Catholic Priest, Father James Martin, fails to see the beauty of a fast moving woman in New York City

Catholic priest, James Martin, offers this incident as illustration of the richness of (his) existence that our plugged-in culture is bypassing:

Not long ago, I was walking through a park in New York City. Racing across Union Square to an appointment, I stumbled on a pair of grungy young men, one with playing an accordion, the other a violin. Their music was a sprightly, lively, intricate, intoxicating type of Eastern European folk music. Mesmerized, I stopped to listen to the furious melodies and rising and falling rhythms. A little crowd gathered around, and I noticed that we were in the middle of the weekly open-air farmers’ market, with vendors carefully laying out fresh fruits, vegetables, and flowering plants for all to see.

As I listened to these two skinny guys, one with long dreadlocks, the other with a scraggly beard, I smelled something unusual — fresh peaches — from behind me. What a glorious moment: the music, the sunshine, the crowd, the shoppers at the market, and the smell of ripe peaches.

Just then someone cut through the rest of the crowd: a woman punching her BlackBerry and listening to her iPod. She knifed through us and rushed away. She had missed the entire experience, since she was entirely absorbed in her own world.

I won’t deny that Father Martin had a pleasant aesthetic experience, but with all due respect, human beings are filtering all the time. For those intent on noticing the full range of life’s music, perhaps the experience of that hour might have included the Blackberry/iPod woman as well. (Let priests who have eyes to see and ears to hear, let them see and hear.) If the world, afterall, is holy, then it’s all holy. Holy the peach vendor. Holy the street guitarist. Holy the business woman. Father Martin, were he attending, say, to the scent of the woman’s perfume as she passed by him, might have found her every bit as intoxicating as the fruit stand. And maybe he would have seen her beauty as well—not just her feminine beauty, but her feminist beauty: the beauty of a liberated woman in a large city. After millenia of patriarchal oppression, what a glorious thing the blind priest missed! She belonged in the scene as much as the street vendor. And the value of the world that she was absorbed in may have been every bit as rich (to her) as the priest’s moment of contemplation. It was not just that she had missed him; he had missed her.

For all those caterpillars (like Father Martin) who would lay their smug eggs of pity and guilt on a woman moving too fast, and without attention to the “right” things, I offer the following sonnet by William Wordsworth. It’s in praise of the cloistered mind; of people too absorbed in their own worlds—their inner cells—to go outdoors much and watch the bees in the flowers. Wordsworth thinks this is perfectly fine, for we too are bees with our noses in the flowers, but they are the imaginative flowers and projects of our choosing. The sonnet is titled “Nuns Fret Not”:

Nuns fret not at their convent’s narrow room;

And hermits are contented with their cells;

And students with their pensive citadels;

Maids at the wheel, the weaver at his loom,

Sit blithe and happy; bees that soar for bloom,

High as the highest Peak of Furness-fells,*

Will murmur by the hour in foxglove bells:

In truth the prison, unto which we doom

Ourselves, no prison is: and hence for me,

In sundry moods, ’twas pastime to be bound

Within the sonnet’s scanty plot of ground;

Pleased if some souls (for such there needs must be)

Who have felt the weight of too much liberty,

Should find brief solace there, as I have found.


*Mountains in the Lake District.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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2 Responses to Catholic Priest, Father James Martin, fails to see the beauty of a fast moving woman in New York City

  1. Gunlord says:

    The problem is, though, the lady probably didn’t stick around long enough for the poor fellow to ‘appreciate’ her. He could stand around and enjoy the fruits and conversations and whatever for at least a few minutes, but almost as soon as he noticed the lady she was gone. T_T

    That said,

    “the value of the world that she was absorbed in may have been every bit as rich (to her) as the priest’s moment of contemplation.”

    is somewhat debatable. Who knew what she was fiddling with in her Blackberry, after all? While most people would agree that enjoying music and peaches are nice in pretty much every circumstance, one can’t say quite the same thing for the sort of things one uses their blackberry to do. Maybe she received a nasty email or was fiddling with some error or glitch on her little gadget or something (I wouldn’t know, I don’t own one, I’m just sayin’ 😉 ).

  2. santitafarella says:


    I agree that I could be defending a cretin with an unimaginative and uninteresting (at least to me) inner life. But here’s the thing: if we have read our Darwin and Nietzsche, and are going to take contingency seriously, then we are going to conclude (with Freud) that each individual is living in a “life dream” unique to them. A hard driving feminist business woman making 300k in a large metropolis may have been hunting the big game of her profession (something far more important to her than the priest’s sauntering in the park). She may also have been doing something trivial (even to her) and would benefit from slowing down. Perhaps her rush is habit. My point is that the priest’s way is not superior to her way: it’s just another form of human contingency; a way of fantasizing and occupying yourself on your way to dusty death.

    I like the title of Woody Allen’s new film: “Whatever Works.”

    Of course, nothing actually works, and since that is the case, whatever coping strategy (temporarily) sublimates the yawning chaos for YOU, and puts a smile on your face, may not be what works for ME (because we are contingently flung into different mental and spacial moments in our individual histories).

    Unfortunately, no success “cookbook,” or how-to book, or trivial pieces of general advice can help us to ever really know what to do with our lives right now. Our lives are up to us.


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