Listening to God in the City

I never thought I was the sort of person to have a spiritual director. That seemed too exalted for me, a humble biology teacher—and more like something you would have if you were a holy older sister or a theology major! 

The shock of being elected to our congregational leadership team was what changed my mind. I realized that the best thing I could do for my religious community was to become holy myself, and I would definitely need help for that! So one of my first strategies was to find a spiritual director. And after many enjoyable years and sessions with different spiritual directors I can look back on the many ways in which they have helped me to learn how to listen for God’s voice. 

When I moved to New York City to work for an NGO at the U.N., there I was—a country girl with a penchant for Creation Spirituality–in the middle of miles and miles of brick and concrete. But I found a spiritual director who knew that about me and yet was brave enough to take me on and be my spiritual director. 

At our first meeting, she gave me an assignment: “Michele, listen for how God speaks to you through the City.” (I agreed, knowing that if that got too hard, I could always flee to Central Park or the New York Botanical Garden and its 40 acres of woodland.) And I started listening to the City. 

God never stopped speaking, though she chose some interesting ways to do it. My first tip was that if you want to move slowly in the spiritual life or in the City, you could always stay on the surface with a bus. But if you want to go far and go fast, you have to go deep. 

Deep–down where there is darkness and screeching subway wheels and maybe even rats. I found plenty of rats in my spiritual life, too. 

But my memos from the Spirit were usually delivered by the street people, of whom there are many in New York City, and with whom I developed a complicated relationship. I would develop a satisfying strategy of how to interact with them — satisfying to me, anyway — and use it for a while. 

For example, I saved all my change for the street people. First, I tried giving a few coins to each homeless person I saw. When the coins were gone, that was it; my obligations were fulfilled. I could ignore the rest of the people I met. Spirit Memo: It is never enough. 

Next, I tried giving all my change to the first person who met my unspoken criteria for being “worthy.” Spirit Memo: Who am I to judge? 

For a while, I gave out breakfast bars instead of money. But none of my strategies ever worked for long; there was always an exception to my rules. Spirit Memo: Your rules are not God’s rules, and they don’t always work

For example, outside the Korean Embassy, I saw an unshaven man who was holding a piece of cardboard with a lot of printing on it. I stopped and smiled, and gave him a breakfast bar. He was totally confused. While I waited for him to get unconfused, I took time to actually read his sign. He was not asking for money or work, or telling me that he was a veteran or supporting a family or needing an operation–he was protesting some injustice perpetrated by the country of South Korea. 

The truth dawned on us both at the same time, we looked at each other, and laughed–no words necessary–and he handed me back the breakfast bar. I waved it off, saying he might get hungry later, and we parted friends after discussing his gripe with his country. 

Spirit memo: Listen/read before you act. 

But I think I learned my most powerful lesson as I was walking home from the UN one night. I saw a very big, tall, muscular, homeless man coming up behind me. He yelled after me. I was the only one on the street, it was dark, and I was a little afraid of him. I pretended not to hear and hurried on. 

Then he delivered my note from the Spirit. 

“I hate it when they do that,” he yelled at my back. “They just ignore you and pretend you aren’t there.” 

Wow. That was more than a note. My Angry Man delivered a life-changing sermon that changed my strategy forever. 

Ever since that night, I have tried to acknowledge the presence of each street person I meet with a smile or a “God bless you,” even if I have no change. Occasionally I will apologize for having no change, and they always reply graciously, “That’s all right,” and thank me for stopping to speak! 

Spirit Memo: Acknowledge each person’s human dignity. 

I don’t always follow my own rules, but at least I am usually given the grace to feel guilty after encounters where I fail the test. 

For some reason, most of those experiences of failure happened right at the beginning of Lent or Advent, just when I needed to be reminded that I am a sinner. To paraphrase Desmond Tutu: Your messengers from God “are God’s gift to you, as you are to them.” 

Sharing these insights with my spiritual director helped me to keep listening to how God spoke to me in The City, and I am forever grateful for my five years’ practice there. 

Sr. Michele Morek is an Ursuline Sister of Mount Saint Joseph, Kentucky. She holds a doctorate in biology from the University of Notre Dame and worked for more than 30 years as a professor and administrator at the college/university level. She also served for 14 years in congregational leadership positions, including six years as community leader. After five years as coalition coordinator of UNANIMA International (a religious nongovernmental organization at the United Nations), in 2017 she began working for National Catholic Reporter, in their Global Sisters Report project, where she serves as column editor and liaison to women religious all over the world. Her contact: