You don’t have to be a fan of smells, bells and altar rails; if you live in London and you haven’t visited the London Oratory for Forty Hours during Lent, then you simply must go.
These moments of Exposition, Adoration and Benediction – spread over three days – are perfectly timed to give you a spiritual boost. Forty Hours always coincides with facing your mid-Lent crisis – that halfway point in the abstemious season when you begin to feel sorry for yourself and the mere sight of a chocolate Hobnob brings tears to your eyes. I arrived at the Oratory last Wednesday in that sorry state – cold, peeved and ravenous.
But the moment I entered the church it instantly evoked warm feelings, like finally coming home after a long, gruelling walk in the rain. The church enveloped me, the high altar awash with a sea of perfectly placed candles. The monstrance, carrying the Blessed Sacrament, bobbed above the waxen waves.
Like all good cradle Catholics, I sat towards the back of the church, savouring the quiet. There was an elderly man in the pew in front of me silently praying the rosary. Holy Hour began and, after a short reflection from the priest, we began to sing, “Soul of my Saviour, sanctify my breast.”
The final verse – where we contemplate our departure from this life – always triggers a lump in the throat: “Guard and defend me from the foe malign, in death’s dread moments make me only thine; call me and bid me come to thee on high where I may praise thee with thy saints for ay.”
I couldn’t help noticing the man in front of me as we sang. He looked desperate, as if he were praying for a miracle. As we implored “strength and protection may thy passion be. Oh Blessed Jesus, hear and answer me,” he began to weep.
Aware that I was starting to stare, I diverted my gaze to a young priest who was absorbed in prayer. A bell suddenly tinkled and he jumped up without hesitation and scurried off, only to return minutes later to rescue his forgotten biretta.
As I gave myself a mental telling-off for being a hopeless people-watcher, I wondered where else on earth would you witness so many short stories.
This is the wonder of the Catholic Church. A hundred varieties of life’s dramas surround us every day in our churches and cathedrals – some banal, some profound, some tragic, but all beautiful. In our lives, most of us have, at some point, played every scene.
This article first appeared in the March 25 2016 issue of the Catholic Herald.
The London Oratory’s 2018 Forty Hours Devotion begins Tuesday, March 13 and ends Thursday, March 15. Click here for more information.