Ian had come to wish us well. As someone now trying to move out of homelessness, he would be part of the group cooking us breakfast after our Advent Sleepout Challenge – one night sleeping in the Cloisters of Norwich Cathedral. And before we climbed into our sleeping bags, Ian agreed to say a few words. I thought he might tell us his life story with tales of dread happenings while sleeping rough. Instead, in a quiet voice, he simply thanked us for what we were doing in drawing attention to the issue of homelessness before adding that, if we woke in the night, we might like to spend sixty seconds thinking about what it might be like to be really homeless.
I was more surprised that he thought we might actually get some sleep but decided to say nothing. The Dean helped us all relax by leading in a game of “Simon says” before the Precentor led us in a candle-lit service of Compline and never before had the familiar words of “driving the snares of the enemy from this place” seemed so important. The Chapter Steward arrived with warming home-made soup and delicious ginger-bread before we finally climbed into our sleeping bags.
Lying there, wrapped in numerous layers, and listening to the word go by, I decided that after all this night might not be so bad. Above me were the wonderful roof bosses for which Norwich Cathedral is rightly famous. And I was reminded yet again what a stunning building this great Cathedral is and the enormous privilege of living and working here. Sleep came surprisingly easily. The only likely disturbance seemed to be the snoring of my neighbours.
At 3am, I suddenly woke up and sat bolt upright. I felt uncomfortable and constricted by all the layers. I wanted to pull them off and feel free but the cold wind on my face advised me otherwise. I looked around me and saw all the “stuff” I had brought to make me comfortable but, if I was really homeless, it would be too much to carry around each day. And I began to wonder where I would put my bedding during the day and what would I do if it got wet or someone stole it or threw it out with the rubbish? What if the person sleeping next to me was not a fellow member of Chapter but a stranger who, as I slept, might rummage through my few meagre possessions and steal them? And what if those footsteps were not another sleeper seeking the toilets, but a passer-by who might shout at me, kick me, or worse? Suddenly my pulse was racing and I felt a creeping fear.
These were but shadow thoughts, which at 3am can so easily tempt and torment. Tomorrow night I would be safely back in my bed and this one night in the Cloisters would become just another story to tell friends about cathedral life. But as my breathing calmed and I lay down again, I offered a silent prayer for all for whom homelessness has become a daily reality, and gave thanks for the Church Urban Fund and all the projects they support that try to make a difference to those trapped in poverty. Sleep finally returned, but no longer so comforting.
Twenty-first century Britain: the glories of our heritage and a reminder of all that humanity can achieve and in its shadows, people sleeping rough and a reminder of all that humanity still needs to achieve. And across Europe thousands walk clutching their few possessions, hoping they will find a welcome, fearing that what lies ahead may prove worse than that which they left behind.
Just for sixty seconds, think what that might be like…