St. Augustine’s Abbey with a Nod to Canterbury Cathedral*

First…nodding to Canterbury Cathedral is kind of funny. It is the most imposing feature of this small medieval city. I never get lost as i wander the streets because the towers of the castle are always visible and I just need to know where they should “be” as I’m meandering. It is the jewel of this city and definitely merits more than a nod. Then again…everyone bows to the cathedral, so loving an underdog, I’m more drawn to the Abbey and St. Martin’s Church.

And speaking of church…I have a weird relationship with church. I alluded to it in a past post. It confuses me. I guess the best way I can describe it is to say that it fascinates me. And maybe not in the traditional way. I won’t go into too many details about my beliefs, but I will say that I believe that there is a strength, a being, a spirit, a something…that is greater than any individual. Or group. Or leader. And I don’t think that that spirit resides in a church…necessarily. It might for some, but it doesn’t for me. I will say that nature can be a kind of church. Sitting on top of Lembert Dome in Tuolumne Meadows or on the bluffs above Mendocino definitely carry that “spirit” for me. I guess we could have a whole discussion about how we define “church”. Another day…

As I travel, I love to visit churches and it seems that often it’s a Catholic church. In Vietnam we visited Catholic churches and Buddhist temples. Catholic churches in Europe are prolific and often large. One of my early church and travel memories is from 1978 when I was traveling with my cousins. We were driving south in a tiny little car looking for warmer weather. (It was February and Paris was slushy, and frigid so we were sprinting south.) We stopped in Poitier, a little medieval village and just wandered the streets – maybe looking for something to eat? What I do specifically remember is walking into this small stone church on a miserable damp, rainy, weekday. There didn’t appear to be anyone in the church so it seemed like a good place to warm up though medieval churches are not known for their excellent heating and air systems. :-). As we sat the pews in the silence, suddenly the church was FILLED with organ music. The organist was practicing for the Sunday service. I was mesmerized. I was enthralled. I was moved. I’ll never forget that feeling of awe as I sat in that centuries-old place of worship and absorbed the history, the music, and the emotion. That was a memorable and an inspiring moment for me. And it occurred in a church!

Since that memorable moment, I’ve had the good fortune of spending Easter Sunday in some of the incredible cathedrals of the world – Florence, Westminster, the National Cathedral in DC. I go for the ritual, the pageantry, the history, the music. I guess I’m looking for that feeling of connectedness, of inspiration, of peace and hope.

This past Sunday, I went to Canterbury Cathedral, an Anglican church* (which basically means Church of England), for Evensong, a 5:30 pm music-based service. I was expecting to be moved by the choir, but sadly I found the music to be uninspiring. (The choir was visiting from a church in South Carolina.) Yes, the setting was spectacular, the voices were beautiful, the acoustics were incredible, but the music itself did not move me. And at the end of the service there was a new organ piece that made me think of a movie scene of the end of the Earth. It was anything but uplifting and by the time that it finally ended…the words “Go in peace” had lost their impact. Harumph.

The quire where Evensong is held.

And btw – Going to Evensong allows one to enter the cathedral without paying an admission fee. I will pay to go to for a tour. It’s not that I’m cheap, but there are lots of other travelers who can’t afford the $17 charge to get on the grounds, let alone inside. The brochure claims that it costs more than 22,000 pounds PER DAY to “maintain and run” the church. I won’t address the whole church and wealth issue that has a long history – a lot of it corrupt.

This restoration has been going on for six years. I understand it is nearly complete.

AND I also visited St. Augustine’s Abbey* this week…which according to the title is the point of this post. Finally, you might be saying!

The alter is not original, but the structure is from the early days.

You may have read my recent post about St. Martin’s Church*. When King Ethelbert (before Henry VIII when England was ruled by multiple kings) married his French princess with a promise to allow her to continue her Christian worship, the Pope sent Augustine to follow her to establish the Catholic Church in England. It is said that Augustine got up into France and found the trip too grueling so he returned to Rome asking not to be forced to go. The Pope basically told him to toughen up and get back on the road.

At the time, Anglo-Saxons including King Ethelbert, were pagan so Augustine had his work cut out for him. He began the process of building the Pope’s church in England which at the time was not one country, but many fiefdoms, ruled by many kings. Ethelbert was converted and eventually was baptized at St. Martin’s. Augustine’s work also included the establishment of the abbey which for almost 1000 years was the Catholic monastic center of learning and spirituality.

The lower, beige part of the wall is the original wall of the church.
Door connected to the church.

Many centuries passed and then along came King Henry VIII. The fall of the Catholic Church in England all began because King Henry VIII wanted to end his first marriage to Katherine of Aragon so that he could marry Anne Boleyn. When he appealed to the Pope in Rome for the dissolution of his marriage, the Pope denied his request which just pointed out to Henry that the Pope was more powerful than him which for him was a BIG problem. King Henry wanted to be the ruler of ALL things. So since he was king…he just started his own church that he could rule AND he got to make up the rules! So good bye Katherine. Hello Anne! And we all know how that turned out.

While St. Martin’s and the Canterbury Cathedral are still fully functioning places of worship, the Abbey is just a collection of ruins which provides a very different experience for the visitor. I’ll let the photos speak for themselves (with some captions), but the history that I found fascinating, in my twisted way of looking at the church(es), is that when King Henry decided that he was the ruler of all things, including his new church, he set out to destroy every part of the Catholic Church in his kingdom. The abbey was essentially destroyed. Henry’s henchmen stole all of the valuables, including reliquary, the books created by the monks, and then they destroyed most of the buildings including the tombs of kings who were buried there. Henry eventually used the remains of the abbott’s residence to build a palace for his queen though it never became a “favored” residence. The abbey later became residence for a lord and lady, a jail (gaol), a poorhouse and a college before finally becoming an UNESCO site.

Tombs of early church leaders. The roof is not old, but built to protect the tombs from weather.
The red brick at the top of the original wall was added to create the palace for Henry’s queen.

Canterbury is considered the birthplace of the Anglican Church* in England. (I think it’s a Protestant church, but don’t quote me.) Today, these three early Catholic treasures are UNESCO world heritage sites which affords them many protections from kings or queens, ;-), developers, city government, etc. But apparently, it does not provide money to maintain them…at least according to the cathedral brochure.

Another piece of information about maintaining all of these incredible treasures…MANY historic buildings in Canterbury (and throughout Great Britain) are owned by “public” schools and colleges. (“Public” does not mean free. These schools can be quite expensive to attend if you can pass the entrance exams and have the appropriate family “credentials”.) This creates quite the conundrum because though many citizens believe that these sites belong to the people of Great Britain, they are literally privately owned. Therefore, they are not available to the public. The good news is that these “public” schools are required to maintain the buildings. The bad news is that even locals rarely have access to them. Whaddya gonna do?

The building in the background is linked to the abbey. It belongs to The King’s School which is “public” in the British definition.
The gate leads from the abbey to The King’s School.
This is from the grounds of the abbey looking toward the cathedral tower. The buildings belong to The King’s School.

And in my nod to the cathedral, I did go on that guided tour yesterday. It was led by a lovely English gentleman who can quote facts about the cathedral including describing the messaging of the stained glass windows, the lineage of kings and queens, popes, archbishops…And of course, the highlight of his storytelling is the history of St. Thomas Becket who was murdered at the alter in the cathedral because he he stood against the King who was trying to erode the power of the church in Rome. Within three years of his murder, Becket was sainted and Canterbury became an important stop on the Via Francigena pilgrimage to the Vatican.

The alter at the location where Thomas Becket was murdered. The cross with swords and shadows behind the alter represent the four knights who murdered Becket. It is said that he wasn’t supposed to be killed and there was public outcry. King Henry was forced to pay a penance for the murder and he walked through the town barefoot (oh, horror!) and then allowed the monks to flagellate him though there are no records of this occurring.
Look up.
Always look up.
Lots of tombs of royalty, church and “royalty”.
This is a relatively new window. The colors were amazing. Throughout the church, the windows tell the story of the Bible, of the monarchy and of the church.

Now, back to the point of this post…as if there were one…The afternoon that I chose to go to the Abbey, I was pretty much alone wandering the ruins. It was a beautiful (and hot) afternoon and I enjoyed living in the history of the abbey as I wandered the paths, listened to the stories, and studied the ruins.

And maybe I even felt a bit uplifted!

*My blog posts will NEVER be added to Wikipedia because I cannot promise that my facts are straight, that my memory is correct, or that I might not be embellishing a bit on a good story. 😉

These gentlemen and lady are heading to a funeral in the crypt. Note the bowler.

Published by gat2jdt2

60 something retirees (or semi-retirees) learning to live differently

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