious contact with God: Eyes closed, hands folded in their laps, they appear not to be daydreaming, but rather occupied with their own forms of contemplation.
Still others combine lectio divinausing the Bible or something analogousand contemplative prayer. This combination is the method of Rick Hamlin, who speaks of it in his 1997 book, Finding God on the A Train. Coming from the upper reaches of the city into midtown, he uses the subway stops "as markers guiding me in my ritual." The ritual involves focusing on the Bible or what his wife calls a "God book" for the initial long stretch. But then, at 125th Street, where his train changes from a local to an express, he closes his eyes for the remainder of the trip to 59th Street"at least five minutes...of uninterrupted time. This," he adds, "is my time for God." Without it, he concludes, "my day would fall apart and I would forget whose I am and what I want to do and what I believe."
Such is the case for many others during their morning ride to work: a time to find strength in remembering whose we are, what we believe and what we are meant to do during the overall journey of life.