From chapter 10: Praying On the Subway
Transit states are particularly potent times for prayer, and not simply because travel in buses, on subways, by air, or in our cars at high speed or in slow traffic can be annoying, stressful or even dangerous. As any type of travel moves us from one place to another, one domain or realm to another, it prefigures the really big transitions or changes of state of everyday life––like birth, death, transformation or loss. A subway ride across midtown, for instance, can be an ideal venue in which to practice dying. The metaphors are numerous: both involve a passage, and perhaps through a tunnel, and both involve us in darkness. Imagine the benefit of using a daily subway ride with the intention to recapitulate your life’s work, to pray for all who have served you; to prepare yourself with sharpened attention for your final stop.
I’ve done a fair amount of airplane travel in my work, and I always note that there are men and women who study the Bible or read the Koran as they fly. Maybe like me they’re just white-knuckle travelers who are doing their best to keep from panic, to prevent themselves from running up the aisle of the plane screaming “we’re gonna crash” at the first signs of turbulence. But I don’t think so. I think that many people in this world do orient their lives around God’s word, and I am awed and humbled to see this. A large airplane or a crowded bus or train presents me with a wide cross-section of humanity, and I get to see what others are up to. I also get countless opportunities to practice kindness, generosity, compassion and the offering of merit on behalf of all.
And speaking of praying while traveling . . . the best story I’ve ever read on the subject, which was related as true, was about a business man (let’s call him Joe) flying home from Chicago after a long conference. Joe found himself on the plane situated next to an empty seat. Hoping to keep it that way, he spread out his carryons and coat to discourage the last passengers boarding from choosing this spot. When everyone was apparently settled, and the seat remained unoccupied, he realized his great good fortune, and breathed a sigh of relief. Before the doors were closed, however, the steward announced that they were holding the plane a few minutes longer to accommodate two additional passengers making a tight connection. Cursing slightly under his breath, Joe made a prayer of sorts, something like, “Oh God, please give me a break here.” And with that, two women dressed in white entered the plane amid a great hubbub by the pilot and crew who greeted them. As the women at last bustled their way up the aisle, Joe was astonished to recognize Mother Teresa accompanied by another sari-clad nun moving toward him. And then she stopped, smiled at him and directly pointed to this empty seat. With no mind at all, Joe immediately stood to give her entry, as her companion moved on to find another place.
As the plane taxied down the runway Mother Teresa took out her rosary and quietly fingered it, while Joe, still stunned, kept respectful silence. Still, he couldn’t help but notice that her rosary was a bit unconventional. Each set of ten beads (known as a “decade”) was a different color––red, blue, yellow, and so on. Finally, as the plane reached its cruising altitude, and unable to suppress his curiosity any longer, he remarked to the elderly nun about her unusual rosary. Without apology she told him that she liked it because it reminded her to pray for the whole world: on the red beads she might pray for the continent of Europe, on the blue ones for Africa. In this way, her prayer was never limited; her intentions were always for all. Needless to say, Joe, a former Catholic, was touched and impressed with her story, and soon they were discussing this and that.
When Mother Teresa asked him if he prayed the rosary, Joe candidly admitted that he had long since left behind his connections to both church and ritual prayer. She was undiscouraged. Taking the colored rosary from her pocket she handed it to him, urging him to use it once again. And with deep gratitude he accepted this priceless gift.
As the story goes (and I won’t guarantee that it may not be somewhat apocryphal), Joe left the airplane in a new frame of mind and, with a healing of heart, once again began to pray the rosary.
Not long after his return home, Joe was confronted with the shocking news that his beloved sister had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Interestingly, his first response was to take hold of the saintly woman’s rosary that he carried now all the time, and to pray for his sister. Then, hurrying to meet her, he handed over the special rosary, telling her the amazing story and expressing his faith that this prayer would not fail to be useful to her. And apparently it was. Joe’s sister used the rosary faithfully throughout her treatment, and successfully overcame the illness. Then, she passed the rosary along to another friend in need. And so the prayer continues; who knows where it is today. . . . maybe Mother Teresa’s rosary will make its way to one of us some day. Prayer like hers alters people’s lives. It also obviously kept her own transformational work alive!