In the Tyburn Convent, on the north side of London, the nuns pray for people all night. This practice is beautifully memorialized in Sukhdev Sandhu’s little book Night Haunts: A Journey Through the London Nights, which I read in anticipation of a recent visit to the city. People call the convent and leave prayer requests, which are subsequently offered up during Night Adoration. Sandhu writes that the practice has continued without disruption for over a hundred years, including when the place was bombed in 1944. “Prayer is the true language of the night,” he concludes. “It is the sound of London’s heart beating. The sound of individuals walking alone in the dark.”
If you are not a cloistered nun, city life seems to present many opportunities for indifference and few for kindness. In most of America’s cities you can’t walk a block or two without meeting someone who is in a state of serious destitution. It’s not meaningless to give such a person money or stop for conversation, but it is, in the broader sense, ineffectual. Meanwhile, ambulances scream past you; people weep on the bus. You read the news and discover something horrible has happened very near you and about which you had no idea.
This ambient sense of failure can be harnessed in a bad-faith way, of course. As a person routinely harassed by street canvassers, I can only assume that I project a dark cloud of guilt wherever I go and appear to be an easy mark. Attempts at deflection usually backfire. A man who approached me with a pitch for saving orangutans was unphased by my declaration that I hated great apes and smoothly switched to water conservation. “I would hate to see you again,” he told me, “when we’re fighting over the last bottles of clean water.”
So it’s useful to have an understanding of what you can and can’t do, can or can’t fix, and also when people, while not deserving to be treated unkindly, can still be dealt with brusquely. Sometimes you are in situations where there is no clearly right thing to do. (Do you offer the person crying in public comfort or privacy?) But it’s hard to disagree with a vicar in Sandhu’s book who called the city, viewed from a height, a vision of Christ crucified.