This may seem a strange title for a spiritual essay. Let me explain. By my count this is my 292nd essay that I have written for Immaculate Conception Parish. I always loved writing. After finishing two novels (one of which is available on our website: The Recusant: The Life and Death of St. Margaret of York) both of them unpublished, I decided to address all of you, my captive audience, by writing occasional pieces about what I judge to be spiritual issues affecting everyone.
But as I was growing up in the East New York section of Brooklyn, we lived (my Mom and Dad and I) in an apartment house whose address was 292 Essex Street. So the coincidence of the number and my address got me thinking of how God uses ordinary means to do extraordinary things.
I would like to use my growing up in Brooklyn as an example in this essay. Hence the title.
When I think of growing up in the 1950’s I am filled with gratitude. While materially simpler than today, there was a real sense of neighborhood. Each block had a life of its own. Especially in the long summers, life was spent outdoors. It was too hot inside since no one had air conditioning. The women would gather together and trade stories and recipes. The men argued about the politics of the day. There were children everywhere. So we played homemade games in the streets: hide and seek, red light-green life, kick the can, etc. As night approached we sat on stoops to talk about school and baseball. At the center of this small-time life was our parish church: St. Rita (East New York). Everything began (Baptisms) and ended (Funerals) in that simple structure. Our School was teeming with children. In June, we ended the school year with the feast of St. Michael and St. Joseph (patron saints of the Neapolitans), and we ended the summer with the feast of Sts. Cosmos and Damian (hosted by the people from Bari). The Church and the School were the center of our lives.
During the long summer days, the gang of guys I hung out with used to walk to the five churches in the neighborhood to say a decade of the rosary in each. No one called this a pilgrimage but that is what it was. Done by 9 and 10 year olds!
No one watched a lot of TV. The shows were terrible and there were only a few channels. It was too hot in the summer anyway to stay indoors.
Through all these specifics of my growing up (in a neighborhood similar to Astoria) at that time all converge into a sense of community. Where I lived and grew up taught me that I was part of a whole and that I had a community behind me. I also bore responsibilities to that community. I could not simply act alone. My decisions and my actions affected my family, my neighborhood, and my parish.
The brand of individualism that is the main characteristic of living together that we experience in the contemporary world was altogether absent. I see this as a strength of my past, a strength that was given me simply by things just the way they were.
While today’s emphasis on the individual seems to bring with it a greater freedom, this I think is an illusion. Individualism lacks the corrective function of community that is necessary for true and lasting growth. I knew as I grew up on Essex Street that I was part of a whole and that I never stood alone. This stance blended beautifully into my place in the community of the Church. The priests and the sisters, the laity and the community outside the parish were the context in which I was to grow.
Unfortunately, today it tends to be a virtual community which is very different from real community. As we get back to actually meeting together instead of watching each other on Zoom, there is a relieving sense of togetherness that dispels much of the loneliness of the Covid year.
Underneath this realization of our need for community is the healing insight that we are more than individuals. We are part of something larger: community, country, parish, Church. We are not alone even if we feel lonely at times.
As I walked the streets of my old neighborhood, I felt that I was a member of this community and that my behavior (i.e., words, actions and even thoughts) must be in a way responsible to that community. While that seems a limitation, it is actually an empowering expansion of my place in the whole reality of life. Simply: I am not alone. I am a member of this community, this organism of life. And if I strive to do my part in this larger whole, than everyone will benefit from my efforts, however hidden they may be from the rest.
This gives me so much hope! It means that in my small way: I matter.