One of the conversations I had on our London walk shed new light on a reflection I was to give a few days afterwards.
The walk was another organised by Pat Gaffney and brought together a nice cross-section of people, most of whom had either an Irish Chaplaincy or a Pax Christi connection. As the group assembled outside Borough station I was pleased to see again Rev. Ngate in his striking yellow robes and with peace drum in hand. Pat’s previous London walk had ended at the Peace Pagoda in Battersea Park which Ngate had helped to build as a young man and for which he acts as guardian from his little cabin in the park, which we also visited.
This latest London walk began with a prayer in the old churchyard of St George the Martyr, next to which, as Pat explained, is the Marchalsea Prison, notorious in Victorian times for its incarceration of London’s poorest debtors, which included the father of Charles Dickens. Dickens himself had lived in the area and several of the streets are named after characters in his books. A little later, in the shadow of the Shard and other glistening new City skyscrapers, we stopped to pause at the Crossbones Graveyard, an unconsecrated burial ground for the prostitutes and paupers of London. It has become now a poignant place of remembrance for, amongst others, people who have taken their own lives and others who find themselves on the margins.
We found our way to the river and walked along Bankside, past the Globe theatre, and over the Millennium bridge towards the magnificent dome of St Paul’s Cathedral. It was on that stretch of the walk that I got chatting to a lady called Linda who happened to mention Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese poet and monk whose thoughts and writings have been important for me. She asked which of his books I particularly liked and I replied ‘The Miracle of Mindfulness’. “Did you know,” she said, “it was originally going to be called ‘The Miracle of Being Awake’. She explained that she had helped to print an initial twenty-five copies of the book on an old Xerox printer and how the name of the book had been changed to cater to the American market. Nowadays mindfulness is totally in vogue, but it was not so when the book was written.
I told Linda that the day before I’d been preparing a reflection for the monthly ‘Self-Care’ event organised by Irish Chaplaincy and Caritas Westminster and that I’d decided to include Thich Nhat Hanh’s story, mentioned in the book, about eating a tangerine i.e. when you are eating a tangerine, be aware that you are eating a tangerine! As it happened Linda knew how that story had originated. Thich had been with Jim Forest, an American writer and peace activist, and who, as it turns out, has just written a book called ‘Eyes of Compassion: Learning from Thich Nhat Hanh’. Jim had been given a tangerine by Thich and after pealing it had stuffed it into his mouth, after which his friend asked him gently whether he was aware of having just eaten a tangerine. Thich invited him with the next tangerine to eat it one segment at a time: to see, to touch, to smell, to taste, to really savour each and every segment of the tangerine.
The group of walkers went past the garden next to St Pauls and Linda suddenly asked me to stop at a rose bush climbing gloriously up the railings. I hadn’t noticed it at all. She explained that whenever out for a walk with Thich he would stop frequently and point out what was around. We had a good look at those beautiful pink roses. I held one close and had a smell. How much we miss in our daily lives when we’re hurrying from one place to the next. How much of our life we spend barely awake.
There were some more treats in store after lunch. We had a chance to go into St Bartholomew’s church which claims (one of several apparently!) to be the oldest in London. It has also, I was excited to read, provided the location to many films, including ‘Shakespeare in Love’ and ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’. That Hugh Grant really does get to act in some interesting places! Nearing the end of the walk there was also time to visit St Bride’s, the ‘journalist’s church’ on Fleet Street, which we’d gone to on one of our Walks with Hope back in April. It was lovely to meet again Alison the rector who reminded us that 2025 would mark the 1,500th anniversary of the death of St Brigid of Kildare, patron saint of the Irish Chaplaincy. We promised to do something together to mark the event.
A fascinating glimpse into the history of London, including some of its dark underbelly. Interesting conversations and connections. I’m looking forward to the next walk.