A folding table sits on the balcony of the first floor flat. It seems to serve as an altar of sorts, for a wooden cross is set on it. Polished, light pine, it has a circlet of silk flowers hanging on it. The flowers are green, white and orange.
The colours are those of the Irish flag. Perhaps the flat is home to an Irish person attracted by the close proximity of Cheltenham racecourse, it being no more than a few hundred yards away.
But even if the occupant is from Ireland, why would they have a cross with a tricolour circlet on a table? The altar had been deliberately set out on the balcony. It was not there yesterday when I passed by.
Was there an Irish anniversary that was being commemorated? There are centenaries of events in the Irish War of Independence, but none seem to have been on 1st October.
The cross suggested some religious festival. 1st October is the memorial of Saint Therese of Lisieux, a popular saint in the liturgical calendar, Would the “Little Flower,” as the Nineteenth Century French saint was known, have prompted a folding table, wooden cross and silk flowers? And, if she did, why was the table on a balcony where it would only have been noticed by someone on foot?
Perhaps the flat’s occupant was unaware that anyone might have noticed their piece of devotion. Perhaps, tomorrow, the cross will have been taken back inside the flat, perhaps the table will have been folded and put away.
Whatever the explanation of the makeshift altar, there seemed something encouraging, something life affirming, in the informal act of liturgy. Someone had found meaning in the act of placing that table and cross on their balcony.
Perhaps the months of lockdown and the continuing restrictions on worship have pushed people in the direction of devising their own provisional liturgies. When the doors of the churches were closed for so long, perhaps there was a move toward informal acts, individual expressions of spirituality.
Perhaps the green, white and orange of the Irish tricolour are indicative of someone who has grown up within Irish Catholicism, a tradition that has always been much more diverse than the bishops would sometimes have liked. Irish spirituality was always a blend of hierarchically-approved official church liturgies and numerous and varied local expressions. Holy wells, rag trees, local pilgrimages, prayer traditions, customs often viewed with suspicion by bishops were a vital part of Catholic life.
The folding table might reflect a long and fascinating spiritual tradition.