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Roxane B. Salonen, Published April 04 2014

Living Faith: God is all around, even in bustle of NYC

I’m on a high-octane bus ride from New York City with a group of 83 teenagers and reading, ironically, about the necessity of silence in discerning God’s voice.

Silence has not been a prevailing part of this spring tour with the Shanley High School choirs, an adventure that has led our group of students and parent chaperones through four packed days in the Big Apple and 50 hours of bus time.

Even so, I feel I’m leaving spiritually richer.

The book I’m reading on the bus ride home, “Atchison Blue,” is written by fellow journalist Judith Valente, who has spent most of her life immersed in a world of words and chatter.

Valente happened upon some research demonstrating how noisy our world has become. Back in 1968, my birth year, it took 15 hours of recording time to achieve one hour of undisturbed nature sounds, whereas today, it takes 2,000 for the same.

While I’m assuming those recordings didn’t happen in rural North Dakota, the findings speak volumes about why silence, and thus the hearing of God’s voice, can be so hard to find.

Valente admits she suffers from “silence deficiency.” Her visits to a monastery in Atchison, Kan., have helped her understand that a contemplative life requires cultivating “a greater esteem for silence.”

Though silence may be more plentiful in North Dakota than New York, I’d like to believe we can hear God’s voice and see his splendor no matter where in the world we are.

Valente says seeking this may well heal our weary souls better than any self-help book or therapy session.

But how does one find God’s voice amidst a constant stream of noise?

In New York, we were daily immersed in a sensory barrage – the dazzle of Times Square, two enthralling Broadway musicals, and the rush of visits to the top of Rockefeller Center, Ellis Island and the Lincoln Center.

While the smaller group in my charge enjoyed shopping during our bits of free time, I found peace in pausing to people-gaze whenever and wherever I could.

And it was in observing my fellow human beings – the woman in the black capris and purple socks walking her twin dogs, the gritty construction workers, the gray-haired man selling pretzels and hot dogs – that I felt most alive.

Though these weren’t necessarily quiet times, I saw God in the face of the chatty elevator man as we ascended Lady Liberty, the impromptu song of the Jamaican musician who tried serenading our choir director, and the unknown person at the restaurant who turned in a camera left there by one of our students.

I saw the divine hand in the sun that wooed and welcomed us our first day, and in the students’ pure and glee-filled exclamations while traversing a major metropolis, and in the colorful and delicious food.

I most definitely heard God, too, in all the music that filled us, both through the perfection of professionals and our own melody-minded youngsters.

Our crew sang with the skyline of Manhattan as a backdrop 70 stories high, as well as on the deck of the ferry, and aligning the red steps in Midtown.

They sang on hallowed ground in front of and in St. Paul’s Church and sacred space near the old World Trade Center that provided safe harbor during and survived the fatal blows of Sept. 11, 2001; and at the new and haunting 9/11 Memorial; as well as throughout Sunday Mass at St. Peter’s, a church where some of my Irish immigrant ancestors once bowed in worship.

At that latter stop, we “parent paparazzi” discovered our ability to steady a camera while tears dripped from our eyes as we watched our children creating music and memories together in a city and space beyond their normal bounds.

“More than anything,” I felt inspired to write on Facebook after witnessing all this, “I want to seek out what is good, beautiful and true about the world and share it with others.”

“New York is a great place to begin,” Mike from Connecticut responded. “All the best and all the worst of the world in one place, but the beauty and compassion are clear for eyes that see.”

“Ah, I think the best and worst are everywhere,” my cousin Elly from New Jersey added, “but they’re packed close together in New York.”

Indeed, signs of humanity are everywhere, but so are signs of God, who is ever eager to touch our hearts, in quiet or noise, if we but watch and listen.

Roxane B. Salonen is a freelance writer who lives in Fargo with her husband and five children. If you have a story of faith to share with her, email roxanebsalonen@gmail.com.