Looking at a routine week ahead. We have a guest, Fr. Ray Frias, who is an expert on Franciscan history in particular and church history in general. He is here this week to teach us about the history of the Capuchins, presumably with a focus on the saints in our fraternity. Brother Ray will take us on a guided tour of The Cloisters, which houses the Metropolitan Museum of Art's extensive collection of medieval Christian art and architecture. The Cloisters is itself a treasure, being a composite reconstruction, stone-for-stone, of five monastery cloisters. It's simply beautiful, and the environment, quiet and contemplative, is rich enough to make even people of no faith feel religious in spite of themselves.
I first visited the place in August 2003 while on vacation from Baltimore. It was the 14th, in fact. I'll never forget the date, because that afternoon the lights went out ... all over the Northeast.
Friends from the Middle States and Massachusetts, remember where you were when the blackout hit? I sure do. Little did I know what was up when The Cloisters staff evacuated everybody from the museum. At first I thought it was just a neighborhood blackout, affecting only Fort Tryon Park and Inwood. No problem. Then I discovered the subways were grounded. Okay, time to get on the bus. It took an hour and a half to reach Midtown! And I was one of the lucky ones to have a seat on a bus. The whole world wanted to get on! You never saw so many people milling the city sidewalks. Weird, I thought, but no matter. Thinking I was home free, when I got to Penn Station I discovered that the railroads were grounded, too. Stranded! I had flashbacks to Sept. 11, 2001, when it took several hours for all commuter rail service to resume. Trouble was, this was a much different scenario. Then, the rails were frozen for security reasons. Now, there was no power. Hour after hour passed, and evening came, and still no service. And then came the bad news: this was a blackout of historic proportions. No one had a clue when the lights were coming back on. Seriously stranded! Overnight in Manhattan with no place to go. At the time I did not have a cell phone, and I remember standing in line to use a pay phone to let my folks know I was all right but looking for someplace safe to stay. (This was probably the last time anyone ever saw a rush on pay phones.)
I had a ray of hope: an acquaintance who, like me, just finished a year of service in the Capuchins' volunteer program, CapCorps. She had just moved to Manhattan. Finding her address, I entered the apartment building with optimism. The doorman was all too glad to crush my hopes. I told him who I was looking for and who I was. But he couldn't buzz my friend's apartment because there was no power, and he would not allow me to take the stairs to her apartment. He refused to take my word for it that I did know the tenant. I tried calling my friend's number, but there was no answer. I was out of luck.
Wandering over to St. John the Baptist Church, the Capuchin parish on West 31st Street, for solace -- as I did on Sept. 11 less than two years earlier -- I found out that the church was open for the night to all who were stuck in the city. I believe I was met by Bro. Sal Patricola, who recognized me from some of the visits I had made to St. John the Baptist on candidate discernment weekends. He told me I could sleep on a pew in the church and use the facilities to wash up. Bless him. With a hot night on a hard pew, it was one of the worst nights of sleep I ever had. But while my body stayed tired, my soul was rested.
As sour as that night was, it was sweetened by signs of humanity at its best: impromptu block parties with restaurants and households sharing their perishables; civilians helping to direct traffic; people patrolling the streets in groups with flashlights; the Capuchin church open to all comers. And the streets of Manhattan, though shadowy and unquiet, yet with their darkened skyscrapers now soaring silhouettes, were strangely beautiful.
I didn't expect to riff off that first visit to The Cloisters like this! (May Wednesday's field trip with Brother Ray be more benign.) My journey to Manhattan did not end in any way like it had begun. But there is something important to consider. Whereas I fancied myself a pilgrim while walking blissfully through The Cloisters in climate-controlled comfort that afternoon, I became a real pilgrim that sultry night. Gazing at holy objects in a sacred space, I dreamed of being a disciple, full of heroic virtue. Standing on line to use the telephone, being turned away from shelter, and squirming on a pew, struggling for drowsiness in a room full of snoring people, I had to acquire the character of a disciple. Sad to say, I did not become a much better person from my experience, though I could have if I was more aware of the opportunity that had presented itself.
The next time a great inconvenience arises, or even a small crisis, I pray I will turn a seeming disadvantage into an advantage. I hope I look for the way to respond faithfully, in fact joyfully, in the moment of trial. Because life is to be lived religiously, especially when the times are poor enough to make even the righteous lose faith.