'Unreal City', the twentieth century Anglo-Catholic poet T S Eliot repeatedly calls London in The Waste Land. It is a mood I kept coming back to as I returned to the hard-edged London of my childhood; to a career I thought I had run away from; to the overwhelming vastness of a city I knew both too well and not at all.
Approaching Pentecost, I am introduced to Sant'Egidio through Our Cup of Tea, a monthly service providing free food, entertainment and companionship to the homeless and elderly. I arrive one bright Saturday afternoon as the sound of the organ being rehearsed blooms out of St Cuthbert's Philbeach Gardens, with little idea of what Sant'Egidio is and only an undefined sense of a desire to serve having carried me there.
Sometimes I wonder if I took away more than I gave that day (and since), despite intentions to the contrary. On the other hand, it attests to the community - volunteers and guests - who meet as one body to nourish and love one another in work, fellowship and prayer. As I spend more time with the Community, learning its patterns of prayer and forming bonds I can scarcely believe are so new, Sant'Egidio's motto Prayer, Poor, Peace starts to make sense of all that I encountered at that first Our Cup of Tea.
The busier we are, the more time we must set aside for prayer, says Saint Francis de Sales rather wisely. In much of modern urban society, it is a small but lavish act to spend a day or an evening in prayer, in the form of Our Cup of Tea or a Round of Friendship. Bishop John Jewel, an apologist of the English Reformations, writes of three forms of prayer: communal, private and a ceaseless outpouring from the heart. To volunteer with Sant'Egidio is to become part of a prayer which courses through the hearts of those present, sustained in the simple act of sharing a cup of tea or conversation.
As I write, the Gospel reading for the Sunday just past told the story of Mary and Martha. Martha busies herself preparing the home for Jesus and the disciples, while her sister Mary sits listening at the Lord's feet. Mary's inactivity upsets Martha, who asks Jesus to command Mary to help her. Jesus answers "Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her" (Luke 10:42). I think I am too liable to be Martha in situations like these: running away to quiet corners where there are dishes to be washed; more at ease when busy with my hands. At Sant'Egidio, while there is always much to be done, there is an equilibrium to be struck between the work of listening (as Mary) and the work of labour (as Martha). If one is absorbed in conversation, another will fill in to attend to needs of service, and so it goes on reciprocally. None takes away another's part, and all share in them. It is one of the rare and precious places in which I have felt freely content to sit and listen - and in this I witness a form of the third type of prayer Bishop Jewel describes.
At that first Our Cup of Tea, I speak to one guest whose work once spanned continents and whose children and grandchildren bring her great joy. They have their own lives now, she says: it's their time and she is loathe to trouble them with calls when she is (all too often) feeling lonely. Loneliness, she explains, begets a lack of motivation to prepare a full meal, or to bother with one's appearance. Her world, once so wide, has latterly become confined to a small corner of West London. Today this guest is radiant and decked in finery. One of her friends, who carries all his earthly possessions in a small trolley which defies physics in its chaotic but meticulous loading, beams at her entrance, starting up a quick-fire jargon-filled exchange I can barely keep pace with as they race to fill the gaps since their last meeting. These are outward signs of an inwardly felt love, which month after month has been nurtured in this place with these people. The food we share can only last an evening, or a few days, but (without minimising the vitality of such provision) the richness of spirit which fills all in the room has the capacity to nourish for a somewhat greater span.
It is all too easy to categorise persons into those who need and those who give, whether mercy or material goods. In my legal sector work, where we give pro bono (free) advice to those unable to afford representation, the stark line between expert and client is a professional necessity. Sometimes, the larger projects we work on have a very indirect path to the individuals we are aiming to assist.
What Sant'Egidio teaches me instead - with the privilege of immediacy and locality - is the humility to recognise that we are each poor in different ways, and that we each reap and sow mercy, kindness, love, prayer and peace. Guests and volunteers, hungry and thirsty, come together to be filled, in God's grace.
Too often all this is inevitably an aim more than a realisation. The perfection of the one body is not for this earth, after all. But how very beautiful it is to catch a glimpse of the Kingdom in a cup of tea, and God's mercy in someone's eye.
After the guests have departed from Our Cup of Tea, we gather in the sanctuary for a form of evening prayer, and as the soft cry Kyrie Eleison rises up in exhortation for peace in territories around the world riven by conflict, our prayers, which have been held tightly with intention for those present with us that day, are flung out to the wider Community and all those for whom peace is out of grasp. For while Sant'Egidio in London has its own community, it is part of a movement which spans the world and emanates from Rome. The invitation Prayer, Poor, Peace and a shared practice of daily prayer binds the worldwide Community together, lived out in each location in accordance with the needs of those on the ground and the gifts of those who lead it. For the moment, only a few months into this journey with Sant'Egidio, I give thanks to those who have opened my heart and eyes to an achingly real city of real people with real needs.