Angels in New York

My spouse Andrea and I recently returned from a full, satisfying 5-day sojourn in NYC. We took a round-trip bus and enjoyed a comfortable stay at a small hotel not far from the Empire State Building. The main focus of our trip was participation in two sacred ceremonies conducted by a couple visiting from Brazil whom we had known for decades.

Our bus arrived near Penn Station on September 27, just before the festival of Michaelmas begins. This festival honors the Archangel Michael as well as the angels Gabriel and Rafael, all of whom are recognized in Islam, Judaism and Christianity. The two services we would be attending over the weekend would be celebrating these angelic forces, and inviting us to recognize the possibility of their presence in our lives.

But first we had two full days to enjoy the rich offerings of New York in autumn. Our hotel’s central location on W. 29th Street and Broadway allowed us to walk to almost all the places we were to visit. As we walked our bags there from the bus stop that first afternoon, we were taken with the lively street life all around us. I appreciated this indomitable energy of the city while also relishing the relative peace and quiet of our small but comfortable hotel room once we arrived.

After settling in and resting for a bit, we headed out again around 5pm, walking west to find the High Line that we’d heard so much about. The High Line is an elevated pedestrian walkway built on an abandoned train line. It runs on the far west side of Manhattan from 34th down to 14th Streets. The walkway has wonderful gardens on either side and sports marvelous views of the Hudson River and many new high-rise buildings of unique architecture. We joined a steady throng of fellow pedestrians heading up the walkway to its northern terminus at 34th Street and were taken with the scope and vitality of the westside waterfront.

The sun was setting and our legs tiring as we trudged back to mid-town to find a restaurant. Along 34th Street we came upon a mid-size church with open doors and decided to venture in. It was Roman Catholic and a small number of congregants were praying aloud together near the main altar. We sat in a back pew and realized that the prayers were that of the Rosary of Mary being recited in French and English by black Haitian women. A glance at the church bulletin revealed that this was the church of St. Michael. The bulletin included a long statement from the pastor extolling the virtues of the “Prince of Angels” and reminding parishioners of the special Novena to St. Michael being prayed that weekend for Michaelmas. A large statue of Michael graced the church entrance and we took pictures.

Angelic Service in a Mid-town McDonalds

Our first morning in the city was cool, cloudy and drizzly. We’d reserved 11am tickets for the Whitney Museum and decided to brave the weather and walk down to it. But first we stopped off for breakfast at a nearby McDonalds on 6th Avenue. It was roomy and more nicely appointed than what we were used to. As we were enjoying our coffee and breakfast sandwiches, we witnessed an interaction that left a distinct impression.

When we sat down, I’d noticed a late-middle-aged woman busily cleaning off tables. I was taken with her graceful bearing and well-cut clothing (not the usual McDonald’s uniform). I also noticed a tall, disheveled, middle-aged man, perhaps a street person, in well-worn attire eating his meal alone at a corner table near the restroom. He appeared to be talking to himself. As I was getting up to go to the restroom, I saw him spill his large cup of coffee on himself, his table, and the floor. Within an instant, the cleaning woman rushed to his table with rags and napkins. She was calm yet attentive, helping the man dry his sopped clothing, and then calmly cleaning the table and surrounding floor. When this was completed, she returned to the table with another full cup of coffee for the man. Her manner throughout was gracious, respectful, and solicitous for the man’s well-being.

While I was waiting for Andrea to take her turn in the restroom, I got up to stretch my legs. The cleaning woman continued to move from table to table, clearing debris, and inquiring of customers’ needs. Once again, I was taken by her grace and flair. As I disposed of my coffee cup, she was emptying the trash container. I paused and said what an attentive and hard-working employee she was. She stopped for a moment and we took each other in.

She asked if I was visiting New York and I said yes, that my wife and I were there for a long weekend. She asked if we were acquainted with the High Line and I said we were planning to walk it to the Whitney just then. She nodded her approval and proceeded to recommend some of the exhibits that the Whitney was currently featuring. Surprised, I asked if she was an artist herself. She said no but that she loved New York’s galleries and museums, recommending the Frick and Pierpont-Morgan museums in particular. When I mentioned that we lived in the DC area, she nodded knowingly and said her son had graduated from Georgetown.

As Andrea and I were leaving, I said that McDonald’s was very fortunate to have such a high caliber employee as herself. She demurred, saying that she enjoyed the work and that the ongoing flow of customers was what made it so pleasing. I was utterly amazed by this encounter and kept thinking back to it during the rest of our stay: how someone could feel so satisfied and purposeful serving in such a humble job.

“History Keeps Me Awake at Night”

The Whitney Museum of American Art opened its new building in the West Village in 2015 after about 50 years on the East Side. It’s a large glass and concrete structure right at the southern end of the High Line, overlooking the Hudson river. The two exhibits that drew us were one featuring “Indigenous Space”, and a retrospective of th iconic late-20th century New York artist, David Wojnarowicz.

The first exhibit included an extended video of a woman dressed in a leopard-striped leotard, moving sinuously, sometimes seductively, about a sunlit Mayan-style Frank Lloyd Wright home in Los Angeles. The brown-skinned woman moved with the grace and ease of a professional dancer, evoking the sacred, magisterial feeling of the architecture. It was shown continuously on a large screen within an open theatre-like space. I was mesmerized and kept coming back to it. It was as if the dancer was evoking the creative spirit of an ancient Mayan spiritual entity.

The expansive exhibit of Wojnarowicz’s multi-faceted paintings and sculpture was entitled “History Keeps Me Awake at Night”. The artist was keenly involved in the social and political world of gay identity in New York during the height of the AIDS epidemic. He was a fierce advocate for people with AIDS and succumbed himself at age 38 in 1992. The breadth and vitality of his art filled almost an entire floor. I couldn’t help thinking of Tony Kushner’s play “Angels in America”, and how the scourge of AIDS had elicited both callous indifference and an immense outpouring of compassionate service.

A Night on the Town with a Fully Human Michael

A highlight of our stay was a Friday night out in Times Square. We walked up Broadway from our hotel around 5:30p. By 34th street, we were in the middle of a large crowd making our way through narrow sidewalks to the splendiferous lights and activity that represent iconic New York. We were meeting Michael, an old high school friend from Buffalo who’d arranged dinner and an Off-Broadway show for us. Our meeting place was a Thai restaurant on 48th street, a few blocks from the New World Stages where we had tickets for the long-running musical “Avenue Q”.

Michael and I have maintained an ongoing friendship since high school. He won me over by his daring and creativity when he played the part of Simon Stimson, the drunken choir director, in our high school production of “Our Town”. Andrea and I had had a fun overnight with Michael and his spouse, Suzanne, back in July. At dinner we had an opportunity to catch up.

“Avenue Q” won numerous Tony awards when it opened in 2003. The show was celebrating a continuous run of 15 years and we soon found out why. The music is upbeat Broadway at its best, and the seven characters, and their puppet friends, kept us laughing delightedly for the entire evening with their witty, irreverent, as well as heart-warming antics and songs.

Celebrations of St. Michael

Our first spiritual work was on Saturday evening at the rented Silent Mind Zen Center in Chelsea, walking distance from our hotel. We arrived early and had a chance to interact with some old friends and helped them re-arrange the space for our gathering of about 50 people.

Our visitors from Brazil would be leading the prayers, music and dancing that would comprise our celebration of St. Michael that evening. The “comitiva” (committee) of leaders included a female lead singer, a male guitarist, and an older married couple who had been pioneers and leaders in our Brazilian spiritual tradition since the 1980’s.

Saturday’s event was a special dancing work honoring the spirit of the angel Michael as channeled through the life and work of another one of our Brazilian Elders, Manoel Corrente. We first sang and danced to special hymns inspired by the life of this simple man of the Amazonian rainforest who had dedicated his life to the spiritual and material well-being of his family and community. After a brief interval, we resumed the ceremony with more singing and dancing, this time to the hymns of a man from urban Brazil, Lucio Mortimer, who had come upon a rainforest spiritual community and decided to stay and live there. One of Lucio’s hymns, “Sao Miguel”, has become a favorite of mine for both its rousing melody and spiritual message of service and devotion:

“I asked for this Light to make me clear/  I asked that I might have this Love,                            I asked for the strength to help  / All the suffering spirits of this world…

With Sao Miguel, my Archangel Protector/  I have the strength to pass every test.                I keep trusting that I’m with my Lord/ Who promised the victor a New Life.”

The second spiritual work was held the next afternoon in a beautifully decorated art studio in Brooklyn. We took the subway there and then walked a few minutes through blocks of warehouses to our destination. Once again we were early enough to share deeply with some of our old and new friends who had gathered.

This second event was a seated “Concentration” work. We sat in rows of chairs around a central altar with the comitiva seated at the altar. In addition to the singing of sacred hymns in Portuguese, we also sat in silent meditation for about an hour. Alex, the leader of the work, is a master teacher of meditation. Many of his own hymns are compact instructions for using silence and conscious breathing to quiet our minds and enter into a deeper experience of our true divine nature. Andrea and I had been singing his latest hymn for weeks. It’s called “Atencao Plena” – “Full Attention”:

“I received this message / To  be able to help you.                                                                                       If you find it beneficial/ Try to amplify it.

When people are suffering/ There is no need for alarm,                                                              Because often the pain/ Comes from the act of thinking.

So open your mind/ For pain to manifest.                                                                                   Thoughts come and go,/ There is no need to avoid them.

All this I discovered/ When I went to meditate:                                                                                 That I am not just my thoughts, / And in my Being I want to be.

Don’t give up what brings you joy,/ It is your true home.                                                                     It’s enough to acknowledge/ The trials that life brings.

Remember well this counsel/ When passing through your trials —                                        Awareness is reached/With a simple breath.”

Wings of Desire

As I sat down to write this account, I remembered a Wim Wenders film Andrea and I had seen in the late 1980’s. It’s called “Wings of Desire” and is about a group of angels who hover over Berlin, watching over the lives of the inhabitants with keen interest and compassion, and occasionally intervening. One of the angels falls in love with a lonely woman who works in the circus and decides to incarnate so that he can join her with the full range of human experience.

The feeling of that film was of a suffering human world held and cared for by compassionate angels. The cleanup woman in McDonald’s came to mind, as well as the humble life of Manoel Corrente who lived his life in service to his spiritual community. I also thought of our Brazilian teacher and friend, Alex, who had been imprisoned in Brazil during the military’s rule in the 1980’s; of how a compassionate woman who visited him in prison became his wife; and of how the two of them had raised a beautiful family while serving as leaders of a number of Brazilian spiritual communities that have continued to thrive for decades.

Riding back to Washington on the bus last Monday, my heart was filled with memories of the many blessings Andrea and I had received during that memorable weekend in New York.

Praise God!                                                                                                                                        John Bayerl, 10/11/2018



Statue of the Archangel in St. Michael’s RC Church on 34th Street



The view from our hotel window.



Celebrating Greater NY’s 11 million humans on the High Line



Two high school actors who still love live theater.



An angel appearing on 28th Street’s entire block of wholesale florists