Friday, September 24, 2010

Murder in the Cathedral

I stumbled upon an old book in my bookcase this morning that I didn’t know was there. Titled simply “Canterbury,” I assume that I got it from my mother, who in turn must have inherited it from her mother. This maternal grandmother, Edith Irvine Gunn, traveled by train and sailing ship from a tiny farm town in Manitoba to England in 1910—exactly a century ago—and must have visited Canterbury, which was among the highlights of my recent trip to the U.K. She thought enough of this mother-city of English Christianity to have purchased a keepsake that has now fallen into my hands.

The book contains a dozen color plates of scenes from Canterbury, including the one at left above. It’s a painting of the Christ Church Gatehouse from almost exactly the same perspective as the photo I took three weeks ago (at right). If you look closely, you can see that the turquoise statue of Christ is missing in the painting. There’s a war memorial in the photo at right that obviously hadn’t been built in 1910. Hidden behind it and to the right of the gatehouse is a Starbucks, proving (in case you doubted) that caffeination is next to godliness.

This gatehouse opens to the cathedral precincts—the grounds that surround the cathedral, monastery ruins and assorted buildings used for ecclesiastical purposes, including the archbishop’s residence. This photo shows the view from the room where Nick and I stayed for two nights. The physical presence of a structure that massive and grand and holy is palpable. In the evenings and early mornings, when the gates were closed, those of us staying at the cathedral lodge had the run of the grounds. Seeing a sight like that in repose, with no swarm of tourists, was something special.

I was up early one morning and entered the cathedral just as it opened. I learned that most European cathedrals, including Canterbury, face east so they capture the first light of day through their main entrance. The soft light, illuminated stone and soaring spaces made my solitary walk an almost sensual experience. For several minutes I was alone on the steps where Thomas Becket, the archbishop of Canterbury, was murdered on a cold December evening in 1170 by order of King Henry II. In the centuries since, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims have climbed those steps on their knees in homage to Saint Thomas, wearing grooves into the marble in the process. It was humbling to reflect on the extraordinary history of that space. For more than 800 years, these steps and the surrounding room have been a shrine to a man who spoke truth to power, and paid the ultimate price. There are not many places in the world with that sense of consequence about them.

King's College Chapel
  It’s easy to burn out on big churches, so I’m glad that we limited ourselves to Canterbury, Westminster Abbey, and King's College Chapel in Cambridge. They all possess a concentration of engineering prowess and spiritual energy that beggers my mind. Is God somehow impressed by what people of devotion have erected in his name? Perhaps not, but these special places do profoundly impress the 21st century mortals who enter them. They were and are holy because God inspired master architects and craftsmen to build them. One can argue whether they’ve outlived their purpose as places of worship, but I suspect they will continue to be venerated for centuries to come. They remain places where we can encounter God through a keyhole of history.

1 comment:

Nancy said...

Another great essay. Thank you for sharing your trip and your thoughts with us.