As I enter into my last 24 hours at St James’s before I move from St James’s to the London Jesuit Centre, I’ve been thinking a lot about the spiritual significance of underpants. For the last few weeks, Robin and I have been busy in the church basement getting Wardrobe – our new clothing service for people going through homelessness – ready to launch. As we sort through people’s generous clothing donations, we never find much underwear. People don’t think it’s appropriate to donate used underwear, and only occasionally will someone think to purchase some new pairs we can distribute. Our FEAST and Sunday Breakfast guests themselves will rarely ask us openly and directly for new underwear, but whenever we offer it to people discreetly, or have it readily available on a table for people to pick up without having to ask, it’s always very gratefully received. In the age of Aussie Bum and Rihanna’s high-end star-studded Amazon Prime fashion shows for her Savage X Fenty lingerie collections, it can still be just a bit too humiliating to admit that you need a clean pair of pants.
The state of our underwear can be a litmus test for our human dignity. My friend Sister Jean-Mary once told me about nuns sharing their underwear. Jean-Mary described how her sisters in the Community of the Holy Name (founded in Vauxhall in 1865) had for over a century shared their undergarments amongst themselves. All of their clothing, including their underwear, went into the community laundry and the sisters would be given back any underwear that fitted them. That’s some serious gospel living: sharing your knickers with your sisters in Christ. I’ve often told this story to primary school children to illustrate the religious vow of poverty, and it’s always received with horrified squeals of aversion. I still remember myself how the nadir of primary school life was to have an ‘accident’ at school, and to be sent home wearing a stray pair of anonymous underpants from the lost property box!
As a trainee priest, I was once on placement at St George’s Crypt, a day-centre and homeless hostel in Leeds. When they told me they had a terrible shortage of men’s underpants, I started an online fundraising campaign to raise £200 to buy ‘Pants for the Homeless’. The grim notion of having no clean pants at Christmas touched people’s hearts and within a month people had donated over £800, enabling parcels of underwear to be sent to homeless shelters in Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham and Sheffield.
So if you’re ever looking for a simple way to grow in Christian virtue, you could always buy some pants to donate to Wardrobe or another clothing hub – or (it being less than a month until Ash Wednesday) perhaps the creative minds of St James’s might think of some imaginative underwear-related Lenten endeavours!
For most for us, living in this present time as the Body of Christ, suspended between earth and heaven as we are – well, we’re probably not ready for shared undergarments this side of the eschaton. Be comforted that, in the 1970’s, even the Community of the Holy Name yielded to the powerful semiotics of underwear and decided to allow the sisters to sew personal name-tags into their knickers.
Travel well St James’s. It’s been wonderful for me to serve as your Associate Rector for the past two years, and – until we meet again – may God hold you safely in the palm of her hand.