The streets of Manhattan are an anthill of frantic life. On Madison Avenue the shoppers push by one another, a clutch of bags with luxury logos fanning in their hands. The tourists peering down into the rink at Rockefeller Center and up at the lights of the monumental tree line up four and five deep, with occasionally a native, on the way to an appointment, dipping into the throng and then New-York-walking away, head down, shoulders forward, feet sure.
And all over town the deliverymen come and go from offices and apartment buildings, carrying cases of wine, trays of hors d'oeuvres, arrangements of flowers, amaryllis and poinsettias and sprays of evergreens, all the holiday accouterments that in mid-January will seem so beside the point, an esthetic hangover.
Amid all this Father Robert J. O'Donnell sits in the parish offices of the Church of St. Paul the Apostle, a mile north of Times Square, slightly southwest of Lincoln Center. A person searching for unctuous sermonettes about new beginnings, salvation, the birth of a savior and the dawn of a new year should go elsewhere. Father Bob is a native of this town, and he is, in the fashion of its people, savvy and skeptical.
For a brief moment this year he was a New York cause celebre, the sympathetic priest in a season of clerical opprobrium. The reason is there for every parishioner and visitor to see at midnight mass, which has now been moved, to the ire of a few, to 10 p.m. to give the church's uncommonly gifted choir a bit of a break. Father has a ropy scar running from the lobe of one ear to the edge of his chin. A young man sliced his face with a box cutter on the steps of the rectory one night this fall. The priest had about $100 in his wallet. It took 50 stitches to close the wound. Father thinks the story was vastly overplayed.
Happy holidays--the new rubric designed to insulate this time of year from either religious significance or great historical moment. The static in the collective psyche that threatens to drown out the small voices of cosmic questioning or contentment is so loud in these weeks that it's a miracle everyone doesn't go deaf. There is no real quiet between the eggnog and the champagne, the gifts and the noisemakers, not a moment to consider, not what the holidays are meant to signify, but of what life itself is supposed to consist. Hint: it ain't a faster DSL connection. All the miseries of Scrooge's unreconstructed life in Dickens's "A Christmas Carol," that best known of Christmas books, lead up to this great misery: that he sees himself dying alone and unmourned.
This is the time of year when solitude is feared most, when the human community labors, in all kinds of ways, to bring stragglers under its great wing. But it has also become the feast of buzz, in which human contact bears more than a passing resemblance to a game show: Kiss! Kiss! Come in! You shouldn't have! Cheers! Christmas trees are available online; now there's a warm and homey tradition to draw the whole family together as everyone watches the yule log on DVD. Much of what passes for observing the holiday is as utilitarian as that, a specific and refined form of busywork: required parties, duty gifts, corporate Christmas cards. More that somehow adds up to less.
"Maybe in a strange way I got a gift this year," said Father Bob. "I didn't send cards. I didn't do gifts. Maybe that's tied to the attack. I never thought it was life-threatening, but maybe it allowed me to let some things go. Not a single person called and said, 'Where's my card?' Maybe we have to give ourselves a break. All those shoulds--what's the point? It's nice to be alive. Give thanks to God for that." Or, as Scrooge vowed fervently at the moment of his redemption, "I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future!"
Below a delivery truck blows its horn so hard it feels as if the windows will shatter. Father needs to leave to say the noon mass at St. Paul's, a beautiful byzantine place with gilt stars painted on the vaulted ceiling, more cathedral than church. The pastor's daily life consists of bills and bureaucracies, juggling oversight of the homeless shelter and the ministry for gay Roman Catholics with the $80,000 annual utility bill and the complaints by the more conservative parishioners that some worshipers don't kneel during the eucharistic prayer. The robbery and slashing, which he believes was the act of a young man making his bones in a street gang, is among the least of his worries. Even he is concerned that the white noise of minutiae drowns out the conversations between the soul and itself, and between one soul and another.
In an afterword to his play "Angels in America," Tony Kushner once wrote, "Marx was right: The smallest divisible human unit is two people, not one; one is a fiction. From such nets of soul societies, the social world, human life springs."
Or, as Father Bob says, turning his face to the window onto the busy street so that his scar shows plainly, "The best consecration is the one at the end of the mass, when we say 'Go now.' The church gathers to be sent out. Life when we're sent forth to be with one another is what matters most."