When I was thinking about starting this blog, I wanted to call it Borderlands and Bridges. I’d just finished reading Cormac McCarthy’s Borderlands trilogy – which had blown me away. I liked the image of the threshold – a place between other places. Not just somewhere you pass through, or pass over, but a place where unexpected things happen; where you get lost or even trapped; where worlds collide; where your identity is in question. In the end, the blog title was simply too long for a manageable web-address, so I went off at a tangent instead…
There was an experience of the ‘borderland’ this week in central London. The relics of St Thérèse were in Westminster Cathedral for four days. It was an extraordinary experience for all those who came – many with a deep faith hoping that it would be renewed, some hardly knowing why they were there. But what made it so interesting was the threshold between the religious space of the Cathedral and the secular space of the city.
The queuing took place in the piazza in front of the Cathedral. Thousands of people winding their way patiently through the labyrinth of metal barriers. A huge screen broadcasting the services from inside. A fish and chips kiosk set up on the street by the Cathedral authorities. McDonalds on one corner. Clarke’s shoe shop on the other. And many more thousands of people passing along Victoria Street – shopping, working, drifting – wondering what it was all about.
It wasn’t just the carnival atmosphere (which is felt at any street party or sporting event). It was the fact that this witness of faith flowed out from the confines of the religious building into the streets, and this allowed people to wonder, to show a natural human interest, and even to ask deeper questions about life that might not come to the surface otherwise. The public expression of faith in the piazza gave people permission to reflect on the place of faith in their lives – not just the committed and the devout, but those who were full of doubts or simply passing by.
Not everyone wants to visit relics or stand around in Victoria Street for two hours. But there is a public aspect to Christian faith that was expressed here in a particularly powerful way. Catholics were happy to show that they were Catholics, to talk about what was important to them. Not in a showy or arrogant way, but in a way that was simple, natural, honest, uninhibited.
It doesn’t mean that Christianity wants to impose itself on a pluralistic culture. But it hopes to have a place in that culture. Why? Above all, so that the culture is set free to discover human and spiritual depths that might otherwise be forgotten.
[To get a glimpse of what has been happening with the tour of the relics over the last five weeks see the excellent official blog of the visit.]