Children’s drawings of Noah’s Ark usually depict smiling giraffes stretching their necks out of Mr and Mrs Noah’s well-appointed living quarters, while lions and sheep stand shoulder to shank and ready to sail on the deck. Such scenes of prelapsarian bucolic harmony surely belie the reality of those forty days and nights during which Noah and his family found themselves crammed into a creaking hull full of irascible and malodorous beasts.
Thanks to Thames Water, the inhabitants of Oratory House were recently afforded an insight into what the sanitary conditions inside the Ark must have been like. The Provost returned from a few days on family business to find that, while it was pouring with rain in London, the Oratory Church, House and Lodge were in a state of severe drought. Days earlier, a shuddering of pipes and spluttering of taps had signalled the termination of any water supply. Every tank, cistern, sink and basin on the site was stone dry. Abandoning a great hole which they had begun digging in front of the church, Thames Water’s dynamic team of problem fixers downed-tools and went home on Saturday afternoon and it was only when pressed on the telephone in the early hours of Sunday morning that a spokesman disclosed that they had decided that the whole situation was none of their business and we would have to deal with it ourselves. Having engaged a private plumbing firm and with preparations underway to have the courtyard dug up at vast expense, we asked the congregation at the High Mass on the Sunday to pray for a solution. Deo Gratias, by the time Holy Mass was over, we were informed that Thames Water had discovered that their men had turned off the stop cock the previous week, and all that was needed was for them to rotate it in the opposite direction.
MI5 has famously said that we are just “four meals away from anarchy.” The theory is that, deprived of the bare necessities, it would only be a day or two before our reasonably well-ordered society would be reduced to riots, looting and general chaos. Mercifully, things did not quite reach this stage in Oratory House. Although there were serious concerns about the more elderly and infirm amongst the twenty two souls in residence here, and for the thousands of parishioners (a number of them disabled), and the many employees in the music department who spend a good deal of time on the premises on a Saturday and Sunday, we all survived and, apart from considerable expenditure of resources on private plumbers and blood pressure medication, there were no fatalities. It probably helps that the more senior fathers are the products of educational establishments in which conditions during the immediate post-war years would be considered unacceptable in a modern prison. And anything which serves to toughen up the younger fathers and novices is all to the good. Apart from the obvious public health risk, by far the most unsettling aspect of the crisis was having to enter the Kafkaesque zone of attempting to communicate with Thames Water.
During Lent, we priests often remind our flocks of the benefits of self-denial and mortification. In the light of eternity, we can be certain that the recent indignities to which we ourselves were subjected by the water board were not without value. They provided rich material for reflection on the suffering of those who face far more serious deprivations than anything we have had to endure – not only the housebound and other vulnerable people in the London and the Thames Valley who find themselves at the mercy of incompetent and indifferent public utilities officials, but also the many in this world for whom the lack of the most basic provisions such as clean water is not some temporary inconvenience but rather a more permanent and dreadful reality of daily life. It reminds us of the urgent need to pray for them, and to provide material and practical assistance to those who work to alleviate such poverty.
In Lent, we are encouraged to embrace discomfort and self-denial, not for their own sake, but as a way of uniting ourselves with the Passion and Death of Our Lord Jesus Christ. In our Baptism, we die with Christ and are buried with Him, before being raised from the waters of regeneration overflowing with the life of the Resurrection, and in that great sacrament we receive the vocation to keep dying to ourselves in the here and now so that the life of the Resurrection may take ever greater possession of our hearts and souls. In the days when nuns wore starched wimples they would teach the schoolgirls in their charge to “offer it up” when they complained of toothache or homesickness. In Lent, we offer up our voluntary sacrifices with the gifts of bread and wine at Holy Mass, so that they take on a supernatural value at the Altar. As we heard in a sermon preached in the Oratory Church at the High Mass on Ash Wednesday, “Fasting is a physical prayer that you offer up.” We should also ask for the grace to do the same with the sufferings and inconveniences which come to us unbidden, offering them up for the world, for the Church and for our own sanctification.
Coming into the church on Good Friday, you will find the holy water basins empty and dry. This reflects the sense of desolation of Our Lord’s Passion and Death. At the Easter Vigil, we celebrate the Resurrection by soaking the whole congregation, priests and people, with a generous sprinkling of the new water blessed for the baptismal font. After recent events, the fathers are looking forward more than usual to singing Vidi Aquam.
Father Julian Large