Any of you who have walked around this area recently – particularly if you have walked along Fleet Street and Ludgate Hill, cannot fail to have noticed that we are in the middle of a great and mighty building site on all sides; scaffolding and builders’ hoardings everywhere you look, and in various places pedestrians have to make their way single file along the pavements in view of the various obstacles in their way.
But I am always surprised at how, within a very short space of time, one becomes accustomed to such awkward changes. It somehow becomes normal. So when, eventually, the scaffolding is removed again (they have recently removed the enormous edifice that has been enveloping City Thameslink station for months) – you find yourself looking round, saying: ‘Coo – I had forgotten that there was all this space here.’
Some of you may recall precisely this experience here at St Bride’s when, for several months, the whole of the inside of our wonderful church was a solid mass of planks and scaffolding poles as we refurbished and restored our interior décor. When eventually the work was completed and it was all taken down, most of us just stood here and said: ‘Wow!’ We were utterly amazed to re-encounter this fabulous building in its full glory, free from all the building apparatus, which for months had cut out the daylight, and reduced the size of the central nave here by about a third. We had all forgotten quite how big and spacious this church feels.
Or to put it another way, we suddenly realised how our horizons had become narrowed during the time the scaffolding was in place, simply because we had acclimatised to it being a much more constricted, dark, and difficult space.
This experience of narrowing horizons is an interesting human phenomenon, which can afflict all of us. Whenever our circumstances become suddenly more restricted, for whatever reason, requiring us to adapt how we live accordingly, within a remarkably short time we begin to adapt, however grudgingly – and we can very quickly forget what life was like before that was the case.
My own most significant experience of this was twelve years ago, when I was very seriously ill for several weeks, and hospitalised in isolation for part of that time. A few days after I had been admitted, when they were still running tests to try and find out what was wrong with me, I was awake in the early hours of the morning, and I was pretty miserable. It was the height of summer and I was hot and thirsty – desperate for a long cold drink – but I was ‘nil by mouth’, because they hadn’t yet decided whether or not I needed major surgery, and I was only allowed ice cubes. I was desperate for a proper bath or a shower after several days of bed baths; and I had tubes coming out of various parts of my anatomy, some of which were causing me immense discomfort.
And I can remember thinking to myself – if right now I were given three wishes, and could wish for anything in the world, I know without any shadow of a doubt what I would wish for. Firstly, a very large jug of orange squash. (Which was very odd because normally I hate the stuff – but I was that desperate for a very long, very cold drink.); secondly, to be able to wash my hair; and thirdly to get rid of one of the tubes inserted into my person, which was giving me a great deal of grief.
I was astonished to find myself thinking these thoughts, but it alerted me to the interesting fact that, at that precise moment, the size of my world had been reduced to that of a hospital bed. Two of the things that I craved most in the world at that point were things that normally I so take for granted that I don’t even notice them – cold refreshing drinks and shampoo – which again illustrates how swiftly and easily our horizons, our sense of normality, can change and become so narrowed and reduced. Sometimes, as in the situation I have just described, there is little one can do about it – you just continue life as best you can. But at other times it is that very narrowness of vision from which we need to be liberated. Because sometimes we can lose sight of the fact that we are in chains.
Part of the power of the Christian gospel is that it has precisely that capacity to blow apart the narrowness and constriction of our vision, and to see the world and other people, and indeed almighty God, through the eyes of Christ. And when that happens to me, not only am I chastened to discover quite how narrow my vision and understanding has become, but the sense of liberation and freedom that comes when those constraints are lifted, can be mind-blowing.
One of my favourite poems by Seamus Heaney touches on these kinds of themes. It reminds us how easily we can become wedded to the cosy and the familiar, even if it stunts our vision, and denies us the wonderful vista that could otherwise be ours. In the poem, Heaney describes how he strongly resisted the idea of building a skylight in an upper room of his house – but how, when the work was finally done, he discovered all the wonders that his previous narrowness of vision had denied him, and everyone else, as his world is opened up. The poem ends with a wonderful evocation of a biblical healing miracle: the man sick of the palsy, whose friends lowered him through the roof of the house, so that he could experience Jesus’s healing touch. It is a very simple, but rather wonderful poem. The Skylight:
You were the one for skylights. I opposed
Cutting into the seasoned tongue-and-groove
Of pitched pine. I liked it low and closed,
Its claustrophobic, nest-up-in-the-roof
Effect. I liked the snuff-dry feeling,
The perfect, trunk-lid fit of the old ceiling.
Under there, it was all hutch and hatch,
The blue slates kept the heat like midnight thatch.
But when the slates came off, extravagant
Sky entered and held surprise wide open.
For days I felt like an inhabitant
Of that house where the man sick of the palsy
Was lowered through the roof, had his sins forgiven,
Was healed, took up his bed and walked away.