Thursday, July 8, 2010

Update from Canterbury

I've been here at Canterbury for the "Benedictine Experience" Retreat for a few days now. I'm almost over the jet lag, but not quite. I woke up at 3.30 A.M. this morning. But this is a very easy place to settle into: comfortable and welcoming.

Yesterday Bede, another priest, and I had a wonderful chat with one of the Canterbury Vergers to plan our Eucharists this week. We will be using the Jesus Chapel in the Cathedral Crypt, and the Vergers were quite happy to set things up just the way we like them. This chat also gave us the chance to see the principle Sacristy of the Cathedral. We were told it was one of the few parts of the Cathedral that Thomas Becket would have recognized: when he was around in the 12th Century as Archbishop, it was used for pretty much the same purpose it is now.

The Sacristy at Canterbury Cathedral

Yesterday was the feast of the Translation of Thomas of Canterbury (Becket). On July 7th, 1220 his remains were moved from a crypt chapel to an elaborate shrine in the chancel that became one of the most important pilgrimage sites in Western Europe until it was destroyed by order of Henry VIII in 1538. Evensong filled the Choir of the Cathedral and was sung by a men's choir. The Responses were by John Rutter, the Magnifcat and Nunc Dimittis were from Michael Walsh's St. Paul's Service, and after we processed (to "God, whose city's sure foundation" sung to Westminster Abbey) to the site of Thomas's Shrine the choir sang Salve Lux Laetitiae by Alan Ridout. While that anthem was sung, I watched one of the Canons cense something that isn't there--the shrine of Thomas. I've seen a lot of things censed and blessed in my church life, but never an empty space!

In the afternoon we had tea with the Dean of the Catherdal-- Robert Willis. He spoke powerfully about the Cathedral and it's role in the life of England and also the life of the worldwide Anglican Communion. He said that this was our mother church, and that we should take "comfortable possession" of it. He spoke brilliantly about how this place belongs to all Anglicans and how his 250 Full-Time Staff (including only 6 clergy) and 800 volunteers practice hospitality. His passion and care were moving.

This place is incredibly beautiful. It's such a privilege to be here. I particularly love the little nooks and crannies and tea gardens hidden all around this place. Just when you think you know some part of the Cathedral grounds, you will discover some new passage leading to some ancient ruins or rarely-used chapel. Yesterday's Eucharist, for example, took place in the Holy Spirit Chapel, which visitors rarely see. A tiny medieval door in the chancel leads up scary stairs to a second-storey chapel that has a connection of Evelyn Underhill (a very important name in contemporary mysticism). There are constant surprises like that. On our first afternoon here, the Archdeacon hosted us for cocktails in her garden just north of the cloister. She explained that her house was once a pilgrim hostel and that before that the site was where the medieval monastery's kitchens would have been. One of the old cooking hearths still stands by the east wall of her garden. Bede pointed to one of the ruined arches and said, "Roman brick, presumably from some structure that predated whatever was built here."

We are staying in the Cathedral Lodge (also known as the International Student Centre), which about 20 feet from the Cathedral Wall. The rooms are VERY comfortable--much more like a nice hotel than any retreat house I've stayed at. From my window seat I can see the Cathedral towering over us. Right now I'm blogging from a lovely rose garden under an old copper birch tree while someone practices organ in the Cathedral.

Matins is usually said with about 40 people in the quire (aka "choir") of the church. So far it's just been from Common Worship 2000, modern rite. Simple but well-done.

Evensong is glorious. As it happens, every evening so far has been of high-enough calendar rank to get the choral treatment. The boys choir is spectacular, as is the men's choir that I described earlier. The boys all attend the King's College School here at the Cathedral. The girls of the school have an elaborate music training programme of their own, but generally don't participate musically in liturgies until they are older. The Dean explained that he would love to a have a girl's choir, but they simply don't have the resources to support it.

It's important to point out that Canterbury Cathedral (unlike many other famous Cathedrals like Notre Damme) receives no financial support from the government or the national church. They are entirely self sufficient. The gate fee for visitors pays for the necessary infrastructure for 1.4 Million Visitors a year, but the renovations and programmes are paid for by donations. Luckily, Canterbury has many patrons, so it's no surprise that they have a £1.6 Million project underway to restore the South Trancept window.

Later today I'll be saying Mass in the Jesus Chapel in the eastern part of the crypt. I'm very excited about that. It's neat to think about all the great holy people that have come through here on earthly pilgrimage. What a treat to be a part of that.

Another thought... this place has a richness that can be almost overwhelming. As Bede says, you have to kind of float on top of it all. Music, gorgeous stained glass, incense, 12th century frescos. It's a river of spiritual poetry.

A woman who lived on the Cathedral Close during World War II tells this story. On one particularly bad bombing raid the Germans attempted to destroy the cathedral. Bombs fell just North of the Cathedral (where I'm writing this now, in fact), and just South, and as she huddled in a basement by the Christ Church Gate she was sure they had demolished her beloved Cathedral. It was the end of everything she knew. Then the Tower Bell chimed the time and she knew, in her heart, that places like this are so much bigger than us, even bigger than kings and wars. In truth, a bomb hitting this place would merely have transformed it, as it did to Coventry Cathedral. That's the true beauty of a resurrection faith.

Time for another session...


Location:S Close,Canterbury,United Kingdom

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