Zensights provides a space for gentle contemplation in a world filled with hectic action and stressed-out situations.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Canterbury Evensong

There are many things that can be said of me, but "courageous" and "brave" would not be the words that come to mind immediately. It's not that I couldn't or wouldn't rise to the occasion when it is called for. It is just that I seek safety and security and rarely venture beyond my scope of influence. That is why spring of 1997 was so extraordinary for me. For the first time in my life had I ever left the country. For the first time in my life had I braved a subway ride alone. For the first time in my life, I rode a train through a foreign country all by myself, and for the first time in my life did I make a personal pilgrimage along the path trod by millions of others.

For most of my adult life, I have been a teacher of English. I have immersed myself in the works of the masters of the language and quite literally, I have made the language my life and passion. When the opportunity to go to England was within my budget and grasp, I leapt at the chance to go. I took my son who was a senior in high school and together we were awakened to the joys of world travel.

My most exciting experience while in England will live in my heart as one of the most profound in my life--up there with graduating, marrying, giving birth. With the gentle encouragement of my friend Jean Cosby, a teacher and fellow traveler, I made a pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral all by myself.

Canterbury was not on our tour for some strange reason. So, while all the others went on the tour of Windsor Castle, I went back to the hotel, spoke with the ever-so-helpful desk clerk and found out that I had just enough time to catch the 2:30 p.m. train at Victoria Station. There I purchased a round trip ticket for 13 pounds, 20 pence and quickly took my seat on the train indicated by my ticket.

By this time, I was shaking with high energy. I could hardly believe that I was actually where I was. Almost 1500 years after the first brick was laid, I was headed for the sacred shrThomasf Tomas a Becket!

Only once on the trip did I have a sinking spell. When the conductor was calling out the names of the cities where we were to travel he said "West Canterbury" instead of "Canterbury." I had the scary feeling that I might have taken the wrong train. When that realization came to me, I had to just have faith. If I weren't on the right train, then I would just go to the end of the line and come back. I had a round trip ticket so I was in no danger of getting stranded.

It took a few hours, but finally, I was deposited at the West Canterbury station from where I could see the spires of the Cathedral. I winded my way through the narrow and tourist-filled city streets. It was magnificent. The little shops that lined the way were quaint and open. I purchased a ba-nah-na (as I was now saying) so that I could keep my strength up. I hadn't eaten since breakfast, and I didn't want to collapse at some critical moment as my grandmother might have with her "vapors." After a brief stop at an ancient hospital (the name for an inn, much like what the Tabard Inn would have been), I moved on to the church.

The cathedral was breath-taking and again, I was quaking inside at the very thought that I was actually there. The building itself was tremendously large and the rustic sandstone-colored walls were delicately beautiful. As I entered the hushed silence of the sanctuary, I could see the worn impressions in the stone steps where millions of feet had traveled, where my feet traveled now.

The cool, dark space within was very holy. Light was filtered through ancient stained glass. Statuary saints stood along pillars, their hand folded in frozen prayer. Off in the distance, I could just make out the beginnings of an organ piece that grew louder as I went deeper into the nave of the building. Behind the high altar was a room in which I would later be seated as I experienced Evensong.

When the doors to the chancel were opened to the public, I hurried in and took a cushioned seat as pipe organ music filled the air around me. I could hardly stand it. When the choir came solemnly into the chamber and took their places, I was fighting back an ocean of tears. When they sung their first melodious chord, the dam broke, and I wept.

I was shaking the whole time as song after psalm were sung. A call and response; a prayer and a hymn. Voices echoed in heavenly splendor, and once again, I was amazed that I was actually here where million of other Christian souls had prayed and worshiped. Since long before Geoffrey Chaucer's pilgrims came, the faithful had been coming. I felt their presence and I was awed.

I didn't want the Evensong to end. I didn't want to return to the mundane world waiting for me just outside the walls of the building; but I realized that I would be buoyed up by this experience for many years to come, and that made my return to the secular bearable. As I sang a final hymn and my small voice got to mingle with the angelic sounds made by the choir, my heart was filled with joy and wonder. It was indeed glorious.

I was able to make it back to the train and London before 10:00 pm, and I made it back to the hotel before the curfew. I had done it. I had braved the tube--alone. I had traveled across a foreign countryside--alone. I had achieved a lifelong goal all by myself, all in a day's passing. As I prayed that night and gave thanks for my inspiring experience, I imagined my words mingled with all the prayers made by faithful pilgrims throughout the ages and I slept with a sense of tremendous belonging.


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