Wednesday 16 November 2011

Perfection in Fleet Street

Every other Wednesday, I celebrate the Eucharist in the crypt chapel of St Bride's, Fleet Street.  This Wren church, with its famous wedding-cake steeple, was built after the Great Fire (and rebuilt yet again after being extensively damaged in the Blitz) on the footprint of its medieval predecessor - which had itself overlaid and replaced five other buildings going back as far as the sixth century.  In the crypt, which is now far below street level, you are surrounded by the relics of these former churches - isolated outcrops and abutments of ancient stone which will have echoed to the timeless rhythm of masses offered by our earliest ancestors in the faith.  Indeed you are, in a sense, surrounded by the ancestors themselves, since the crypt was used for burials for centuries until 1854.

The Crypt Chapel, St Bride's, Fleet Street

The altar is an ancient table, half-charred and planted on a huge tombstone.  To its south side is a tiny niche in the stonework in which the priest can sit silently and all but unobserved as he awaits the lunchtime faithful.  I use these few minutes to say a preparatory prayer or two; and to formulate mentally some words of introduction.  When there is a festival or other commemoration, these words often take the form of a brief reflection on the saint's life and its significance for us on (or under) the streets of 21st century London.

Today's commemoration (or "lesser festival" to give it its formal appellation) was of Margaret of Scotland, a ninth century Anglo-Saxon noblewoman who fled England for Scotland at the Norman conquest, and subsequently married the Scottish king.  She is thought to have lived a life of great piety and philanthropy, caring for the poor and reforming religious houses.  The little biography provided by the Anglican altar book used for the celebration of such festivals, Exciting Holiness, says of Margaret that she "seemed to influence for good all with whom she came into contact".  This sounds rather bland, even saccharine, at first sight; but that does not characterise these usually nicely-judged and economical summaries.  So I am happy to assume that, as far as we can know 1000 years on, it must actually be true.

St Margaret feeding orphans

Influencing for good all with whom one comes into contact is indeed a holy gift.  We perhaps all know or have known someone who seems positively to radiate goodness; a person in whom we can detect no hint of selfishness or malice; and who in the eyes of the cynic, seems too good to be true.  None of us can be without sin, without flaw, since that is our inheritance.  Christians believe that perfection can be attained only by the grace of God, and perhaps never in this life.  Yet there are people who seem to approach it: not just peacemakers or philanthropists; not just those who are remembered for their good deeds or wise words - although all these and more surely have more than their "fair" share of holiness.  They are those who have been given such a measure of inner goodness that it cannot help but overflow like some healing salve.  They are those in whose faces we seem to see - albeit through a glass, darkly - a reflection of Christ himself.