Where To Find God in New York
Where To Find God in New York
by Eric Farwell
I put my faith on a shelf years ago. At fourteen, I began seeing a very sweet but wayward girl who acted in direct opposition to the stringent brand of Christianity her mother had built their life around. At the time it was difficult to reconcile the raw issues she was working through with the black and white simplicity of my church. Concerned, I reached out to my friends and spiritual leaders, but was only told to abandon her, or asked with a stunning mix of arrogance and naivety if she'd tried seeking out Catholic counsel. I began to see a disconnect between what I held to be true and its application in reality. The summer going into high school, I shut the door on religion and began filling up the newly empty space within me with David Lynch films and a deep interest in humanist morality.
I was perfectly happy living with the absence of God, until liquor exacerbated my worst tendencies. Since committing to sobriety just over five years ago, I found myself attempting to reconcile my behavior with a newly restored desire to do good. I felt in myself a great yearning to change, to embark on the path of the righteous and learn to live in the light. I knew that full abandonment of both drink and the beautiful friend that constantly enabled me were my only options for escaping my addiction, so I sought God to stabilize me. Without any subterfuge or sense of irony, I attempted to create a life that would be looked on with mercy by something beyond me, and in doing so, feel the healing embrace of the deity that I did so many years ago.
I began seeking out God in the places I once knew him to be. It was one of very few severe disappointments to learn that when I sought to visit him, there was no one to greet me. Returning home to see my parents, I visited the church that once seemed to hold the answers to everything in life; there, I felt the tremble of something holy.
What changed in the interim between my youth and recovered desire to give myself over to the mysteries of the sacred? One explanation rests in location. When attempting to reconnect with his sense of religiosity, film critic Rod Dreher moved out of New York City and replanted himself in the small town he'd grown up in. By his estimation, the only way to feel truly awed by faith is to practice love, which means surrounding yourself with loved ones. In the Tribeca neighborhood I live in, the idea of community, let alone a loving one, simply isn't present. Instead of starting the day with very close friends that might share my values, I begin each day being yelled at in coarse Polish by the homeless schizophrenic that sleeps outside our building.
It's not even a matter of finding a community that might offer you the inclusiveness you're seeking. Simply put, New Yorkers thrive on our ability to be difficult, blunt, or rough around the edges. It's a symptom of the city, a small plague that gets inside of you and takes away your sense of easy trust. There have been times where I've gone to church, met with the priest or minister, and felt the possibility of joy reaching out for my hand. Always, I decline, and I stay away from the church for weeks after so that I may recover my jaded equilibrium. Wanting to answer the call to God and feeling okay with doing so are two very different things.
For myself and those close to me, there seems to be no other option than nominalism. With success a quantifiable thing, and faith or the universe something more abstract, we put it off indefinitely. Every time a friend discusses his struggles with meeting deadlines or generating material after getting married or relocating, I reassure them while quietly reeling. What if I can only create here? If I move, will I be forgotten? Does anywhere else feel as exciting as New York? In order to buck against this, we differentiate between Manhattan and Brooklyn, thinking of one as the city proper, and the other as an ersatz suburb. When we catch up with someone we haven't seen in a while, there's often an unspoken recognition that any positive change will indicate a move to Brooklyn. With all of these small comforts in this calmer part of New York, the electricity of culture still pushes religious centers to compete for the attention of its inhabitants. Since spiritual growth requires one to exist in stillness, any sense of development is often lost in the obsession with relevancy and achievement.
Even Middletown, the New Jersey suburb I spent my adolescence in, seems to now be affected by its proximity to New York. Before fourteen, what George Carlin called "the age of reason," I lived a life that was ensconced by my Catholic parish. During recent visits to the parish, in an attempt to find a conduit that could deepen my bond with whatever I'm starting to identify the divine as, I found that the community I used to identify as integral to the life of the church seems to have passed the institution by. At the end of each mass, middle-aged couples afraid to divorce cringe their way back to the car. Kids or young adults—the few that remain— are bored on their phones, waiting for the day they can move away or marry and inherit a new kind of unhappiness.
This malaise is an issue for the millennial gentile, and without a course of action or plan of attack, we often find ourselves convening at the doorstep of a yoga studio.
In Kristin Dombek's Paris Review essay, "Letter from Williamsburg," after articulating the path to rapt ecstasy she's attempting in her yoga practice, the author wonders if it's necessary, saying:
"Like most women in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, I have spent thousands of hours and dollars on yoga classes attempting to manufacture unconditional love and moral bliss by detaching from my ego and my desires and also, not coincidentally, working on the quality of my ass. Because in the back of my mind, what I have been wondering (is this what the other women are wondering while we sit in lotus position on purple foam cubes, meditating in our jewel-toned leggings and tattoos?) is this: Isn't there some human who can make me feel this way, instead?"
This gets at the central problem with seeking out God as adult: We want a physical presence, an avatar of the God we believed in as children. Without the promise of a corporeal existence watching over us, most of us stumble in the dark while searching for a way to let go of such naive perceptions. Still confusing is the fact that when we meet people who are comfortable with the idea of vague, opaque faith, we bristle rather than ask for guidance.
A worthy example of this can be seen in my own relationship. While I may struggle with how secure I am in my capacity to believe, my partner, Casey, does not. Like many pagans in their mid-twenties, hers is a quest for awe and peace. I'll watch her gracefully sage the room, speak a ritual, or lift a mallet to sound a bell, flummoxed by how immersed in the process she is. My inability to be present is frustrating, and I'll often find myself wondering if being taught to experience religion so intensely was wrongheaded, since there seems to be so much happiness to be found in letting it be just out of focus.
While I admired her, this used to cause strife in our relationship. Having grown up in a faith too anal to invite mystery, but too stuck in its ways to have those answers mean anything, Casey's lack of accountability proved to be irksome. During one memorable exchange in Colorado, both of us lobbed white-hot insults at one another outside of a metaphysical store located in a mostly-condemned strip mall. With eyes locked, we listened to the air conditioning hum, realizing that we had a choice to make regarding how enjoyable we wanted our trip to be. On the drive back to the hotel, and later on the plane ride to JFK, I tried to come to terms with the fact that no matter how much I wanted it to, my partner's strength of conviction couldn't make up for my hesitation to immerse myself in the possibilities of majesty. To this day, I'm still trying to figure out how to apologize.
On a trip with Casey to a hari krishna ashram in upstate New York, I found myself contented and soothed via inundation. Over communal meals, endless amounts of yoga, a sprawling amount of land to hike and traipse around on, and set bedtimes, I found myself–to borrow a platitude from the protagonist of George Saunders' "Pastoralia"–thinking positive and staying positive. In the evenings, when we'd all gather inside a cooled room on the compound, I found myself giving into the "hare krishna" chant. Swaying with the accordion music, I believed my essence to be connected with the sacred. Removed from all of the pleasures of the city, I was finding and recognizing God. Against all odds, I looked at the stars and felt small, awed, and grateful. On that farm, I had the quiet to engage in something like conversation.
These emotional revelations are few and far between, but the goal is to keep walking toward them. While I've found it difficult to kibbitz with bishops for long periods of time, or to bow my head while counting rosary beads, I have been working to create a space of servitude in my relationship. In so many ways, my experience with love has been a mirror of my experience with feeling the presence of God. I've failed so many times in many ways to be worthy of it, and yet I trust it will be part of my life when I truly need it. Even at my most desperate and ugly, I rise at an early hour to try and greet the challenges and gifts of romance.
Four years later, I still find myself returning to the start of things, toiling away to keep the fires burning. In ways that are beyond me, this romance is the conduit through which I feel most in-tune with the safety and sense of good that I encountered after the salty corpse of Christ was placed on my tongue, and I returned to the warped pew to kneel and feel the peace of my mother's hand linking with my own. For me, this is my spiritual practice, and it's in this service that I find the strength to carry that sense into my working life.
Since we started traveling together, I've dangled the promise of going to Washington state to see the glowing algae, to immerse ourselves in their fiber-optic glow, wading out until earth's oldest treasures encase us. Soon, I plan on making good on that promise. I look forward to being uncomfortable by the spectrum of color, holding Casey as much for safety as romantic signage. Most of all, I look forward to looking at the sky above, and in that great expanse of light reflected and reduced, to feel the possibility of revelation hovering just above me, out of reach, in the moment.