Wednesday, June 20, 2012


A snapshot of life on retreat at Canterbury Cathedral as part of the "Benedictine Experience":

Day 3:

0730 - We enter in silence into the Cathedral by a side door and shuffle up the steps in the "quire" for Morning Prayer (aka "Matins"). Our group of 28 forms of the bulk of those seated in the elaborately carved stalls, however there are a few random pilgrims with us this morning and a few of the Cathedral Canons. Many of our group have arrived early to meditate before the office. They use the modern language "Common Worship" book for the offices, and we've all gotten quite used to it. The Old Testament readings so far have been racking up an impressive body count--tent pegs through temples and all that.

canterbury cathedral
0800 - Still in silence, we shuffle back to the "Cathedral Lodge"--a newish retreat and guest house a mere 30 yards from the South Transept Door. Breakfast (in blessed silence) is a buffet of hot and cold items. There is bacon (more like Canadian than American, but without the cornmeal), "Kentish" sausages, black pudding, hash browns, baked beans (?!), sautéed mushrooms, and scrambled eggs. You can also have cereal, various breads and danish, yogurt, several types of dried or fresh fruit, and a small selection of meats and cheeses. Oh, and coffee and tea, naturally. So much for monastic simplicity! Silence ends after breakfast.

0950 - We gather in a very nice conference room for the daily plenary session with Bede. He starts with a sort of "Chapter" meeting: he reads a chapter from the Rule of St. Benedict and then offers a bit of commentary about how it applies to community life in his experience, or perhaps about how it has been interpreted historically. Announcements about the day are handled by the organizer of the group.

1000 - The Plenary Talk starts in earnest. I won't dare to say much about the content of the talks, except to say they have to do with things like mindfulness, the balanced life, authority in community, and other such things. We also often go off on tangents based on people's questions and concerns. One of the big themes this year is about how to drop the narrative normally attached to experience. In other words, simply experience things without attaching so much freight to them. The assigned reading before we arrived was a book about meditation--Coming to Senses by Jon Kabat-Zinn.

1045 - Tea break. (and coffee and "biscuits" (think cookies)). Pleasant talk, often touching on topics raised so far.

1120 - More plenary talk today--but on other days we have split off into smaller discussion groups to reflect together about a particular topic. We finish around noon.

1220 - Eucharist in the Jesus Chapel in the crypt of the Cathedral. I usually arrive early since, as one of other three priests in the group, I'm exercising a fair amount of leadership in this department. Typically the Cathedral Vergers have already set up the chapel and laid out vestments. I usually have only had to tweak one or two things, mark the altar book, etc. The Jesus Chapel is a wonderful space--the the eastern most chapel in the crypt. The ceiling is covered with alternating monograms of Jesus and the Virgin Mary. The Altar was once the High Altar of the Cathedral, and the frontal is breathtaking. Bede celebrated on our first day. I took the second. A retired priest with 52 years of experience celebrated today. He has become a bit forgetful and unsteady on his feet, so I was close to to hand to shepherd him. He gave us a particularly heartfelt and lingering blessing at the end.

1300 - Lunch. Yesterday was fish with a white cream sauce. Today was a lovely meat lasagna, veggies, and salad. Dessert was apple pie. They feed us very well, and one gets used to the service. I have made a point of at least knowing the names of our various lovely servers, but I do have some flashbacks to Downton Abbey. By the time I return to my room it has been magically cleaned and tidied by the staff. Ah, fresh sheets every night. Time for a nap. One could get used to this.

1500 - Work (on most days) for an hour. I've been assigned to the Vergers, who have me dusting ancient metal gates. Other are helping receiving guests to the Cathedral, dusting other parts, or helping in the gardens around the Cathedral. However, today we had a special tea, instead, with the Dean.

Dean Willis is a gentle, visionary soul. He speaks powerfully about the place of Canterbury Cathedral within the global church as well as within English society. His love and passion for this place is evident. Today we were his guests for tea in the Deanery Garden. He also took the opportunity to give us a tour of the Deanery.

It's not a huge house, to tell the truth, and most of the rooms are designed for entertaining guests rather than household living, but it's surprisingly comfortable for such a formal space. This is a Dean who loves creatures. He has plants and animals everywhere! The outside is surrounded by the most beautiful rose beds. Inside there are potted plants--even on his desk in his library. But I also spotted several aquariums (with live plants), bird cages, and bows of water and food for the five cats that live in the Deanry.

(It's worth noting that cats are an important part of the life of Canterbury Cathedral. There are about 24 cats on the Cathedral Precincts overall, and they are a necessity given how the medieval drain system would be a rat heaven.)

The Dean also raises exotic chickens, turkeys, pheasants, and ducks. In fact, I got to a see a chick that had hatched mere hours before. I was also delighted by an extremely friendly white rabbit that took a shine to Bede's white habit. The rabbit liked being cradled belly-up like a baby. When it wasn't being held, it nibbled on grass at our feet and sniffed Bede's habit.

I was taken on a tour of the garden where I saw large patches of herbs and vegetables, a greenhouse with tomatoes, and lots of flowers. We were also taken to an orchard with pears, apples, quinces and other delights. They have just started a honey bee colony and were pleased to show us combs, raw honey, and candles.

Pictures of the Dean's Garden can be seen on my Flickr Feed.

1730 - Evensong back in the quire. This the full on choral evensong as only the Anglicans can do it: men and boys choir, gorgeous organ music, etc. There isn't a lot of congregational participation, but it is definitely prayerful!

1815 - "Recreation." Really just cocktails in the Lodge Garden. By now the staff have learned to always have a bucket of ice and some glasses waiting for me for the Bourbon Bede and I enjoy. The head server, a very proper looking young lady always dressed in black, saw me coming and checked her watch. "Are we early or late?" I asked. "Early, sir," she said in a Scottish accent, "but we are ready for you." Bottles of red and white wine and Spitfire Beer were ready to go (along with my bucket of ice, naturally). We have our drinks and some snacks overlooking the south side of the Cathedral and chat pleasantly about our day or our lives back home.

1900 - Supper. Tonight was a delicious beef stir fry severed over noodles with veggies. Dessert was another pie. Conversation at my table was about the differences between living in Canada and the U.S. We also swapped healthcare stories (there was a doctor seated close to us).

2000 - We headed back over the Cathedral to spend an hour in silence. A Verger let us into the crypt by a special entrance and then we were free to encounter the space as richly as possible. I took off my shoes both to feel the stone and to make my steps silent.

I had intense prayer experiences at several of the altars, stepping over ropes and going right up to them. Under delicate frescos that are hundreds and hundreds of years old I placed my hands on the ancient altars and stared into the faces of Christ I saw: crucifixes and icons and some bare crosses. I prayed for myself, for my family, for my congregation. The most powerful moments for me this evening came when I visualized my congregation surrounding the particular Christ I was meditating on. Eventually I ended up in the St. Mary Chapel in the centre of the undercroft. It's the oldest part of the Cathedral. It's dark and small and very womb like. Candles burn in votive stands as Mary with the baby Jesus in her lap look down kindly. I ended up prostrate on a well-worn carpet in front of that altar and prayed until I felt the warmth of God's love and just rested in that bliss for a while. I could have spent a few more hours in the crypt, but as our time came to an end the group gathered in the Mary Chapel for the nighttime prayers known as Compline. Thankfully we are using the Episcopal Church's version of this, which I memorized many years ago. I kept my eyes closed and recited the old prayers. The Psalms for Compline are soothing. The themes are protection and rest.

Chapel Of Our Lady Undercroft - Canterbury Cathedral.
Silence for the group begins after Compline, so I put my shoes on again and made my way back to my room to compose this blog entry.

Tomorrow is another day. The highlight might be celebrating the Eucharist again. This time we are doing it as one of my "Contemplative" Eucharists, which means that there will be a lot of silence and a few words.

Friday we are making a field trip to St. Mary's Abbey in West Malling. It's another ancient site of prayer, and the current community of cloistered nuns live a very intense life.

I really feel like my retreat is just beginning. The most pressing concerns are just beginning to take shape in my mind. I'm afraid many of those things are a bit too private to share here, but I wanted to share what I could for those who are curious. It's a marvelous place--but also shows that no matter how far you go, there you are.


Location:The Precinct,Canterbury,United Kingdom

1 comment:

Kirk Vandezande said...

Thanks, Tay!

Your telling offers a sensitive and moving story of your time at the cathedral. I feel very happy for you!

Kirk Vandezande