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Archive for February 13th, 2012

A Canterbury Tale

The road to Canterbury has changed quite a lot since Geoffrey Chaucer’s pilgrims told their ribald stories en route.  For one, today’s generic naughtiness is far less imaginative than what fifteenth-century pilgrims dreamed up.  For another, our stories tend to be a lot shorter, which counts for everything in an era of brief attention spans.  But the real nail in the coffin is this:  the very notion that tawdry tales could be told in poetic meter is off-putting.  Today’s trash cannot  hold a literary candle to its medieval counterpart; and that’s just the way we moderns like it, thank you.

Last week I had the opportunity to revisit Canterbury, which has always occupied a big space in my mental living room.  I hadn’t been there in years, largely because the train from London used to take forever — almost as long as one of Chaucer’s tales.  But the high-speed train from Saint Pancras now rushes you there in fifty-eight minutes — which to me seems nothing less than miraculous.

The Pilgrims’ Window, Canterbury Cathedral

Canterbury has changed a lot since Saint Augustine and his monks settled there in 597.  Initially it was to be a temporary home, and the Roman missionaries carried with them an organizational chart that specified two archbishops in England:  one in London and one in York.  But the London part never quite worked out, and successive archbishops found it pleasant enough to stay put in Canterbury.  And that’s good for those of us interested in literature.  Andrew Lloyd Webber would have coopted “The London Tales” for himself, and Chaucer would be chided for not setting his poetry to music.

Since 597 the cathedral precincts have seen their share of drama, largely due to the figure of Thomas Becket.  His grotesque murder inside the cathedral shocked all of Europe, which was really hard to do in an age of pervasive social violence.  The act brought Henry II to his knees, literally.  And the lesson was not lost on Henry VIII.  The destruction of the shrine was high on his to-do list.  Today a simple candle on the spot of Becket’s shrine tells the tale, without any words.

The cathedral precincts had not changed much since my last visit.  The monastic refectory, kitchen and infirmary are still dreamy ruins.  The cloisters are still elegant and delicate, though many of the pillars seem on the verge of disintegration.  The chapter house, where the monks once met, is as striking as ever, though it might be a good idea to hide the folding chairs when they’re not needed.  And finally, the church itself simply overwhelms.  No wonder medieval pilgrims, used to humble villages and simple inns, thought they had passed through the portals of heaven.  In every respect, they had.

A few historians are hopeless romantics, and I don’t blush to put myself in their number.  While I have no desire to enjoy thirteenth-century medicine or hygene, I do appreciate the language of the monastic culture.  Initially, the cathedral and monastic precincts overwhelm.  But very shortly they embrace you.  They remind you that you are part of something greater than yourself.  You are one with the community of monks who once shuffled through these halls.  They ate and prayed and worked daily in these vast spaces,  much as modern monks do.  They welcomed guests and traded stories, just as we do.  And  they rest peacefully in the ground outside the church, awaiting the coming of the Lord, just as we will someday.  In sum, they lived full lives, just as we aspire to do.  And they left something of ultimate artistic value in the great church that welcomes modern pilgrims.

In a world in which we tend to think it is all about me, those stones preach that it is all about me, God, and my neighbors — past, present and to come.  And this is nothing less than the Church, writ local and small.

One last item brought this home very unexpectedly.  Like many historic churches in the United Kingdom, there is a not-cheap entry fee at Canterbury.  As I was about to pay, I asked if there might be a discount for Benedictine monks.  The young woman reacted as if she got this question every day.  “No”, was her firm and unflinching response.  “Benedictine monks get in free.”  And then she smiled and said “Welcome home.”

Ambassador Robert Shafer and friends at the Order of Malta Mission at the United Nations

A Personal NoteAs the topmost picture suggests, it snowed in England last week.  While we’ve not had much snow in Minnesota this winter, I didn’t fly off to England just so that I could get in on several inches of heavy wet snow.  On February 4th I said Mass and baptized the daughter of some friends of mine; and all this took place at the Church of the Immaculate Conception — better known as the Farm Street Church.  It is the Jesuit church in London, and it is tucked away off of a lovely square in Mayfair.  Inside, it is a real jewel, and it houses a lively congregation with a full schedule of services. Notes from Saint John’s+On February 6th The Czech Boys Choir began their American tour with a concert in the Great Hall at Saint John’s.  For a portion of the evening the members of The Saint John’s Boys Choir joined in the singing.+On February 8th Ambassador Robert Shafer hosted a reception for New York friends of the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library at the Mission of the Order of Malta to the United Nations.  In the course of its history, HMML has photographed nearly 120,000 manuscripts, includng major sections of the archives of the Order of Malta.  Through its Malta Study Center, HMML continues that work with projects at the National Library of Malta, as well as at the Grand Magistry of the Order of Malta in Rome.  On a later occasion I will write on the extensive work that HMML currently pursues in Lebanon and Syria.In the picture above, Ambassador Shafer is flanked by Ms. Nicky Benz Carpenter, DM, and Fra Elie de Comminges, KJ.  Looking over their shoulders is a portrait of deceased Grand Master Fra Andrew Bertie.+On February 9th the monks of Saint John’s Abbey mourned the passing of our confrere, Fr. Arnold Weber.  The best way to describe Fr. Arnold is that he was a torrent of energy.  In his 86 years he never seemed to rest.  He taught in the Abbey prep school, was vocations director for many years, and served in various pastoral assignments away from the Abbey.  He thoroughly relished his years as president of Benilde-Saint Margaret High School in St. Louis Park, MN; and he was a beloved pastor at Holy Name Church in Medina, MN.  In his term as pastor the parish grew from 300 to 2,500 families.  It took that many people to keep up with him.  We will miss his vitality and his love of the Lord.

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