I thought I’d catch up on my book on my way into Manhattan this morning. I got a seat on the train and started to read my book. It’s a wonderful story about an Indian researcher working in a Muslim community where everyone questions his faith. The train was a local and I’d have about 20 minutes before my stop.
The people on the train were not a distraction, but the long string of beads being turned over and over in the hands of a man opposite me pulled me away from my book in a way I could not have anticipated. Dozens of beads were strung in a loop like a long necklace, warm, medium brown wood, varnished so they would slip easily over his fingers. There were small silver beads that marked them into thirds and short red tassels. His hands were moving while his thoughts were fixed on the beads.
This would not have been an event today if it hadn’t been for the group of friends sitting on my return train home later in the day. There was, in my one subway car, a group of people fingering their beads, identical to the ones from this morning; two middle-aged women, sitting in two different sections of the car, accompanied by one young man, and two young women. They were speaking to each other over the noise of the train and I got the impression they were visiting New York as a group. And they were all holding nearly identical prayer beads.
What struck me was how easily they all displayed their prayers in public. These beads were significantly larger than the typical worry beads I have seen before, the ones that resemble a bracelet. You know, I can’t remember the last time I saw anyone using a rosary on public transportation. Rosaries are so traditional, so old fashioned, you rarely see them in use even in churches in New York, much less on the street. Yet, these subway riders were all using their beads on the train.
One woman held them between her two hands, moving the beads slowly from one hand to the other. The young man was talking the whole time, holding the beads in one hand, then absent-mindedly passing them to the other hand. The woman sitting directly opposite me held them on her lap, behind her bag, only pulling them out to move them from one section to the other, and the woman sitting just a couple of seats from me sat with her eyes closed, the beads barely moving, her prayers wrapped in her silence.
At the end of our ride, my daughter and I got off the train where we were met with the sound of a youth choir. It was Sunday, after all, and the most appropriate time for this sort of God-fearing behavior. It was a group of young adults singing in harmony in a subway station in the Bronx. The girls wore skirts that fell demurely below the knee and small white caps that kept their hair in place and the boys all had their shirts tucked into their pants. There is a Mennonite congregation that places this choir in this subway stop on Sundays in an earnest attempt at evangelization. They were passing out a CD of their hymns.
What do these two groups have in common? They share an ability to own up to their faith in a secular world. They pray and they sing their belief in their God and they do it out loud. There was no attempt to conceal the prayer beads in their pockets or to give thought to their prayers without them. The subway riders were not trying to make disciples. They were just displaying their faith and even though the choir wanted us all to know what a friend we have in Jesus, they were not at all afraid or self-conscious.
When I got home, all I could think about was my mother’s wake last year. The priest came to say the rosary at the funeral home and I didn’t have beads. I felt inadequate, like I’d missed the memo to bring rosary beads to the funeral home. I should have had beads with me, but when my mother died and I had to catch a plane in just a few hours to go home, I never thought to bring them. I could have used them in the airport, on the plane, when all I could think about was how unprepared I was for all the events to come, the funeral home, the funeral Mass, the cemetery, the family. I could have used them to focus my thoughts and to pull myself together, but I’ve never been a rosary out-in-the-open kind of Catholic. I’ve sung Christmas carols outdoors, but that’s a far cry from passing out hymn CDs in a train station.
I listened to a couple of tracks on the Mennonite CD. It’s a sweet, naïve, high school sound and the texts are sincere and clear. I thought about the prayer beads too, the way they all could carry them onto the train and use them in the open. So, I’m going to try carrying a rosary in my bag. I might not be ready to pull them out on the bus, my beads, but it might be good to have them.
Photo by me, 2013