Chapter One: Finding God in the City
The Gateway for Seekers
The nave’s blue light bathes me. The midtown church arches over its visitors. Quietly, I stop to pray. After a few hushed moments, I become aware of a woman beside me. She hovers there, shifting from one foot to the other. Sensing some spiritual urgency, I offer my spot to her for her own prayer.
But the woman remains standing, hands on hips, and confronts me: “So. Tell.” She leans closer. “I gotta know.” She leans closer still. “Who does your hair?”
In an urban environment, it’s easy to be distracted from our spiritual focus, even in a glorious house of worship. The traditional spiritual aids of silence, solitude, simplicity, and serenity aren’t always available in a city. The pace is fast, rather than contemplative.
Nature’s focal points are scarce amid glass-and-concrete towers. Prayer can seem muted by traffic noise and vendors’ cries. In bustling streets, it may be difficult to make time and space to practice God’s presence. And yet…isn’t it in the metropolis, the marketplace, the municipal magnet that we often feel the greatest need for a sense of the sacred?
Sin. Stress. Seduction. Soulless-ness.
For many people, these words are synonymous with city life–and they form a time-honored viewpoint. As symbols of evil, the biblical cities of Sodom and Gomorrah live in our collective consciousness; the name of one has even entered our language. Throughout Scripture, folklore, and literature, the “big city” is often seen as a tempting nexus of vice where we stand in real danger of losing our souls. Is it any wonder that New York City is dubbed the “Big Apple,” a large and luscious logo for original sin?
This image of cities lingers in the modern imagination. In Bernard Malamud’s famous novel The Natural,
the young hero, Roy Hobbs, leaves his farm and loses his innocence in Chicago, where he suffers a deep fall from grace. In the classic story The Wizard of Oz
by L. Frank Baum, the heroine, Dorothy, sets out to find “the answer” in the fabled Emerald City. Like a pilgrim, she travels with other seekers, only to find that the Wiseman of Oz is a fraud, and the city lives up to its archetypal image of hucksterism, especially compared with Dorothy’s home on a Kansas farm.
These themes stand in a long tradition of cautionary tales about the soul and the city–not just in folklore, but in the Bible. There, writes Robert C. Linthicum, “the city is depicted as both a dwelling place of God and his people and as a center for Satan and his minions.
The city is one primary stage on which the drama of salvation is played out. And that is no less the case as mega-cities become the focal point for most human activity and aspirations in the world.”
Cities, however, are also strongly associated with the sacred. In Scripture and song, heaven itself is often portrayed as a city. Jerusalem, Rome, Mecca, Canterbury, and other earthly cities are enduring metropolitan centers dedicated to the holy.
In the Middle Ages, the great cathedrals of Europe rose in cities. For centuries, these cities have attracted pilgrims who still come to gather in reverence, from Compostela in Spain, to Canterbury in England, and of course to that crossroads of faith, Jerusalem. Modern cities attract pilgrims too: seekers of all ages, who come for change, opportunity, and–increasingly now for retirees–culture and convenience.
I’ve always gravitated toward cities to find inspiration from their diversity and their culture. When I first moved back to Manhattan, I thought the museums, theater, and concerts would fill my soul. The cultural life was indeed superb. Still, I found that I needed a deeper sense of inspiration in the urban landscape’s busyness.
I’m not alone.
Today, cities and large towns are home to millions of people who have not
lost their souls–and who have created beautiful, diverse houses of worship, testaments to that fact. City dwellers and urban commuters still seek the spiritual dimension, one that saturates their routines, sustains them through the demands of urban stress, and gives life a greater depth.
There’s a hunger for something more than externals, for something that runs as a deeper, enduring current to nourish the soul in the city. Thomas Moore wrote: “Care of the soul is inspiring. The act of entering into the mysteries of the soul, without sentimentality or pessimism, encourages life to blossom forth according to its own designs and with its own unpredictable beauty.”
“In spite of everything I had, all that I had accomplished,” writes physician Paul A. Wright, of Steubenville, Ohio, “I still had not achieved my ultimate goal in life: inner peace and happiness.… As my medical practice grew, so did my stress.”
From the Midwest to the East and West Coasts the story is the same. New York Magazine
has run stories on urban burnout, especially among the young and wealthy, and the quest for peace of mind continues throughout all cities.
“Power, success, happiness, as the world knows them, are his who will fight for them hard enough; but peace, love, joy are only from God,” writes Frederick Buechner in The Magnificent Defeat.
We may wrestle with that admission, as Jacob wrestled with the Angel, but this is a truth that urban living can reveal to us in surprising ways.
No one observes this better than Buechner. In The Hungering Dark,
he wrote about seeing a Fellini film, La Dolce Vita,
in which a huge, holy statue was being carried by helicopter to Vatican City. The statue hung from a harness of the chopper and attracted laughter from the movie audience as the young pilots descended slightly to ogle some girls sunbathing on a roof. But as the helicopter approached the city, the camera zoomed in on the statue until the face of Christ filled the screen. Buechner noted that the audience in the theater fell silent. Suddenly it was “as if the face were their face somehow, their secret face that they had never seen before…or the face that they knew, if only for a moment, they belonged to.”
In a city, perhaps more than in any other locale, we have God’s face all around us, if we look for it–not in the sky, but in the faces of others. Whether we’re talking about Los Angeles or Louisville or Bakersfield or Bend, cities can show us how varied we are as human beings: varied in ethnicity, race, age, style, health. We might think the cityscape hides God, but in a unique way, a metropolis reveals God’s presence through the diversity of His children, for all are created in God’s image.
Our Restless Hearts
I remember when I returned to a city after living briefly in a small town. At first, I was stunned by the spread of concrete, the roar of traffic, the faster pace, the near absence of birdsong and foliage. On a busy street, I stopped someone to ask for the time and was rewarded with a smile, an answer, and a sudden sense of connection.
As I opened myself more fully to others, this sense increased. The city’s very restlessness seemed shared with the crowds I joined. “O God, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you,” Saint Augustine wrote in his famous Confessions.
How well this applies to those of us who live in metropolitan areas and large towns–or who commute to them daily or weekly. Few of us can run away to a retreat house whenever we feel a spiritual need, which may be as frequent as every day. How then do we respond to our need for peace, for spiritual connection, for that something more that gives life dimension and deeper meaning? How do we find God in the contemporary city? Does the city conceal God from us or reveal Him in unexpected ways?
I’ve come to believe the answers are closer than we realize. Cities, despite first impressions, can and do offer us dynamic opportunities to forge, deepen, and transform our spiritual lives. Screaming sirens give us a chance for anonymous intercession.
Skyscrapers, like spires and minarets, lift our eyes. A red traffic signal gives us a moment for petition or praise. And everywhere, the homeless and the broken demand our compassion.
What we once might have seen as distractions can instead be spiritual openings–“gateways,” I call them, or invitations and beckonings to God’s presence. Each gateway invites us into a deeper spirituality, not in spite of the city, but because of it. In a cityscape, for example, there are plentiful ways to pair prayer with social service. We’re challenged to see God in the speed and stress of the urban scene but can find spiritual oases in parks, museums, concert halls, and varied houses of worship. Cities give us a keen opportunity to integrate the spiritual life with the worldly life. The urban environment weaves together both elements in a pungent, sometimes paradoxical, blend. I realize that the Holy can come to me not only in retreat houses or church gardens but right where I am: in the midst of multitudes. I can reach out, I can worship, not only in privacy but even caught in a crush of others–on a street, on a highway, in a cityscape.
This is part of everyone’s spiritual legacy, everyone’s story. And when I reflect on this truth, I must admit that it comes as something of a shock to me. This is not the venue I expected for a spiritual life. But I am finding it surprising and rich. You can too.
In the following chapters, discover with me new kinds of spiritual practice seen through an urban lens. Like the diverse nature of cities themselves, I’ve drawn upon a wide range of sources–from Mother Teresa of Calcutta to Frank Laubach, the evangelical missionary who developed a vast literacy program in the Philippines. Every chapter includes useful questions and ideas for measuring soulsickness in the city as well as a psalm and cures (“Stop,” “Yield,” and “Go”) to reflect upon, discuss with others, and try on your own.
The Holy One can
be rediscovered in the city, where we can find, in Gerard Manley Hopkins’ words, a world that is “charged with the grandeur of God.”O God, thou art my God; early will I seek thee: my soul thirsteth for thee, my flesh longeth for thee in a dry and thirsty land, where no water is; To see thy power and thy glory, so as I have seen thee in the sanctuary. Because thy lovingkindness is better than life, my lips shall praise thee. Thus will I bless thee while I live: I will lift up my hands in thy name. (Psalm 63:1—4)
Excerpted from Soul and the City by Marcy Heidish. Copyright © 2008 by Marcy Heidish. Excerpted by permission of WaterBrook Press, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.