The Chronicles of Oxford Part 4: The Lost Canterbury Tale

I wrote this soon after an excursion to Canterbury, sponsored by Exeter College at Oxford.  This meant an approximate 2 1/2 hour journey to get there.  I guess that kind of factors into what happened…

I went to Canterbury on Saturday with about 45 people from the Exeter college program.  This offered us a chance to visit Canterbury Cathedral in all its vastness, walk the pathways of the Canterbury pilgrims from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and see many of the other historic landmarks and cultural highlights which make up this ancient city.

Canterbury Cathedral

Inside Canterbury Cathedral


Arriving at 11, we had about 6 hours to explore the town.  We were to be back at the bus no later than 5:15 to return to Oxford.

Guess who was late.  By 30 minutes.

I had a wonderful time perusing the ruins of the St. Augustine Abbey, marveling at the structure which had stood there since 598 AD before the Dissolution of the Monasteries by Henry VIII.  It is purported to be one of the oldest monastic sites in England.  I have a real interest in Christian monasticism and the types of communities which formed under the Rule of St. Benedict, so this was definitely a treat.

Around 4:45 I decided to wrap up and head back.  Now please let it be known that I have NO sense of direction whatsoever.  It’s only through literature that I know the sun rises in the east and sets in the west.  This puts me in company, happily, with GK Chesterton, who once famously had a taxi take him to an address which was right across the street from where he was standing.  But since I lack the inherent joy and adventurous spirit of GK Chesterton, my situation was a little less charming.  I panicked.

Reading the map incorrectly, I went to the wrong bus station, which was clear across the other side of town.  Then Vicky arrived.  In my growing panic I collared the first person I saw on the street and asked “WhereamIandhowdoigettothebusimsolatetheyregoingtoleavewithoutmehelp?!?!?!”  This fantastic person walked me all the way back to the station, about a 25 minute walk, taking time out of her day to help a strange half-witted American.  I did not get her email or phone number to call and thank her.  But Vicky- Ph.d student in Statistics living in Canterbury- thank you so much for your heart and kindness in leading me back home.

Needless to say, there were some grumpy people on the bus, but most were gracious and kind and forgave my blunder.  Except for Isabella, for whom I owe dinner and a drink.  (But now that she’s in Spain and I’m in the States, I might be off the hook).

You try to look for blessings in all things.  For me this is a constant struggle as my mind usually veers toward worrying about the edge of the cliff.  Given that I’m the type of person who always likes to be “in the know,” the experience of being lost and having NO CLUE was disconcerting to say the least.  And yet what happened?  There was a person out there willing to help.  Not exactly the end of the world, right?

Funny enough, the lectionary reading for the next day was about the Good Samaritan.  Happy to say I met her.

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A Week Off/ Building a Monastery

A week off to do what?  I’m not really sure.  Every teacher pleads silently for that extra minute of simple downtime: no papers to grade, no lessons to write.  A reprieve from the constant buzzing insistencies of the educational life.  But what to do when that time finally comes, and when it comes in abundance?  For one week I have the opportunity to enjoy some time off, and while a dozen or so things to do are coming to mind, it’s hard for me to figure where and when.  I’m a creature of routine- my scattered mind demands it.  For the past three months I’ve been in the routine of “school,” and now it’s time, for a little while anyway, and for the sake of sanity, to remove myself from that routine, and I find it hard to extricate myself.

I believe I made a good start to the week by attending a retreat on Thomas Merton over the weekend at the Canterbury Retreat Center in Oviedo, FL.  It was a mad dash from school to home to retreat, but once there, and after a few sessions of meditative prayer, in addition to reveling in the beautiful landscape I felt myself settle a bit.  A few scattered bits of poetry came out of my weekend, a good sign of letting go.

I have a documentary to recommend: The Monastery: Mr. Vig and the Nun. Set in Denmark, the movie documents an old Danish man, “Mr. Vig,” and his desire to transform his dilapidated castle and estate into a monastery.  Receiving word from the Russian Patriarche that the Orthodox Church would be interested in sending some nuns to establish an Orthodox monastery in the area, Mr Vig sets about trying to repair the place, without success.  The building is as frail and jumbled as Mr. Vig, from its rusted boiler that fills the basement with smoke (little actually coming out of the chimney), to rotting floorboards, and a leaking roof.  Enter Sister Ambrosija, an efficient, no nonsense nun who sets about organizing the proper repairs, leaving Mr. Vig feeling a bit left out of his own creation.  The two spar and scold each other, but a tender understanding relationship develops out of all of this (even after a sneaky contract revision that has Mr. Vig smiling for the first time in the movie, and leaving Sister Ambrosija furious).

Unlike a typical “Odd Couple” movie, The Monastery attends to one of the core needs of humanity- to create something enduring.  Mr. Vig tries to meet this need, and although at one point in the movie I thought he was a heartless jerk, he is ultimately a tragic figure the audience grows to love, and eventually, mourn.