Yesterday began a journey which brought me to England to study at Oxford for the English Literature Summer Programme, with a focus on Middle English and Victorian Literature. This will be an intensive three-week graduate level course with visiting professors from their respective fields.
My wife Erin joins me for the first part of the week, and we decided to take a couple of days in London to get this experience off the ground. Booking a hotel in London proved to be a challenge, but we landed a sweet stay at The Mad Hatter Hotel for two nights. The hotel is situated not far from the Thames, and it is a far cry from being the Nanford.
I served myself a large portion of humble pie over packing for this trip, as in, quite literally, overpacking. I am now convinced that a person’s level of insecurity is directly proportional to the size of their suitcase. Want to know if a person is not sure of himself? Have him pack for a small trip, and the answer will soon become clear. The nagging, sometimes plaguing questions of “Will I need that?’ “Can I do without that?” “What if something comes up, and I am at a loss?” followed by the statements, “I know I will lose my toothbrush, so I will pack eleven of them.” will slowly but surely render the suitcase not so svelte.
Thus there I was, hauling a well over 50 lb suitcase up and down the stairs of the London Underground. At one point, trying to board the Westminster connection to Southwark, managed to jump on board just as the doors were closing. Feeling the crush of the doors, the futility of the situation dawned on me as I realized my gigantic, heavy suitcase was still on the platform with my forearm and hand still attached to it. Desertion of insecurities proved impossible, and I squeezed back out of the Tube’s car, observing before I let go the widened eyes of London’s locals, who, had I been absorbed at that moment by an amoeba, could not have shown less surprise and pity in their countenances.
Onto grander things.
We visited Kew Gardens, the site of Virginia Woolf’s short reflection, and enjoyed a quick doze on the grass after walking around for a while. The magnificent glass building is actually only one of several greenhouses on the grounds.
Peter Gabriel once equated looking into someone’s eyes like looking “through the doorways of a thousand churches.” The comparison is strong, and gains strength upon remembrance when one actually does step through a church doorway, especially a doorway like St. Paul’s Cathedral. Erin and I went to observe Evensong, a church service blending the liturgical hours of Vespers and Compline, which utilized the full polyphonic cadences of the gentleman’s choir. Prior to service, we found we had about an hour and a half to gaze upon the immensity and awe-inspiring architecture, meticulous artwork, mosaics, sculptures, and engravings which make up St. Paul’s. My neck craned upward trying to take in the sheer magnitude of the structure. We even climbed up to a walkway at the top of the dome, about three stories up, in which a.) the Lord reminded me I need to exercise more, and b.) I ‘m still afraid of heights.
Now, not too long ago, I would have balked naively at the utility of the cathedral. “Melt all that gold down, and I’m sure you’d have enough to feed the poor, and please God better in the bargain,” were my uncharitable and self-righteous thoughts. Now I think I understand. It is part of our need to get a picture of the glory and majesty and infinity of God in our lives. No matter how “in tune” one can possibly be the awesomeness of God’s nature, it only takes us so far. So why not (so said the medieval artists of a much more willing generation), create something to aid us in that vision? The tininess of an atom’s nucleas is not real until we try to picture a grain of sand in the center of an orange, the orange equaling the size of the earth. And for that picture we need the tangible realities of sand and oranges.
Artistic and eternal needs dictated a response such as St. Paul’s, with gold, stone, wood, and dye. Every square inch of the place, from floor to wall to domed ceiling told a story of eternity and our welcome into it. And such a place is meant to enhance a time of worship. The acoustics from the choir were perfect for Evensong, and the ethereal Latin canticles gently but insistently pierced the solemnity of the service.
About 7pm we were back at the hotel, very tired. A quick dinner of Mad Hatter’s pie and a pint of Fuller’s Honeydew wrapped the night.
Today we are planning on visiting the museum of Charles Dickens, a walk to Cecil Court, and dinner and perhaps a show at Piccadilly Circus.