Close to Marble Arch there is a traffic island at the beginning of the Edgware Road. At its centre lies a stone disc engraved with the words “The site of Tyburn Tree”. It was here that, between 1535 and 1681, 105 Catholic priests and laity suffered the horrible ordeal of being hanged, drawn and quartered, all for remaining loyal to the Faith of their fathers. Gentrification of the area in the eighteenth century would obliterate all reminders of the public executions, with the gallows removed, and Tyburn Road and Tyburn Lane becoming Oxford Street and Park Lane.
This intersection must be one of the noisiest and busiest corners of the city. Nearby, however, is a place of extraordinary tranquillity. In the early twentieth century a convent of Benedictine nuns was founded in the Bayswater Road. The crypt chapel of their convent is now filled with relics of the English Martyrs. There is even a replica of the gallows over the altar. Upstairs, in the public chapel, the sisters pray day and night before the exposed Blessed Sacrament.
The memory of Tyburn Tree, then, is kept alive at Tyburn Convent. As the nuns keep vigil before the Sacred Host, they offer up a constant stream of prayers for the well-being and the conversion of our city and our realm. They have chosen the “better part” or “good portion” which Our Lord attributes to St Mary Magdalene in the Gospel. This “good portion” is the life of contemplation, lived at the foot of the Cross. We can be sure that if we make it to Heaven, we shall see just what extraordinary graces and blessings were secured for us, for the Church and for the human race in general by these lives devoted to prayer.
In Baptism, we are elevated to a participation in the life of the Blessed Trinity. An essential part of this supernatural relationship with God is communication. We are invited to communicate our thoughts, our hopes and fears, our joys and sorrows, praise, thanksgiving and petitions to God, and in return He communicates His divine life to us in abundance. We should thank God for those who answer this calling in a way that is quite radical. All over the Catholic world there are communities of religious who pursue this “good portion” which is the life of contemplation. Normally we do not hear much about them. This is because they have been buried in seclusion so as to be in the constant presence of Almighty God. They die to this world so that the life of the Resurrection might take ever greater possession of their hearts and souls.
In a fallen world which tends towards rebellion against the laws that God has written into nature, we can be grateful for those who do penance and intercede for His mercy. Holy Scripture tells us that sin deserves punishment, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church declares that there are sins that “cry to Heaven” for retribution (Catechism of the Catholic Church, n.1867). They include murder and injustice to the wage-earner. When such sins proliferate in our society we should thank Heavens for those men and women who mortify themselves on our behalf. In Marseilles in southern France there is an extraordinary community of nuns called the Religious Victims of the Sacred Heart, founded in the 19th century to make reparation for the sins of priests. What a great and important work that is.
To the shallow and materialistic mind the contemplative life always looks like a waste of time. With the eyes of faith we know that when prayer is combined with penance and sacrifice it has great power before the Throne of Grace. The history of Jonah and Nineveh illustrates how fasting and prayer can save a civilisation from a sentence of destruction. Sodom and Gomorrah had no just citizens praying to God, and were utterly destroyed.
It is God’s desire to bless rather than to punish. As the current Sovereign Pontiff has reminded us on a number of occasions, “God never tires of forgiving us. We are the ones who tire of seeking for His forgiveness.” Be grateful for those who ask for mercy on our behalf.
Let us pray that God will continue to send vocations to contemplative communities. Of course, most of us are called to a different sort of life – more like Martha, with many practical and worldly duties and responsibilities. But we should also try to imitate Mary’s prayerfulness. In London it is not so difficult to find churches that are open during the day, so that we may walk in and rest in the presence of Our Lord. The Martyrs who celebrated and attended Holy Mass in attics and cellars would have rejoiced to see the day when sanctuary lamps burning in public would once again summon God’s children to adoration.
It is possible to visit the chapel of the Martyrs at Tyburn Convent by appointment, and there to be inspired by the faith and zeal of the nuns as they tell the story of the dramatic events that happened just a short walk along the street. Then go upstairs to the church to spend some time in front of Our Lord enthroned over the altar. Do all of this and you will have experienced a taste of the “good portion” that Our Lord commends in Mary.
Fr Julian Large