The sainthood of Grenfell
It has been written that Grenfell Tower should be left standing, burned, a monument to petty greed and the butchery of austerity politics.
We must do more. The Tower is a reliquary for the sanctified flesh of the dead, or those parts not excommunicated into the West London night by the rapid and depoliticised convection of carbon monoxide at 450°C.
Many saints have been made by fire. Polycarp of Smyrna foresaw his own auto-da-fé in a pyromantic vision three days before his death, his pillow seeming to burst into flames as he prayed. Likewise, the residents of Grenfell wrote of their conviction that their home would burn. But they went nonetheless into the flames, their words heeded no more than those of Saint Lawrence, who quipped to his own tormentors as he roasted on a gridiron: turn me over, this side’s done.
The paths to sainthood are various and not limited to martyrdom: the life lived in sacrifice, the life converted to righteousness, the virtuous life. It takes one kind of bravery to douse yourself in oil and set a match to your flesh, and another to crawl through many-houred days of zero-hour work and fall asleep each night under the threat of deportation and cheap inflammable blankets. Asleep in their beds, the martyrs of Grenfell were quite as courageous as Norman Morrison or Mohamed Bouazizi or Thích Quảng Đức.
Two posthumous miracles must occur through divine intercession of the residents of Grenfell Tower before they may properly be counted saints. Their prophesy again: “It is our conviction that a serious fire in a tower block or similar high density residential property is the most likely reason that those who wield power at the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation will be found out and brought to justice.”
To burden the conscience of the affluent, as the martyr Rosa Luxemburg once wrote, would be a miracle indeed.
To be elected to the canon they must be named: to be named, counted. The government said there would be no account of the dead this year and in response we demanded a full and immediate tally, made by the murderously uninquisitive inquisitors of Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation, using nothing save the tweezers and the pocket-calculator with which they ascertained £2 per square yard was too much to pay for fire-retardant cladding. (Christians sentenced to death in imperial Rome were clad in the tunica molesta, a garment of papyrus matted together with wax and lard.) The KCTMO must pick through the ash until every particle of the dead is accounted for: the shrivelled scraps of infant genitals, the tallow of nursing breasts, the lacunae of liquefied eyeballs.
At last, we have been offered a count: seventy-one. It is something. We name them. Ligaya Moore the septuagenarian who loved to dance, Mehdi aged eight who loved his family very much, Hesham Reman who could not walk. Khadija Saye who drew herself in a shroud of ashes, emanate into the night, and called it Dwelling. in this space we breathe. Raymond Bernard, known also as Moses: Moses, the bandit turned father of the Desert, martyred by bandits after he would not take up arms against them. Logan Gomes, stillborn and so sinless, sinless and so sanctified. We scream his name.
Thus, the beatification of the dead.
But this one miracle is not enough for sainthood, and nor are these seventy-one names nearly enough to satisfy us. The early Christians had blades fastened at their chins such that they could not turn their face from the heat, even as boiling pitch stripped the flesh from their bones. Likewise we require that the architects of austerity do not look away until we have a real count, an actual count, of each and every life their greed has consumed.
What of the score of survivors who attempted suicide in the months after the blaze? What of the eighty per cent left unhomed? What of the council-housed tenants choking to death on the ashes of the dead? What of the 120,000 victims of austerity who have thus far accompanied the seventy-one, dwindling into the dark?
Only once their names are appended to the list, only once the miracle of conscience and shame manifests in the breasts of those who burned the seventy-one alive, then and only then will Grenfell be canonised.
And how should we honour their sainthood? With thoughts and prayers and candles lit? “It would have been nice if people had let the dust settle, let bodies be identified and given people time to grieve before they played politics with the lives of those who suffered,” the Conservative MP Nadine Dorries said.
But for the martyrs of Grenfell, there never was a playtime. “We believe,” they wrote, “that our investigations will become part of damning evidence of the poor safety record of the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation should a fire cause the loss of life that we are predicting.”
They understood that play politics is an oxymoron, that politics is not the toss of a coin but the balance of lives. The dust has settled, and the bodies are named. Ashes to ashes. Flames to flames. Nadine Dorries be damned. Nihil obstat: nothing hinders: the path to sainthood is clear.
At the stake, Saint Polycarp was girdled by air and did not burn, but rather took on the unsullied form of baked bread and wrought metal, and emanated a sweet smell of frankincense. And so he was pulled from the pyre, and his side pierced with a dagger, and the blood which flowed from it doused the flames.
Let the blood spilled that night flood Westminster, and drown Nadine Dorries and her kind. Let it douse the sparks of future fires even now being set in the flesh of the poor. Let the martyrdom of the saints of Grenfell be no longer taken in vain.
As Saint Ignatius wrote to Saint Francis Xavier: Ite, omnia incendite et inflammate. Go. Set the world on fire.