This Summer I had to take a train. It was only an hour of travel time and I was already primed to enter into the bliss of anonymity! The white noise of the train on its tracks, the muffled voices of fellow travelers – everything blended into the background as I stealthily armed myself with earphones and a selection of music – the real life equivalent of an invisibility cloak!
The first part of my mission was to scout out a seat. As I made my way down the carriage I soon realized that finding a solitary spot was not looking very promising, nonetheless, I was armed with my weapons of anonymity – and not afraid to use them! Caught unawares, a young man, possibly a college student, locked eyes with mine, and motioned that the seat beside him was free. I began to suspect the angelic machinations of some divine plot afoot and suddenly felt a little less well armed!
One thing I have found in my experience abroad is that having an accent means that starting a conversation is never awkward. “Where’s your accent from?” … “What brings you to the States?” My inside voice says: “Here we go!” While my outside voice responds to my travel companion: “I’m consecrated in a religious community in the Catholic Church.” There’s no turning back now at this point in our exchange … this was either going to make or break the conversation.
The irony is never lost on me when the avowed atheist is the one to inquire more about God. Is it because of their utter disbelief that someone not only can believe in God, but actually vow their life to that belief, or is it something else, like the painful sensation of a phantom limb, an ache in the soul they didn’t know they had? One of the things that I appreciate most in these conversations is the possibility to clear up common misconceptions that people have, either about the Church or about faith in general. Most prevalent among these today is the myth of contradiction between faith and science. In one of my more memorable exchanges with a professed Atheist, in the midst of a small crowd that had formed around us, the young man all of a sudden raised his hands to call the attention of those listening and announced, “I’m about to do something I never thought I’d do. I’m going to agree with a Catholic.” Now the breakthrough in the conversation may seem trivial but for a logical thinker, it’s crucial: “So’, continued the young man, ‘we both agree that it is good to believe as little falsehoods as possible, and believe as many truths as possible.”
It is always edifying to encounter someone who doesn’t let seemingly diametrically opposed beliefs pose a barrier to meaningful human interaction and we shouldn’t expect them to. It is easy to reduce a person to their ideas, opinions and beliefs. Ironically, when we are guilty of this, it says more about ourselves than it does about the other person.
An hour flew by quickly. Our discussion hinged on the question: how does one attain happiness without making selfish choices that ultimately hurt others? I don’t know if my words said much that day but a deeper exchange of openness, genuine interest, and mutual respect spoke more than any finely worded argument could ever speak. As the train came to a stop and passengers began to stand up and collect their luggage, he thanked me and said, “I’m glad you are now the face of Catholicism for me.” My new acquaintance was very obliging, even waiting by my side until I was safely in a taxi to go to my destination.
By virtue of our baptism we are the face of Christ, of the Faith and of the Church. As Christians we are sent. Jesus tells us to carry no money bag, no sack, no sandals and to greet no one along the way (Lk 10:4). This instruction underlines the urgency of the mission at hand to proclaim the Kingdom of God. We should ask ourselves what are we carrying? What are we armed with? Are we armed with our business? Our 4.7 inch screen smartphone? Our ill-preparedness? We carry the name of Christian and this alone disarms our anonymity. We have put on Christ (Gal 3:27).