I’m not a London sort of person. Before I left for Palestine I lived in a remote Northumberland hamlet (population three people and a sheep) with a mile-long walk across the fields to reach the nearest bus stop. London has an awful lot of people and no sheep, and I have several grievances against it. It always seems so easy to navigate when you look at the Monopoly board, but when you actually get there nothing is arranged in orderly squares and you’re lost before you even know where you are.
Last year, one late December day, I alighted at Euston Station and caught the Tube into the East End. I was introduced to this part of the capital through Rachel Liechtenstein’s book Rodinsky’s Room, a semi-autobiographical work that tries to solve the mystery surrounding the disappearance of David Rodinsky, a reclusive man who lived above the old synagogue on Princelet Street. My present-day destination was a flat on the thirteenth floor of a tower block in a densely populated housing estate.
East London isn’t affluent, and this estate lies in a pretty deprived area. It’s not the kind of place I’d ordinarily set out to visit (or want to get lost in). As we swept upwards in a box-like lift, Catharine told me, “When we moved here the place didn’t have a concierge. Everywhere was littered with used needles. Now we’ve got the concierge, and the security pad on the door, so things are a bit better in that respect. But it’s a shame really – it’s another barrier, and we’re no longer so easy to reach.”
Catharine is a nun. She doesn’t look much like the traditional idea of one: she was dressed very simply in grey trousers and a warm blue pullover. The only outward sign of her consecration was the large wooden cross engraved with a heart that hung from her neck. The sisters of her religious community (Little Sisters of Jesus) live and work in sixty-three countries, always settling in areas where there is greatest poverty and neglect (not just material poverty either – they argue that poverty takes different forms, such as racial ostracism or simple loneliness). When the community was founded, in the aftermath of the Second World War, the sisters lived in tents with Saharan nomads. Since then some of them have lived as voluntary prisoners, sharing the lives of prison inmates as best they could. Others have spent their nights working in homeless shelters and their days on the street with homeless people. Their work varies depending on where they are and whom they’re with. By choice, it is always simple and low-paid.
“It’s not the work itself that matters,” Sister Catharine told me. “You could be standing in the production line at a factory, making the same gesture day after day, but the thing that matters in that situation is friendship with the people you’re with.”
At first glance, the thirteenth floor of that tower block might seem a world apart from Palestine and the occupation. But I went to see the sisters with Palestine in mind. The Holy Land is very special in their spirituality, and not just because they have communities physically located there. Each of the places mentioned in the Gospels has a deeper significance for them, Bethlehem most of all.
There is always a reminder of Bethlehem in their chapels: a baby Jesus lying in a makeshift manger before the altar, his arms outstretched. The sisters’ founder Magdeleine Hutin wrote, “This Bethlehem crib is so beautiful and so great…In face of the hatred and anger of the world we must bring the gentleness and the smile of the infant Jesus of Bethlehem. In face of the pride of the world we must bring the littleness and powerlessness of the tiny newborn baby of the crib.”
I was nineteen when I visited Bethlehem for the first time. I would describe the experience as shattering, but that sounds too dramatic for the dull cold torpor that settled on me when I saw what those media phrases – ‘Israeli-Palestinian conflict’, ‘occupation’, ‘Intifada’ – actually looked like. The place stuck with me, and I wanted to go back, but that urge was paired with an awareness that in the greater scheme of things I could do very little. Now I look back on the helplessness I felt then and hear Catharine’s calm matter-of-fact voice: “It’s not the work that matters…”
If I had known the sisters back then, they would have gestured to their crib and told me that little can be enough when it’s given with love. They see this as the meaning of Bethlehem. Getting to meet them and see how they live out that belief was certainly a beautiful Christmas present that keeps on coming in handy, and unlike the rather awful handbag that I found under the tree this year, it’s one that I will continue to carry about.