Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The little bakery

Once upon a time, the little bakery was a very different place.

For sure, it stood at the corner of two roads: one, a busy thoroughfare between the many wharves along the riverbank, and the other, merely one of a number of streets wherein lived the poor.

The dark streets housed large families, sometimes clustered in groups of two or three, together in one room. There were no indoor toilets, so that the gutter outside, running the length of the street, ran foul, a very hotbed of disease and pestilence waiting to break out. Rats were a normal part of the scene, for they, too, had to live somewhere, so why not alongside the poor, feeding from the crumbs that had been carefully hoarded for the next meal?

Some of the men had work in the factories and the warehouses. One or two had a barrow that, very early in the morning, they would push to a market, perhaps to Covent Garden for vegetables, or to Smithfield for meat. Then, laboriously, the barrow would be wheeled through the streets of London in a desperate attempt to earn money to feed hungry families.

The women had a hard time of it: one baby after another, many of them not surviving beyond the early years. It was hard to make ends meet. Often, in the effort to keep some money from their husbands who would like to while away the hours at ‘The Mulberry Bush’, drinking away their abject misery, wives would swallow the coins that came into the house, retrieving them in the solitude of the ‘privy’.

Children had no hope of education. They were essential breadwinners if the family were to survive. ‘Oliver Twist’ was only one of countless youngsters born into poverty, encountering squalor and deprivation, hopelessness and abandonment, turning to crime in order to survive.

Yet, the little bakery, for all that it catered for the meagre needs of the poor who surrounded it, also knew a different clientele. Only a few minutes’ walk away were the houses of those who were quite comfortable. Nobody could have called them affluent, but there was a regular income and a predictable meal on the table. Children could attend school. They would have some good clothes, able to keep some as their ‘Sunday Best’.

The indigent, the comfortable and the affluent lived side-by-side. Each knew his or her place. Not many realised that they had not been born to their station in life. Poverty was the result of sin, affluence the effect of virtue…and yet the vices of some of those with money were all too obvious for anybody with eyes to see and a brain to think.

Yet still, the little bakery continued to provide bread, continued to feed the poor and to sell loaves to servants on behalf of their employers, knowing that some of the servants were themselves not far from starvation and were often victims of incredible brutality.

This evening, the bakery is bright and shining, cosy in the darkness, painted a comfortable dark red, attractive and tempting. It has a story to tell. Who will listen?

You, who walk by, do you know that this place is sacred? Hovels are now attractive (and expensive) homes, no longer housing poverty and suffering. It is good, but spare a thought for those who went before, who lived and died in order for you to enjoy your today. Spare a thought for those who, today, in their poverty and pain, are also preparing a bright future for their children and their children’s children. Just because the little bakery knew the times of Dickens, it also knows the hardships of many people in many countries across the world.

Lord, give the poor bread, but occasionally, give a rose of hope.

God bless,
Sr. Janet