Monday, June 23, 2014

Free day: Westminster Abbey

The adventure started last night, actually. I had been giving the sisters (mostly the seniors) a workshop on social media, but had to end it less than halfway through the planned content so that I would be sure to catch the once-per-hour bus into London to join the sisters there at a parish event. It would be an excellent opportunity to meet the neighbors of our Kensington book center where I spend a couple of days a week. Alas "would have been" is the operative phrase. 35 minutes after the bus was scheduled to for the local stop, one appeared on the horizon. As our ragtag group assembled along the curb, the bus tore by, the driver pointing to the rear of the bus as if to signal that another bus would be coming shortly. Another forty minutes later, and we were all still there, still waiting. Sister Mary Lou came over from the convent to get me. London would have to wait.

And it did wait! After Mass, Sister Mary Lou and I drove into London Town. She was coming anyway, for her "holidays" (vacation). Being an artist, she plans to spend the holidays visiting art museums. Since her first day of vacation corresponded with my free day, we took the Underground together, she to Sloan Square, I to St James Park. My destination: Westminster Abbey. I hoped to be able to get the annual pass so that I could visit "whenever" without adding up the entrance fees. Turns out, I qualify for the free "Clergy" ticket! So I can visit "whenever"!  That gave me the freedom to walk slowly, taking in what came my way without the anxiety of trying to see all the highlights in one visit. In fact, I skipped a lot of the highlights on purpose--and then found the one I think will be my lifelong favorite.

I would show you what I mean, but there was a NO PHOTOGRAPHY sign right at the entrance, so there went that idea.

Anyway, the Abbey resembles nothing so much as a grand gothic mausoleum, but with Baroque and Victorian monuments, not to mention all those burials in the floor itself. There was a certain poignancy to reading the inscriptions of people who were great in their day when now even their grandest exploits, some of them recounted in detail, seem merely quaint today.

I was barely in the door when I caught myself treading over the final resting place of the heroic William Wilberforce. I noticed Henry Purcell suffering a similar indignity from many clueless visitors. Nearby, a memorial to Benjamin Britten and Charles Stanford (didn't we sing his music at My Carmel?), not to mention Ralph Vaughn Williams and Edward Elgar. (Handel's monument was on the other side, facing Shakespeare. What gives?)

As I approached the scientists' area (Darwin, Joules), a young man near me asked whose tomb it was to the left, somewhat obscured by a bit of scaffolding. Unfortunately, the name of the deceased or any clue to his  (?) identity was right beneath the scaffold, completely out of sight. All I could see was a Latin inscription that I couldn't quite translate. I got the "life is Christ" part but what was that part about death? It seemed to be a quite popular graveyard sentiment there at the Abbey--finally an obliging decedent included the Scripture passage in its entirety--with the citation! "For me, to live is Christ and death is gain" (St Paul to the Philippians). Near the same Scripturally enriched tomb was a cordoned-off area where folding chairs wait for the next major celebration (maybe Sunday services, since the Abbey is an active church?); two enormous and elaborate candle holders were tucked way, too.

The burials are along the side aisles and transepts; the nave itself has a few set into the floor, but that's about it until you get to the royal chapels. I saved those chapels for next time, and continued on just getting the lay of the land. Crossing over to the Poet's Corner, I was surprised to see two traces of the Abbey's medieval past: Heroic-sized frescoes, one of the Risen Christ with "doubting" Thomas kneeling as he touches the wounded side, the other of St. Christopher. The two, obviously by the same artist, had strikingly beautiful faces. If only I could have take a picture!!! (You can find details of the images at the bottom of this page from the Abbey website.) I contented myself by remaining there to take it in, while everyone else was intent on identifying the memorial to Jane Austen (tiny and rather drab), the tomb of Chaucer; Lord Byron; Laurence Olivier...  Given that the following day Sr Mary Lou and I planned to join the "Martyr's Walk" pilgrimage along the route taken by so many Jesuit martyrs of the Elizabethan era, I was struck by the sight of Gerard Manley Hopkins' memorial. (I also learned that the patron of the Abbey church is St. Peter; kind of ironic, isn't it, given the history?)

My favorite part of the Abbey (so far) was the Chapter House, a chapel of sorts, but off from the main Church. What is striking about the Chapter House is the remnant of medieval frescoes illustrating the whole of the Book of Revelation. My favorite scene was the depiction of the "casting crowns"; you can also barely pick out the Last Judgment, and the "cloud of witnesses" with their intent faces (though the Abbey detail calls one section the "doom group"!!)

Thanks to the availability of a free Clergy pass, I am looking forward to spending another free day in London visiting the ancient splendors of Westminster!

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