In the darkness Clare beckons me to the window. Outside, London is ten thousand lights glittering to the horizon. Far to the right the skyscrapers of the docklands cluster like shards of crystals, while ahead the high rises of Hackney are solid rectangles dotted with light.
Returning to the sitting room we pass a small, carpeted room, unfurnished except for low wooden benches skirting two walls. It is a chapel. Dressed in navy trousers and a dark pullover, Clare’s slight frame moves down the narrow stairs ahead of me. She is light on her feet, and I am genuinely surprised when I find out later she is 83 and has spent most her adult life working as a cleaner.
Back in the sitting room a black and white portrait of a man with a thin, dark beard hangs on the wall. The man has the same high cheekbones and dark eyes as Clare and though she refers to him as Brother Charles, they are not related.
Charles de Foucauld was a soldier who left the French army in North Africa to become a monk. He died in obscurity a century ago having won only a handful of converts among the nomadic tribes of the Sahara desert.
In the years after his death a religious order was formed taking the hermit’s life as its inspiration. Today the Little Brothers and Little Sisters of Jesus are all over the world: in refugee camps in Lebanon, Pygmy villages in Cameroon, and here, on the 13th floor of an east London tower block.
If you have never heard of them, it is not surprising. They are a contemplative order characterised by anonymity. The sisters, for
example, wear no religious habit — the only outward sign of their calling is the wooden cross around their necks.
Instead they try to find parity with the communities they live among, doing low paid, unskilled jobs. Offering solidarity to the most marginalized, in place of scripture.
In the wake of the September 11 attacks, for example, a community of Little Sisters in the U.S. relocated to an exclusively Arab
neighbourhood of New Jersey.
Clare, who is from an old family from western France, used to clean at the department store C&A.
“Our inspiration is in following the hidden life of Jesus,” says Catharine, who joins us in the sitting room. She means by this the
life that Christ led in obscurity before he began to preach.
Four Little Sisters live in the flat. Their community is a reflection of the diversity of the city that surrounds them — Catharine, a 66
year-old retired care worker, is the only one from the UK.
The flat is small, the sisters’ bedrooms narrow. It can be a trail, says Catharine, to share such a cramped living space.
“The hardest austerity is living in a tight-knit community,” she says. “I have spent 20 years in this tower block. It is the contemplative life that gives meaning to this banal life we lead.”
For her the contemplative life started early. She says she first considered taking vows while a boarder at a Catholic girls’ school in
She discovered the Little Sisters by chance when a monk visited her class. The man was meant to be doing a slideshow about Africa from where he had just returned. As he flicked through images of the continent he came to one that seemed to stand out from the rest.
It was a picture of some young women waiting by a roadside. These were nuns, the monk explained, who had joined a travelling community in France. It had nothing to do with his talk and, in fact, he did not know how the image had got mixed in with the other slides.
Catharine looks thoughtful after she relates this story as if the appearance of the picture in the slideshow carries a meaning for her that goes beyond mere coincidence.
In any case, the revelation that there was an order where contemplation and a life on the road were not mutually exclusive must
have seemed tantalising for a teenage girl.
Her first assignment as a postulant shattered any romantic delusions she might have harboured, however. She worked in a jam factory in Leeds. Her parents were upset when they came to visit. “I was in a tiny back-to-back terrace where we shared an outside toilet with four neighbours.
“They couldn’t see why I would embrace a life of poverty. Their own faith was deep in its way but more practical I suppose.”
Catherine’s journey of downward mobility is a gentle imitation of the more extreme trajectory taken by Foucauld.
Born into the French nobility, Brother Charles was a complex figure. As a young man he was a glutton and a womaniser. Yet in North Africa the overweight bon viveur became a fierce ascetic who took self-negation to frightening extremes: when he fell ill, for example, he wrote of his disappointment on finding out it was not tuberculosis.
After dinner we return to the chapel at the top of the stairs.
The sisters sing hymns and recite psalms and scripture. After a period for silent prayer Catharine offers thoughts for the victims of Haiti’s earthquake. Canh, the Vietnamese sister, prays for the people who are teaching her English. On the floor a candle flickers.
Not much later I say my goodbyes. Outside the January night is cold and unforgiving. On the streets all is quiet. I try to get my bearings, but London is such an improbable matrix when you get in amongst it.
I imagine Clare in the tower block behind me, looking out on the spaghetti of streets that dissolve into confusion at street level but is clear and easy to navigate from up there. I try to figure her as I saw her earlier, gazing in rapture to the horizon. Seeing for miles from the narrow confines of her 13th floor flat.
This following story was first published in the British newspaper, The Catholic Herald on March 19, 2010