I decided, too late, that I wanted to go home. It was a cool fall Saturday night in Budapest, where my post-college aimlessness had landed me a job teaching high school English. I lived in an outlying district at the far southern terminus of a metro line, filled with massive postwar concrete apartment buildings lined up one after the other like weary gray dominoes. On this night, though, I was in the bustle and sparkle of the city center with friends. The group had just decided to head up to Buda Castle to enjoy its hilltop views of the Danube and flat Pest, spreading out across the river to the horizon.
But waiting while some in the group purchased wine and chocolate to accompany the views, I decided I wasn’t up for another change in location before making the forty-five-minute trek to my concrete home. Taking my leave and then riding the escalator underground to board the metro, I chastised myself for my slowness. A few minutes before, a friend who taught at my school and lived close to me had made the same decision. Now, having missed the chance to have company on the journey, I just had my own thoughts.
I took the red metro line a few stops, then got out to transfer to the blue line that would take me the rest of the way. On the platform, the stale metro breeze blew out of the tunnel, announcing the next train. Through the windows of the train, I saw my friend whizz by and stop a few cars down from where I was standing. Surprised and grateful, I hustled over to the doors, sat down next to her, and chatted the rest of the way home.
More to the Story
I believed then, and still believe, that God takes an active role in human affairs and that there is more going on in our world than meets the eye. And yet I also live in what has been called a disenchanted age, where I’m more inclined to take matters into my own hands than pray, where I’m more likely to think of unusual events as coincidences than as divine intervention. When science has been so successful at describing the natural world, it’s my default mode to find a natural explanation for everything. When I’m encouraged to take charge of my own life, it’s my default mode to depend on myself rather than wait on God.
Conditioned by disenchantment, I saw my catching up with my friend as a coincidence. She had taken the tram to a different metro stop, whereas I had gotten on the metro right away. This accounted for my arriving at the platform a few minutes before her train, despite leaving a few minutes after. It was a simple explanation that would work well in a closed universe.
The next day was a Sunday, and I went back to the city center for church. The service was bilingual and the church attracted a lot of ex-pats. As our group of friends sank into the elderly movie theater seats before the service, the friend I’d stumbled into on the metro said she had to tell me something.
The previous night, as she was waiting on the metro platform, a group of men gathered around and started talking to her, asking her what she did, where she lived. When the train arrived, they followed her into the car. Realizing that there was no one else in the car, she began to feel she was in danger and prayed for a way out of the situation. Two stops later I bounded into the car, happy to see a familiar face—oblivious to what was going on—and sat down next to her. I didn’t notice the other men in the car and didn’t remember seeing them get off later.
Knowing that our paths crossing had been an answer to prayer put the situation in a new light. I had decided to go home when I did because I felt tired; there wasn’t any prompting of the Spirit that I could recognize in hindsight. And yet it seemed that my steps had been guided, though it’s very likely that I decided to go home before my friend prayed. Hearing what had happened behind the scenes was a revelation—an unveiling of something that had previously been hidden. This glimpse behind the scenes strengthened my too-tentative faith that God really does act in the world.
Forsaking a Disenchanted World
Much of the time, I’m just as tempted to view the world as disenchanted as I was before. It’s still easier to believe only in atoms bouncing off one another, to say unusual events are just coincidence. I get why people like to say they “believe in science.” Behind this statement is often a desire for a firm place to stand, unmoved by contingency, not needing anything from beyond us that’s unpredictable. And I believe in science, too, in the sense that I know there are natural laws that can be discovered through observation and reasoning.
Belief in a God who acts complicates things because when you open the door to believing in answered prayer, you also believe in unanswered prayer, and you can give yourself a headache trying to account for the differences between them. My friend’s request for help was granted—great! But what about those requests in similar circumstances where no one steps through the metro door? Did God not hear those, or decide not to act? It’s a can of worms that stays safely closed when you’re living in a disenchanted world.
I still don’t know why this prayer was answered when so many seem to have gone unanswered. I only know that, ever since that night and the revelation of the next day, I have been unable to rest in disenchantment for long. I can’t fully believe in a world of mere material cause and effect, however often it might tempt me. I’m a little less motivated to try and explain away answered prayers as coincidences because I can point to at least one time where this tactic didn’t work. Transcendence broke into my disenchanted world, though I didn’t have eyes to see it at first. It has shaped my imagination. Now that I’ve let it in, it won’t leave me alone.
Cover image by Liam Burnett-Blue.