I met St.Benedict on the 33 Q bus from LaGuardia Airport to Jackson Heights. He was hard of hearing. It wasn’t until he leaned over and asked me to repeat myself twice that I saw the large hearing aids protruding from his head.
“Is the last stop on this route going to get me to the #7 train?” I asked, trying hard to avoid sounding as desperate as I felt. I was beginning to realize how poor my map reading skills were, and all the stops looked the same to me.
“I’m not sure…Hold on.” He got out his phone and started thumbing through information. Then he turned to another guy behind him – “Does the 7 train leave from Jackson Heights and 24th?” Getting confirmation, he turned back to me. “You want to get off two stops up.”
The next stop, he got off the bus and started walking down the street. As the driver was closing the doors, Benedict turned around quickly, ran back to the door of the bus, came inside, and yelled, “Sorry man, this is your stop. Come on.” I got off the bus, and followed his out-stretched arm as he pointed across the street. “Just take those stairs to the Number 7 train.”
I saw Benedict again as I was preparing to slide my Metro Card and go through the turnstiles. She yelled, “You want to go on the other side. That’s the wrong way.” I guess she saw my confused look – how did she know where I wanted to go? “Weren’t you going to Grand Central?” She was also on the bus, but I hadn’t noticed her. She had overheard the conversation.
Finally seated on the train, I felt more comfortable. I knew the trains had a map with each stop indicated, and it would be easy to spot Grand Central. When the train began stopping at what I assumed was Grand Central terminal, I started to get up, and, in a sudden flash of insecurity, asked the man sitting next to the door, “This is Grand Central, right?”
“No, ” he replied, then added, in broken English, “I tell you. You watch me. I tell you. ”
For the next three stops, as the train would slow down, I would look up and see St.Benedict there, shaking his head. Finally, on the third stop, he nodded and smiled, and I made my way through the door.
After a long, sunny train trip along the Hudson River and a short cab ride from the train station, I walked through the doors of Holy Cross Monastery. Posted there is a portion of the Rule of Saint Benedict – “All guests are to be welcomed as Christ, for he himself will say, ‘I was a stranger and you welcomed me.'” But by the time I got within the safe confines of the monastery, nestled in among the trees of rural New York, I had already been welcomed in the middle of the city, stranger that I am, in the Benedictine Way, which is to say the Way of Christ.
I sought retreat in order to discover more the path of hospitality. I thought it might help show the way I and the church I serve could strengthen our faithful witness in these rapidly changing times. But the people on the public buses and trains of New York City showed it to me ahead of time, in a place where it was not expected and could not be reciprocated. It was an act of sheer grace.
Christ is present wherever grace abounds, whether he is acknowledged or not. I give thanks for his presence shining through the hospitality of the city.