The cliche about British summers is that they are always cold, grey, and wet. We like this sort of talk as it keeps us within a cosy comfort-zone along with jokes about the dreariness of British food, the tradition of formal stiff-upper-lip behaviour, and the splendour of our history. Actually, apart from the last, the clichés just aren’t true. London is currently undergoing a heat wave. Modern British people are foodies, and our biggest health problem is obesity. And the old stiff-upper-lip vanished at least two or three decades ago, to be replaced with compulsory public displays of emotion, an almost complete collapse of traditional formality in manners, good standards of dress, and even – biggest loss of all – honest, self-deprecating humour.
The current heat wave is unpleasant. Of course we all say “Fantastic weather, isn’t it?” but the reality is searing heat, airless trains and buses, and lots of scorched pink flesh as people walk around city streets dressed for the beach. However, I endured the heat of central London this week to attend the latest session of the CATHOLICISM course at St Patrick’s, Soho Square. And it was worth every moment. Once inside the church, the blessed coolness was a joy, and as the gathering was taking place in a (newly refurbished and very comfortable) big basement room, we were free from the relentless heat of the sun-soaked street outside.
But it was crowded – extremely crowded. Mostly young – your correspondent was definitely one of the oldest people present, and only got in by claiming journalistic privileges – and there was lots and lots of lively talk as people gathered and greeted friends. Then we were called to order and the evening began with a prayer, led by Vocations Director Fr Richard Nesbit. Then some music, a short introduction, and the lights went down, and the room was dominated by CATHOLICISM coming to life on the main wall.
For those who don’t know, CATHOLICISM in this context refers specifically to the excellent series produced by Father Robert Barron – who a couple of weeks back came here to London to launch its British tour – and it really is terrific. You are taken to scenes of the great events in the Life of Christ, to the magnificent churches and cathedrals of the world, to places of huge natural beauty, to missions and schools and homes and centres of Christian love and healing and teaching and building. Each section of the course – you watch a DVD week by week, each tackling a different aspect of the Catholic Faith – is a visual feast, and offers great and stimulating teaching. The most recent one was about saints. We visited Lisieux, Calcutta, and Auschwitz as we met three great Teresas.
The last of these, St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, Edith Stein, has been a favourite of mine for the past 4 or 5 years as I have embarked on some academic study. Her scholarship is way beyond anything I could ever achieve or emulate, but I have loved reading her work, have invoked her intercession, and have come to admire her insights into aspects of feminism and the role of women that were perceptive and far-sighted as she was writing in the 1930s when many people had not grasped the importance of what was needed in female education.
Later in our discussion group, we were each invited to speak about a particular saint and I chose Stein. The discussion groups aren’t let’s-all-share-some-nice-thoughts stuff, but really get to grips with aspects of Catholic teachings. Our particular group continued afterwards in a (dreadfully hot) Chinese restaurant over plates of savoury fried rice. As we left, life in Soho was sizzling all around us: with its mix of noise, bars, sex-shops, theatres, restaurants, traffic, and tourists. This is the London that so badly needs Christ, the London that the Church can serve by seeking to bring Him right there.