On Sunday, the Fourth in Lent, we worshiped at the home church of T.S. Eliot in South Kensington.
South of Royal Albert Hall and west of the Brompton Oratory, St. Stephen’s looks like a country stone church set amidst rows of white townhouses, a residential neighborhood in London bordered with busy roads and intersections. The great poet and critic T.S. Eliot was church warden here for many years and a plaque in the south aisle honors his time, his life, and his work.
I speak of Eliot and some of his themes in my recently released novel,Hana-lani, in particular, the importance of history’s impact on the present day, the questions society must ask itself as it forms its cultural and political institutions: What is goodness, truth, beauty, love? How do we define our authorities? What makes a civilization civil?
So it was a great pleasure to return to St. Stephen’s and to worship with fellow Anglo-Catholics. The church is redolent with time, another theme of Eliot’s. Wooden floors are rough and unfinished, and we found kneeling cushions piled at the end of a pew to place before us. I knelt, looking up to the magnificent golden sculpted reredos which rises in magnificence against a red backdrop. It is this brilliant gilding against the royal red, in this stone and wood country church that is most striking. The altar and tabernacle, draped in rose, today being Laetare-Rose Sunday, is thus enshrined, and the priest faces East, away from the people, representing them before God, in the traditional manner.
St. Stephen’s is known for its excellent music. A sextet sang the Missa Brevis in D by Johannes Eccard (1553-1611), a lyrical weaving of voices, golden strands winding through the congregation, carrying our prayers to the tabernacle and to God. I gazed at the many shrines about the church as I listened to the song-prayers – several shrines to Mary, to St. Stephen, colorful Stations of the Cross lining the side aisles. The walls are painted a warm brick red with white decorative trim arching aisles and carving spaces, and there is such a curious combination of English homeliness and ornate glory. Candles burn before enthroned or canopied images, and flowers cluster in vases on small altars. Above all, it is a warm and welcoming nave and sanctuary, with the pitched roof, the reds and golds, the sweet proportions. There is a carved mahogany pulpit which rises from the nave like a ship’s prow from the sea, five pews back, and from this commanding and traditional place, our good Father Reg Bushau preached.
He spoke of the Gospel reading – the healing of the blind man – and of course such a story in Lent gives ample opportunity for metaphor and meaning. He spoke of seeing, the ways of seeing, of the numinous in our world. He spoke of Plato and the classical background for this kind of vision into another dimension, a truer dimension, reality. As he spoke, as happens so many times when listening to a sermon, additional thoughts came to me, suddenly and piercingly. I saw the sacramental nature of the blind man’s healing, as Christ touched his eyes with his saliva mixed with soil from the ground. It was the touching, and the faith, that healed him. Just so, I thought, as I glanced at the golden reredos and the red hangings, the tabernacle on the altar, just so the Church is Christ’s finger, and Christ himself touches our eyes through this finger of the Church, touches us physically as we partake in his Body and Blood, which is like the mud rubbed on the blind man’s eyes. We need only allow the action to occur, allow Christ to touch us through the Eucharist, through the sacraments of His church. When we do, when we say yes to this healing, to this touching, we will see, we will be given the beatific vision of God himself. We will know love, be touched by this golden warmth, Christ.
T.S. Eliot wrote of some of these things, these encounters with the numinous, the transcendent, our deepest longings fulfilled. As Eliot wrote in Four Quartets:
For most of us, there is only the unattended
Moment, the moment in and out of time,
The distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight,
The wild thyme unseen, or the winter lightning
Or the waterfall, or music heard so deeply
That it is not heard at all, but you are the music
While the music lasts. These are only hints and guesses,
Hints followed by guesses; and the rest
Is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action.
The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation.
We received the Euchariston this Laetare, “Rejoice” Sunday, reflecting the Introit “O be joyful…”, also known as Rose Sunday in which we honor our mothers, our Mother Mary, and Mother Church. We received the Incarnation, reborn for us again and again with each Eucharist, and I heard the music deeply. I shall continue in prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action. I shall be happy to half understand this gift, this waterfall from the heavens.
It was good to be back at St. Stephen’s with my little novel in hand, celebrating in a small way this great man’s insight into our humanity and our dance with God. As we chatted with the vicar afterwards, catching up on the state of the Anglo-Catholics in England, I gave him a copy and another for Mrs. E., a widow who attends only occasionally now, when she is able, considering her age, but nevertheless regularly.
I was thankful.
St. Stephen’s Gloucester Road, London: http://saint-stephen.org.uk