Sunday, August 8, 2010

And More From Canterbury

Sorry for the protracted absence. I was only home one day from Kansas City when we began our annual Long Retreat, which lasts for 10 days. I quickly discovered that I was a lot more tired than I had realized after teaching in England and Kansas back to back, and I needed first to catch up with myself and then to give as much as I could to the retreat. So that's what I've been doing.

I've had some requests to say more about the time in Canterbury. Well, one of the best things about the time there was the opportunity just to explore the Cathedral - "Christ's most glorious church" according to one poet - at leisure, so here are some of the things that I discovered:

First a real treasure - the Chapel of All Saints. It's not something that many visitors to the cathedral discover. In fact, it's a well-kept secret. But if you know just where to look, you will see a small plain door across from the Choir in the area of the Transepts and it is marked "Chapel of All Saints. Private." And if you have permission and open the door, you see a small and narrow staircase that goes sharply up to the right. It's almost like a cave and it's very narrow and very steep. It's furnished with a rope railing that helps you haul yourself up through the dimness of the stairs. At the top of the stairs you make two sharp left turns and there you are in a spacious chapel, and it's light and airy because it has two large Late Gothic windows with a lot of carved tracery and lots of glass. It's plainly furnished and the walls are covered with graffiti, much of it dated beginning in the 1500's and going on for several centuries, so it was well visited for several hundred years, but also had enough privacy so that people could carve their names and drawings into the soft stone. It's completely quiet - no trace of the noise that several hundred visitors and tourists are making a couple of floors below. It feels like you've come out into a little world that's separate from the rest of the Cathedral.

I've tried to find out about it - its origin and its use over the years and I've had no success yet. At least I haven't succeeded in getting the Internet to give up its secrets. We were told that it's now used for prayers at the close of meetings of the Cathedral's Chapter (the governing board), and our group had the Eucharist there one day early in our time in Canterbury. Apparently it was used as a center for contemplative prayer for some years not too long ago. Looking at it from the outside of the Cathedral, it looks like an add-on - it's just a little square addition nestled in the corner of one of the Trancepts. It fascinates me. I'm going to keep exploring and see if I can find something out.

Then one afternoon towards the end of our stay, Tay and I were wandering about the cathedral, just seeing what we could find, and we were going around the large Cloister adjacent to the north wall of the Cathedral when I found a door labeled "Archdeacon's Garden." The door was firmly locked, but it was old fashioned and had a large keyhole, so I bent down and peered through the hole to catch a glimpse of the garden. As I did so I was aware that one of the staff was bearing down on me, and having transgressed enough regulations in my day I thought: "Now I've done it" and straightened up, ready to take my scolding. It was one of the maintenance men, and in a complete reversal of my expectations he said: "Sir, you don't need to do that..." and therewith he pulled out a large ring of keys and put one huge hey in the hole and swung open the door on the Archdeacon's Garden and ushered us through. The garden itself was not a mystery. We had been to a reception there after Evensong several days before. But as we stood there our host pointed out the buildings and explained their original use and gave us their dates and we had our own little private tour of that enclosed space that almost no one else gets. It was a wonderful little treat and a perfect example of the quality of the hospitality we encountered at Canterbury Cathedral. The staff is fiercely loyal and very proud of the place. And the quality of the welcome is marvelous. I know quite well the costs of that sort of hospitality, and what it takes to keep extending it when the number of guests you have in a year is over 1,000,000 instead of a mere 7,000, as we have here, I have trouble imagining. It was a very special moment, and a special gift.

A few minutes later we had another moment like that. Tay wanted a picture of the organ console to take back to his parish musician in Toronto, and we came across the Verger (a person who oversees liturgical ceremonies) who had arranged the Eucharists that we had in the Cathedral, and asked him if we could see the console. No problem. He hurried away and then reappeared with another big ring of keys and another private little door was unlocked and up we went on a narrow staircase, this time a circular one, until about a story and a half higher we came out on top of the choir screen - the carved stone wall that separates the area of the Choir from the Nave of the Cathedral. These screens are common in English cathedrals. Sometimes they were put up to cut down on the winter drafts, since spaces this large tend to develop their own microclimates. But in the case of Canterbury the Choir was almost completely enclosed so that the monks could say their offices in some privacy, while the throngs of pilgrims visiting the shrine of Thomas Beckett could come and go without interruption. And there we were - high above the Choir, and even higher above the Nave, because in Canterbury the Choir is up a long flight of stairs from the Nave - having a view of the Cathedral that few people ever have. It's the only place in the building where you can see straight through from one end to the other. And there was the organ console. And in one of those little surprise revelations, there was also an overstuffed sofa and chair where presumably the organist and any assistants relax when the service goes on too tediously. There was also a video camera that looks down on the Choir, because the organist can't see over the edge of the screen down to where the actual choir sings and he needs to watch the director. Apparently in earlier times an assistant leaned over the edge and signaled the organist when to begin and when to stop. And we had another small guide to the mysteries of that wonderful place, and another demonstration of how very much the staff is devoted to it.

And lastly in my memory is the East end of the crypt, under the former location of Beckett's shrine, where the Jesus Chapel is, where we had most of the services for our group. It's another light and airy space, because of the late Gothic windows all around. What I remember most from there is the silence, because that part of the building is kept for prayer. And I also remember the huge columns - some about 4 feet in diameter - because they spoke to me of how the weight of that tremendous building has borne down on them for so many centuries. There's a sense of stability and power in those columns, and they speak with their own language.

And of course there are many other things, but this will have to do for this time.

Now I'm off to Colorado for some vacation. Mountains feed my soul, so I'm going to visit friends who live in Idaho Springs and let myself be fed. Expect another interruption in my writing, but I will be back towards the end of the month and then I'll resume again. In the meantime, I'll hope that you are relaxing, too.

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