In the network of elegant but narrow 18th century streets south of Westminster Abbey – this is how a Dickens novel might begin, but there it is – there is a dark corner where two of them meet in permanent shadow. I don’t feel I have to specify which streets they are. In the darkest part of the shadow there is a heavy door with a small plaque beside it. Push, and you’ll find the door opens into a tiny lobby; push at another door within and you step into one of the most extraordinary places in Britain.
You are now in the antechamber or public nave of a monastery chapel. The room itself, no more than about twice the size of an ordinary office meeting room and floored in cold stone, is discreetly lit and almost empty. There is no particular sense that it is a Christian place. Apart from a prie-dieu there are only two or three hard cold benches to sit on. They face forward, towards an elaborate metal grille it. Beyond, looming up into a permanent north-facing twilight, is the chapel itself, filled with heavy, dark wood pews with only minimal
decoration. And in all the many times I have come here over the years, I have never once seen a person in the chapel beyond the black grill, or heard a sound there.
The immediate and overwhelming sense of the place is one of utter silence. If you strain to listen, you can hear the murmur of traffic not far away on St Stephen’s Green, opposite the House of Lords. If you do not, the silence comes flooding in and envelopes you.
Not long ago, a friend and I sat there for an hour or so. B is a medium and she felt the presence of others with us, as did I, and they were watching and listening to us without any sense of unease or threat. Off and on B and I talked, always in whispers; we spoke about our fears and hopes and worries and joy; mostly we sat unspeaking, companionable, while the silence flowed through us and on. After a time, we both felt it – a sense that we were being gently but firmly ushered to the door and out, and we complied. Out into the dark street, and then into sunlight and noise and, two or three streets away, the river.
There are such places, if you can find them, in almost any city: the Dante chapel in Florence, for example. Their tranquillity breathes through us and calms us. We always have to leave, but we take a little bit of the silence with us, as a blessing.