Wednesday, September 15, 2010

A practical romance

I left for London three weeks ago reading Bill Bryson (“Notes from a Small Island”) but returned with my nose stuck in G.K. Chesterton (“Orthodoxy”). That literary progression alone—from the frivolous to the sublime—defined my journey. Quite unexpectedly I rediscovered my “practical romance” for the U.K., which is what Chesterton calls the mixing of what is strange about a place or thing with what is secure. I always return from trips to the U.K. conflicted by what I think about it. I admire the people, the culture, the history, and the landscape, and yet as I fly home I’m never sad to see that patchwork of verdant countryside dissolve into the clouds below me. I’m content to go there as the enthusiastic, albeit occasional visitor.

The timing of this adventure was unlikely, as my planning began before I had fully healed from last winter’s surgeries. When we learned that Nick was spending fall semester at Oxford University, I gambled that my good health would hold and that I could show him around bits of England. The travel insurance I bought was thankfully never needed. In our week together, we saw a handful of the infinite treasures of London, including Westminster Abbey, the National Gallery and the British Museum. We also visited Canterbury, Cambridge (“the other university”) and then Oxford. We parted at the front gate of the Bodleian Library, where Nick will likely spend endless hours this fall. I don’t know if he’ll become the anglophile that I am, but he seemed pretty excited at the prospect of being an Oxonian—if only for a few months.

Partly by intent but also by happenstance, this trip was also a spiritual pilgrimage, about which I’ll write more later. The Christian faith has an ancient tradition in Britain, which you can see, feel and touch in shrines like Westminster Abbey, Canterbury Cathedral, and King’s College Chapel in Cambridge. It’s also very much alive today as Nick and I discovered during contemporary worship services we attended at Holy Trinity Brompton and All Souls Church in London, and by what I experienced during a short retreat at Lee Abbey on the north Devon coast. You think differently about what it means to say that God is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow when you're standing silently in a stone church built a thousand years ago. I had a different, but equally profound sense of His presence while sitting atop a heather-encrusted moor, alone but for the distant bleating of sheep. The divine permeated many parts of my journey. The only time I felt separated from God was when Nick and I got lost in south London while driving our rental car madly around trying to find the M25 motorway. That’s when we really could have used a prayer (and a good map).

There was one moment among several on the trip when I thought, “This is a special place.” After arriving in Oxford and getting Nick squared away in his new residence, we walked five minutes to the pub, The Eagle and Child. This is where C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and like-minded friends met for years to discuss literature, writing and life. There’s a memorial plaque on a wall in the middle of the pub near the bar, along with portraits and a framed paper bearing the signatures of Lewis, Tolkien, and other “Inklings.” These men have all been dead for decades, but in a country where it’s easy to lose track of whole centuries, it was a thrill to drink a pint of bitter in the same booth where Narnia and Middle Earth were first discussed. History spills out everywhere in the U.K., and you don't need to pass through the back of a wardrobe to find it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I’m more than a little envious and expect to hear much more later; when those pictures are available. Good Luck, Keith