Saturday, January 28, 2012

Saturday (St Thomas Aquinas)

After breakfast we were taken to one of the places in the cathedral that is not open to the general public--All Saints' Chapel, accessible through a narrow and winding staircase on the south side of the choir. It dates from the fifteenth century, but the vestige of a Norman arch in one of the walls is a telltale sign of an earlier period in the cathedral's life and the very messily organic character of its physical development. There Canon Condry led us in a Bible study on the "road to Emmaus" text from Luke. It was rather more substantive and less manipulative than the three sessions we had previously experienced. Our after-the-break session, back in our accustomed conference center location (a site that was free for the construction of a conference center in the 1990s because the land had been cleared by a German bomb in the 1940s), was a presentation by Fr Christopher Irvine, Canon Librarian, on the role of the bishop in liturgy. It was quite well done. The ensuing discussion reminded me once again of the tremendous diversity of liturgical practice across the communion, and the broad range of assumptions that participants in a conference like this one bring.

At 1:30, those of us who had signed up reported for a 90 minute guided historical tour of the cathedral. Though that was about the right amount of time for my physical stamina, it only scratched the surface of my intellectual curiosity. The guide was rushed--we were up against the preparations for 3:15 Evensong and the sounds of a rehearsing choir--so I didn't ask most of the questions that came to me. A place like this is a challenge to a mind like mine, which appreciates consistent patterns and ordered progression. Architechturally, it is in many places rather like a striped tie on a plaid shirt. Conflicting forces across the centuries have left their artifacts, and those artifacts have mostly been allowed to remain, rarely ever "fixed," bearing ongoing silent witness to the mayhem that both human beings and nature can work, such that the whole place becomes a palimpsest of the history of Christianity in Britain. I know what I would do with much of it, but I don't expect I'll be given the chance!

Evensong was a combined effort of the cathedral choirs of Canterbury and Rochester (a neighboring diocese sometime referred to as a "church plant" from Canterbury, having been founded some eight years later, that is, in 605!), which translates to about sixty voices. There were lots of visitors from the Friends of Choral Music and, of all places, Brigham Young University; hence, the entire choir and the area between the choir and the High Altar, were full. The music, as one might imagine, was "big"-- the Howells "St Paul's Service" and an anthem by Elgar. We even sang one of my favorite hymns, "How shall I sing that majesty...?" (Tune: Coe Fen). But would it have killed those boys to learn the descant? :--)

More wandering around town, pretty much just for that sake of exercise, during the late afternoon. No street here is anything resembling straight, of course, and even though I have what I believe is a better than average internal compass, it takes me barely any time at all to get completely disoriented. The saving grace of Canterbury, however, is that one is never very many steps away from a view of the cathedral tower, so you at least have an idea which way you need to turn at the next opportunity. My ambulation this afternoon included a fairly long stretch along the top of the old city wall, some of which dates back to Roman times. Every few yards there is a turret where an archer with a crossbow undoubtedly once crouched. Now, of course, you can look through those turrets and see an auto dealer or a supermarket or a bus stop, with traffic whizzing by (on the wrong side of the street, no less; I don't understand why there aren't more accidents).

After dinner, we had the most incredible experience. Canon Condry took us back into the church, which by this time was closed to the public, cleared of everyone but us. Only a few strategically placed lights were on (and candles limit). We gathered for prayer at the west end, where medieval pilgrims would have entered. I cannot begin to tell you what it was like to have the place, in effect, to ourselves, with Ed providing not so much an historical commentary as a spiritual commentary on this place of pilgrimage. We moved up the center aisle of the nave to the Compass Rose installed in the floor, symbolizing the worldwide and omnidirectional reach of the Anglican Commmunion. We stood in prayerful silence in the place where Thomas Becket was murdered on December 29, 1170. We walked down into the crypt, with its various chapels and its vaulted ceiling that was constructed in the early eleventh century, and the faded residue of what once once vivid polychrome paint that adorned the entire area. Finally, we gathered where normal visitors are not allowed to walk, holding lit candles and forming a circle around the single candle on the floor that burns perpetually on the spot where the shrine to St Thomas Becket once stood, and only a few feet away from the Throne of St Augustine, the sign of the ministry of the See of Canterbury that binds the Anglican Communion together. There, at a spot where the stone was literally indented by the knees of 300 years of kneeling pilgrims, we prayed the Our Father together, each in our own language. What more can I say?

No comments:

Post a Comment