On a recent visit to New York City, once I had finished the business I had come to do, I made a beeline for Café Reggio. It is an old historic café that has operated in New York since 1927. I had a couple of hours before my train left for Washington, D.C. and I figured I would first stop and have a cup of coffee there and then walk through Washington Square for a quick lunch at Veselka, my favorite Ukrainian restaurant in the East Village.
I first learned about Café Reggio in the mid-1990s when I met there with one of my graduate students. The café is located on MacDougal Street in Greenwich Village, just around the corner from Bleecker Street, a storied place in 1960’s American folk music. When I went there for the first time, my student showed me the best seat in the house, hidden in a corner by a window looking out onto the street. It is tucked in against the wall so that one can see the whole interior of the café from that perspective. While most of the chairs in the café are wrought iron patio style furniture paired with marble-top tables, the two chairs in the window are ornately carved of wood, covered with burgundy cushions, and bolted to the floor. Whenever I visit New York I always try to fit in a brief stop at Cafe Reggio and I always hope that that particular seat — what I like to call “my chair” — will be available.
During the years our family lived in the Philadelphia area, I used to take a trip every couple of months to New York, during which I would write and grade papers on the train. I usually stopped at Café Reggio for at least forty-five minutes to an hour to write. This cafe, it seems to me, is the kind of place in which one should begin writing the “great novel” or some other such adventurous and noble undertaking.
When I arrived around 11AM the café was nearly empty. There to my delight was “my” unoccupied table and chair. I quickly sat down and ordered a cappuccino. The coffee there is served with a good dose of cinnamon and because, as far as I can tell, the milk is often heated with the coffee, the cappuccinos have more of an old-fashioned style than one finds today at the newer coffee chains. On each of the tables one finds an ornate metal sugar bowl and spoon. As I sat down to enjoy the surroundings, I looked up at the old tin ceilings that rested above the walls painted rusty brown and covered in places with dark wood. On the walls hang numerous antique oil paintings that have the certain dark patina that comes with age and constant exposure to the light of a busy public café.
I am certain that you have your own favorite “haunts” in places where you once lived or where you frequently visit either for work or pleasure. They might be restaurants, parks, gardens, libraries, bookstores, or particular buildings or structures. Such places offer us a sense of stability and comfort when we venture outside of our daily routine in places distant from wherever we call home. While a café away from home, or some other such place, cannot be called a “sacred space” in the ordinary sense of the words, it can be a place in which we re-collect ourselves, making it possible for us to move about in our strange and at the same time familiar space to which we have returned. Because returning to a favorite place can be refreshing, even exhilarating, we may also find that our spirits are lifted and that in some way we are restored and renewed.
Sitting there with the coffee in my hand, a stanza from a poem of Gerard Manley Hopkins, whose poetry is suffused with a profound Christian spirituality, came to mind: “the world is suffused with the grandeur of God.” I was not looking at the Grand Canyon, a beautiful beach, a spectacular mountain view, or a majestic waterfall. I was in the middle of New York City looking at the world in and through an ordinary cup of coffee. Yet, I was thankful for the splendor of this world and the “grandeur” of God made evident to me in that moment. Perhaps it was borne of the exhilaration of being in one of my favorite places or perhaps it was just a result of a good dose of caffeine, but I think it was more than that. It was in and through something in which I found simple happiness, that God found me and invited me to open my eyes to the “grandeur” of the people, places, artifacts and devices of every day life in which God is revealed.
Christian spirituality ultimately is about finding and responding to God in all that happens to us, in all the places we find ourselves, and in all the things we do. Each and every day try to remember to open your eyes to the grandeur of God revealed in the ordinariness of everyday life. You never know how with even such a simple act of faith you might be surprised, even be overcome by joy.