My neighborhood sandwich shop is a great place to people watch. On any given day, you can witness hungover college students gulping down giant sandwiches, priests and nuns passionately debating the latest Catholic news, neighborhood kids ordering milkshakes they can barely carry, beggars shuffling through the store asking for money, pamphleteers taking a break from changing the world one leaflet at a time to chug a soda, and local beauty school attendees nervously studying up on the latest hair-dos (and hair-dont’s, for that matter). I never know what I’ll encounter, and I guess that’s half the fun of walking down a few blocks for my usual ham sandwich and chips.
Yesterday, as I waited patiently in an unusually short lunch line, an older woman pushing a wheelchair caught my eye as she approached a monk quietly enjoying his lunch in a sunny part of the shop. I could not hear what was said, but the body language, the eyes, the mouthed words indicated to me that these two people did not know each other. I wondered, with at most half-interest, if she was asking for directions, or inquiring as to his funny-looking robe. Then, among the crying baby, the teenage girls on their cell phones, and the panicked clerk floundering behind the counter to make change, my world slowed down as I watched the lady reach out to hold the monk’s hand and bow her head as he said a prayer.
It’s not unusual to see someone pray in public. Although I will always maintain that Jesus does not want any soul to invoke his name over a plate of McNuggets, I grew up seeing families bow their heads before a meal, teammates take a knee after a hard-fought game, and students gather around flag poles to join hands in prayer. Despite being a faithful churchgoer all throughout my childhood and youth, these displays always seemed a little showy to me, almost profane to make something so personal so public. As I got older, grew into myself, and abandoned the orthodoxy if not the lessons of the church, the call to prayer, faint as it had ever been, left permanently. Over time, I viewed these public prayers with bemusement and perhaps a little self-satisfied indignation.
The woman holding the monk’s hand in the sandwich shop was different, though. She wasn’t putting on a show, waiting to be seen, or going through the motions. I don’t know what compelled her to approach the monk. She was pushing a wheelchair carrying a man I presume was her husband. Maybe she was praying for a miracle that he would walk again. Maybe she was simply tired. Maybe anything. Who knows? It doesn’t really matter, and it’s none of my business. The sincerity of her approach, the respect she held for the monk was evident, though. That level of faith and belief is simply inaccessible to me.
I don’t know why people pray or believe in God or attend church. As someone rejected by the larger institutional church, it’s all a little hocus-pocus to me. Perhaps a sincere hocus-pocus, but a hocus-pocus nonetheless. Magical spell or no, the lady in the sandwich shop was a believer, and her humble exchange with the monk transcended the precision of science and rejected my smug certainty. I doubt I’ll ever approach a stranger in public for a prayer, but I will admit to a little jealousy, for I find something beautiful about this woman’s world. A world where, among sandwiches and soda pop, strangers can transcend the known world, invoke all-knowing and all-loving power, and comfort each other with their faith. True or not, in its sincerest form, it has a poetry. Even over pastrami.