Nicola Barker: St Mary Moorfields, City of London
I wouldn’t call myself a misanthrope exactly (she growls), but one of the main reasons I’ve always loved living by the Thames is how empty the river feels (aside from the occasional sightseeing boat or battleship or tug). All that space, that room, and the glorious slab of empty sky above. You can stride down on to the beach when the tide is low and be completely and utterly alone. You are highly visible, though, seen from the warehouses and flats on the riverfront, which makes you feel safe. I love this sensation. It’s almost like being in a film or starring in a play, knowing that you are seen, are a part of the landscape, a point of interest, and yet feeling this intense sense of recollection and isolation and self-containment.
There are many ways to be comfortably alone in a city. Walking is one. But creating quiet gaps and spaces for myself within a slightly more social context is also something I love to do. My favourite place for this is St Mary Moorfields in the heart of the City. I see each visit there as a kind of metaphorical Thameside-style amble for the soul.
I actually walked past this church for many years and didn’t dare to enter. There is nothing to it from the outside – just some glass doors inbetween a jewellers and a card shop a minute’s walk from the crazy bustle of Liverpool Street station. It’s unobtrusive – hardly there – almost Narnia-esque. You have to walk down a few steps to enter, then pass through another couple of sets of doors, each one taking you down further and further into the ecclesiastical womb.
Once inside it’s a small but pretty space – not remotely claustrophobic – that feels as if it’s semi-submerged in the London sod and loam. The best thing about it – aside from the warmth and the lovely light from the chandeliers and the polished wood and the banks of burning candles – is that everyone is equal here. It is a City church that effortlessly unites the well-heeled gent and the tragically destitute, the traveller and the local, the religious and the sceptic, with no palpable sense of conflict or unease. It is magnificently cosmopolitan. All are welcome. Nobody seems or feels out of place. It is a profoundly dignified, proper, reverential, and, well, yes, loved space.
There are at least three masses said every weekday. I like to attend with the office workers who are skipping lunch. On Fridays a woman with a gorgeous voice sings the psalm.
This church is unusual in that it celebrates what Catholics call “eucharistic adoration” all day. So the “living presence” of Christ (in the form of a wafer) is placed by the priest in a golden monstrance on the altar after morning mass. The eucharist may never be left unaccompanied, so there is always someone there, a volunteer, sitting quietly, companionably, often deep in prayer. During these times the air itself thickens, it seems to shimmer and glow. There is a sense of hush and excitement and reverence.
Just before lunchtime mass the rosary is recited – a strange cacophony of mumbling voices conjoin to repeat the prayer; a delicious maelstrom of different accents working with and against each other. It’s haunting and unearthly and there is no pressure to participate. It doesn’t matter why you are here, there is no compulsion to say or to do, just simply to be, to sit, to exhale, to reflect.