(The Isles is a series of reflections on my recent trip to Ireland and England.)
The word transcendence isn’t a term to be used lightly. It evokes something of the eternal, the ethereal, breaking beyond the bonds of the current world. It describes something that transports us beyond our physical existence, something whose whole is on another spiritual plane than the sum of its parts. So when I say that there were objects, places, and experiences that were transcendent on this trip, that is what I mean.
The first of these experiences happened my second day in London. I’ve detailed before my affinity for the works of Vincent van Gogh, and England’s National Gallery has five of them. I had never seen one in person before I walked into the gallery that day and came face to face with some highly notable pieces, including one of my favorites: Wheat Field with Cypress, painted just a few months before Vincent’s death. The reality of what I had always heard about Vincent’s paintings–especially his later work–came to life before me: his brushstrokes were violent, paint leaping off the canvas at times. In those moments standing before his paintings, the expanse of time melted away, and I felt like I was connecting with the ecstasy of the painter in the fields of Auvers-sur-Oise. His interpretation of the liveliness of nature captures what the Greeks might have called “the music of the spheres.”
Still, not even the wonder I experienced standing in front of van Gogh’s masterpieces (or those by other artists I had long admired in both England’s and Ireland’s National Galleries) had quite as much impact on me as did experiencing ancient liturgies within the ancient buildings of Westminster Abbey in London and St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin. I had the chance to attend three church services: in order, I attended a Choral Matins at Westminster Abbey, a comparatively low-church evening service that same day at Westminster, and a Choral Evensong at St. Patrick’s. I went to the Choral Matins at Westminster with Kyle, while Blake accompanied me to Westminster’s evening service and St. Patrick’s Choral Evensong. This alone made a difference, as Blake seems to take to liturgy more naturally than Kyle, prompting very different conversations afterward. However, I’m exceptionally glad both were able to experience and appreciate these beautiful gatherings with me.
Before I go any further about the services, something has to be said for the buildings themselves. Many years ago, I detailed the symbolism in Gothic church architecture. At the time, I was referring primarily to the Gothic Revival structure my church had purchased. However, now I was experiencing non-revival, true medieval Gothic architecture, and the layers of meaning and history were everywhere. I shamelessly nerded-out by the northern face of Westminster Abbey when describing to my friend Blake the use of light in these buildings, their cruciform shape, and their arches mirroring an overturned ship. The designers had the Bible’s message in mind when laying out the plans for their construction. And what construction! As I stood in St. Patrick’s Cathedral and marveled at how rounded the stones had become, I wondered at the 900 years of Christians who had worshipped amidst them as I was doing now. The ancient liturgy of centuries past still echoed with an ethereal resonance.
Two of the services were, indeed, the exact same liturgy one would have found sung or recited in those hallowed chambers many years past. The text of the Choral Matins and the Choral Evensong were taken directly from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, with the Sunday evening service I attended a modern-language adaptation of Evening Prayer. It is very much the same liturgy, at least for the last five hundred years but, in both essence and in portions, even a millennium older. Part of the grand appeal of the Anglican tradition, with which I have flirted for many years (see here, here, and here), is that, beyond being a fairly ancient tradition in its own right, it pulls smartly and discerningly from some of the earliest traditional practices of the Church. A Baptist historian I know credits Thomas Cranmer, the first Protestant Archbishop of Canterbury and creator of The Book of Common Prayer, as being one of the best early church scholars of his day, smartly incorporating his knowledge of the Church Fathers, the early liturgies, and the early monastic traditions to great effect in the prayerbook.
The two choral services were exceptionally beautiful, the voices of the choirs reverberating ethereally in the grand cathedrals as they sang the scriptures. In my opinion, there can be little more transcendent than that. However, my favorite service may actually have been the smaller evening service at Westminster because, due to the limited attendant participation involved in choral services, this service allowed us to speak more of the liturgy ourselves, to sing the music, and to listen to a rather well-crafted homily. I dare say that, for this reason, it felt the most like “church.”
By the end of the trip, I felt that, somehow, I had connected with the centuries of Christians who had come before me and, through that, I felt nearer both to God and to my own identity. I had traveled more than just the three thousand miles across the world. I had achieved a spiritual awareness I had been missing for some time and which is still working on me a month later. Both through the arts and through the ancient practices of the Church, I felt re-enlivened and re-established in my purpose… but more on that in my fourth and final post in this series.
(Cover image: Westminster Abbey. © Jacob A. Davis)