...images on a giant TV screen above the shopping centre, rock music pounding out, vast arrays of luxury goods on sale, a lack of any sense of friendly bustle, instead a mood of purposeless loitering and scowling...I found Birmingham's Bullring Centre on a Friday evening rather horrible. There are few buses out to Old Oscott and it's easiest to get a taxi...often there is a religious discussion with the Islamic taxi-driver when one asks for the Maryvale Institute, and more than once I've been warmly urged to convert to Islam, but this time we stuck to generalised observations about the weather.
Arriving at Maryvale always brings a sense of peace. Evening prayer, a cheery supper, the pleasure of meeting fellow-students who are now old friends.
Lectures this weekend focused on the Sacraments and were fascinating. Unwell with a bad cold, I went to bed early on Fri and Sat nights with a selection of books from the excellent library. On Sunday morning I was woken by music from the chapel - but it wasn't the sisters singing their morning office, it was our Mass just starting with its preparatory hymn. Gulp. I washedanddressedandbrushedmyhair quicker than you might imagine a middle-aged Auntie could ever do. Got into the chapel just in time.
During meals at Maryvale we always have excellent conversations. But, as is often the case in Britain in 2012, this weekend's tended to be on the serious side...the restrictions on religious freedom looming with the Govt's loathsome plans to redefine marriage, the grim state of our social fabric with its splits and tears and the resulting misery imposed on children. The people studying at Maryvale come from a wide range of jobs and professions, and tend to be unusually active in community life: youth work, local projects - not necessarily church-based - care of the sick and vulnerable, and of course lots of active involvement in Catholic parishes and schools. They are in general large-minded and tend towards a sense of wanting to be useful, are well-read and enjoy thinking things through. So you don't get cliches and jargon in conversation, and instead you get the rather frightening recognition of the realities of modern Britain, from people who know what's going on.
The Church's tasks in the years ahead in Britain are huge. As Islam forges ahead, growing in numbers and influence, its adherents will be boosted in their sense of zeal and confidence by the drunkeness and lechery on display in most town centres on Friday and Saturday nights. Violent crime continues to be a major feature of life. Institutions once justly admired are now tarnished: our police (remember how we used to be so proud of the fact that they were unarmed? That was long ago...), Parliament, local Councils, hospitals. The number of intact families, where a strong network of people love and cherish one another and foster opportunities for goodwill and service, seems to be diminishing in the general population year on year, and schools struggle to cope with angry, disorientated and sometimes violent children.
Lots to pray about.