I’m not a regular church-goer, more of a Christmas and every-third-Easter kind of guy. I prefer connecting with God in the solace of my own home and see spirituality as more of a solo venture. But on this particular Thursday, I’m breaking the rules.
I decide I need to break away from an especially insane day at the office—I work in a fast-paced New York City advertising agency—and find a quiet place for contemplation. I think I know just the place to go and it’s right in the middle of Manhattan.
It’s 1pm and I leave my office and venture north on Lexington Ave. The sidewalks are clogged with business people on their lunch breaks, but as I make a right on 43rd Street the traffic thins a little. There, midway on a block lined by towering office buildings and inexpensive lunch joints, is an out of the ordinary site: a weathered but well-maintained church.
I swing open the church’s thick wooden doors, walk up a few steps, open a second door, and I am in another world. The noise from the street has been silenced; I’m in the midst of a Catholic mass. I take my place in the back row, and join in on the proceedings, kneeling as the priest delivers the Eucharistic Prayer. I find myself silently mouthing the appropriate responses.
I’m in the Church of Saint Agnes, which is unlike the ornate Catholic church I grew up in with its ubiquitous stained glass windows and shiny marble floors. By comparison, Saint Agnes has minimal ornamentation. There are a few color paintings of the disciples, a simple wood cross hangs over the altar. And while the church of my youth had a single morning mass, St. Agnes is an active place with weekday services held at 7:10, 8:10, 8:40, 12:10, 12:40, 1:10 and 5:10.
As I look around, I see that I’m surrounded by people from all walks of life. There’s a man who appears to be homeless down the row from me and others who look like they come from the lower rungs of the social ladder. Amongst the hundred or so people in the church, I also see many in business attire who I’m sure, like me, have slipped in for a few moments of respite from the stress of the workday.
Even as I tune in and out of a sermon, I find something comforting about this ancient ritual. This communal gathering has me feeling at ease and oddly comforted. Maybe it’s the unfolding of the mass itself, which has been permanently imprinted on my brain. It soothes me with its familiarity, like putting on an old sweater.
There’s a spiritual energy in the air, something I normally associate with places far from here, like when I’m sitting on the beach staring at the ocean. Maybe it’s the sense of community or the fact that these people are attending church not as a Sunday obligation but as a way to link to the divine in the middle of a weekday afternoon. All these hearts and minds are uplifted to God and, as if listening, the divine seems to be quietly making her presence known.
I walk back to the office to find that things are still a little crazy. But I feel removed from the commotion, the tiny part of me that might get a little anxious or uptight is now at peace. I’ve been reminded that there is a greater dimension to life, one that dwarves the role-playing and responsibilities of the office. My perspective on what really matters has been renewed and I am ready for whatever trivial circumstances the afternoon may bring.
A version of this story previously appeared in Contemplative Journal.