Madeleine Teahan: Forty hours of human drama

Quarant'Ore at the London Oratory (London Oratory)

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.

The popular lunchtime eatery Tossed, patronised by City lawyers and bankers, has opened two new stores with a catch. As the Metro newspaper reported last week, “you can only place your order through self-service kiosks – totally eliminating the need to talk to anyone on your lunch break”.

If you consider how quickly self-service checkouts spread across our supermarkets, it’s not unlikely that other shops and cafes will follow Tossed’s example. The Metro asked: “Is this a practical, convenient salad-shopping upgrade ideal for introverts? Or the end of humanity as we know it?” Joking aside, the impact of technology means that conversing with strangers is increasingly rare. We are often so preoccupied with WhatsApp-ing loved ones pictures of our lunch that we neglect to say “thank you” to the lady who sold it to us. Either that or we just avoid humans altogether and use self-service machines. That seems a shame.

But maybe I’m being too gloomy. Taciturn London has skewed my perception of the state of relations between strangers. Contrary to in God’s Own Country (Yorkshire, where I grew up), no one thanks bus drivers, and grunting and glaring on the Tube seems to have replaced the phrase “excuse me”. I fear I am the worst offender after eight years living in the capital.

Adopting periods of silence is still regarded as a penance in the Catholic Church, but talking to strangers is the new purgatory. I might take it up next Lent.

Seventy-four year-old Carole King is performing her album Tapestry – one of the biggest-selling of all time – at Hyde Park in July. I am lucky enough to have a ticket. To mark the occasion, King’s piano-thumping hit Beautiful should be piped into every Tube and bus as it says: “You’ve got to get up every morning with a smile on your face and show the world all the love in your heart!” It might get people talking…

Madeleine Teahan is associate editor of the Catholic Herald