At the Other Side of Rush Hour: Contemplation, Belonging and the City
On a visit to London recently I had enjoyed a day of meeting with a variety of different people, and walking between tube stations and enjoying London city life. I realised as I began to rush back towards Victoria that I was pushing it to make the off-peak train back to Crawley. So I took the decision to slow things down, to walk to Victoria and catch the train at the other side of the rush hour. As I walked between Covent Gardens and Victoria I began to ponder on the people who were around me.
Most were walking at a hundred miles per hour trying to get home or get to where they were perhaps meeting friends for the evening. Traffic was impatient and the general buzz was rising. I began to notice something else: people, men and women beginning to bed down for the night, emerging from tube stations and alley ways, sitting on the pavements near shop doors or next to rubbish bins and traffic lights. These men and women were not in the same rush. Both groups were disconnected. London, like any other City, was displaying the paradox of people who have a place to belong and others who don’t, a place where some people are going somewhere and yet others going nowhere. I help to develop new grassroots community development initiatives with Bethany Christian Trust in Scotland, seeking to tackle the upstream causes of homelessness. So this moment struck me forcefully. I realised this was what Rowan Williams has described as an “urban life being lived under the sign of anonymous exchange.”
Counter-signs: contemplation, belonging and connection in the Cathedral
As I got nearer to Victoria I began to look for somewhere to go and sit for a while until it was time for my train. I was about to opt for the usual coffee place when I remembered a place I have been often when in London. Westminster Catholic Cathedral is a beautiful Neo-Byzantine building built in 1895-1903. Only when I entered the Cathedral did the noise from the city that had seemed so normal become so abnormal. As I sat in the Cathedral I began to experience something quite different from out on the street. All sorts of different people were sitting at different parts of the Cathedral. Some were quietly talking to one another, some were praying, some were resting. In the background the sound of choir practice began, but it didn’t disrupt the moment. It only brought an invitation to join with God and others. Some people where lighting candles for loved ones and some people were just walking around. No one was in a rush, everyone was welcome, and everyone belonged.
I was able to sit and be with God and others in way that felt connected, yet I didn’t speak to anyone. Francis de Sales is quoted as saying that “spiritual direction happens when people are encouraged to do all things slower, talking, walking, and eating.” This place offered me space to slow things down. ‘Progress’ can overtake natural growth and seasonal ebb and flow within the city. This brings challenges to aspects of spiritual life that are foundationally relational and rhythm conscious. When walking through the streets, I was finding it hard to be slow as the natural flow was fast. Urban monasteries offer a different rhythm for people to connect with.
Connectedness and resilience: resisting the rat-race
After a while I left the Cathedral and the surge of city life enveloped me once again, but didn’t penetrate. I had slowed down and seen God and my fellow man with a deeper, relational set of eyes and heart. The young woman in front of me who lit a candle and then knelt and prayed: I felt connected to her, and prayed for whoever she was praying for, even though I didn’t know them. The old man who carried his sleeping bag under his arm and came and sat at the end of the pew I was sitting on: as he slouched down and closed his eyes I began to pray for him and what he might face that night and the next day. The choir who sang: I began to pray for them as they praised God that their hearts would be encouraged and that the Holy Spirit would flow amongst them and touch their life in new and powerful ways. I brought before God what was on my heart that day. Thankfulness and sadness and Jesus met me right there. I was spiritually satisfied as I sat in the silence and re-calibrated my connectedness with God.
Jesus also modelled the need to re-calibrate; in order not to drown in the sinking ship of society. “After He had sent the crowds away, He went up onto the mountain by himself to pray.” Matthew 14:23.
Contemplation is at the heart of pioneering, as it is at the heart of everything else in the city. It anchors us at the other side of rush hour.
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