Sometimes we have to remind ourselves to slow down, especially when we travel. And so my wife and I started the morning with breakfast in a park near our London hotel, relaxing at an outdoor café overlooking an expansive lawn punctuated with beds of autumn flowers.
For our main event of the day, we planned a visit to Westminster Abbey. The rest we left to chance and whim, never considering that we would spend most of the day in church or what we would take with us when we left.
I had been coming to London since my days in graduate school when one of my professors arranged a summer placement for me in what was called a school for “maldadjusted” boys. They were kids with hard lives and complicated stories.
The placement came with an invitation to the weekly case conference held every Wednesday at the Hampstead Child Therapy Clinic. There I listened to Anna Freud and her colleagues telling the stories of other troubled children and the efforts of therapists to help them. When I wasn’t doing psychology, I was adding to my own story in other ways – touring the city, hitting most of the major attractions, following the recommendations of colleagues at the school and poking around where my curiosity led me.
The very first thing I did on the evening of the day I arrived was to take the tube from the neighborhood of my hotel to Parliament Square. When I came out of the station into a cool summer rain, I felt very much at home in the company of Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey.
There were other trips since then with my wife on our honeymoon and later with our children. Now I was back, but never really back until I stood here in the center of things and approached the doors of the abbey.
According to Peter Ackroyd in his book, “London, The Biography,” there has been a church on this site since the second century and some scholars claim that the Romans built a shrine to Apollo here even earlier.
Ackroyd dates the first Saxon church on the site, the church of St. Peter, to the seventh century and recounts the legend of St. Peter himself being ferried across the Thames by a fisherman on the night before the church was consecrated.
When Peter crossed the threshold, the church was suddenly illuminated by a light brighter than a thousand candles. St. Peter’s church officially became an abbey in 960 when St. Dunstan, assisted by King Edgar, installed a community of Benedictine monks on the site.
King Edward the Confessor began re-building the abbey in 1042 and it was dedicated on December 28, 1065, just one week before Edward’s death. Edward was buried in the abbey and his successor, Harold II, was probably crowned there, though the first documented coronation was that of William the Conqueror on Christmas Day in 1066.
Since the time of William, every English monarch has been crowned in Westminster Abbey and many kings, queens, politicians, noblemen and women, scientists, poets, writers and actors are buried there.
To walk through Westminster Abbey is to traverse a timeline of English history with graves and monuments reminding us that these were real people who shaped the course of world events, enlarged our understanding of the universe, and wove the fabric of our culture.
At the end of our walk, I heard the choir singing and asked one of the guides if they were practicing for a special event. She said that Evensong, the church’s evening prayer service, was due to begin in an hour and invited us to stay if we wished.
She explained that since we were already inside, we would have priority seating. An hour later, I was sitting in a stall between my wife and a choirboy. These were stalls of the kind the monks used a thousand years ago and perhaps the very seats where dignitaries watched coronations and royal marriages.
I tried to concentrate on the words of the hymns and prayers for they told a story too, the uplifting story of faith paradoxically at odds with the divisive story of religion. King Henry VIII dissolved the monastery in 1540. His daughter, Mary I, restored it but her younger sister, Elizabeth, undid her work with blood spilled for centuries on both sides of the divide. A hundred yards away, Elizabeth’s tomb rests on the tomb of Mary. No wonder I couldn’t hear the prayers.
When the service was over, my wife and I lingered first by the tombs of Issac Newton and Charles Darwin. We then walked the short distance to Poet’s Corner where many of the English-speaking world’s finest storytellers are laid to rest and many more are commemorated.
Here were Chaucer, Dickens, Tennyson, Kipling, Masefield and so many others whose stories hold up a mirror to our own frailties and so often illuminate the strength and beauty of the human spirit.
They are the stories of the kings and queens buried here, the stories of my maladjusted boys of 50 years ago, and the story I have been making of my own life. I thought how much poorer our world would be without them and then came the belated catch in my throat, the one I might have expected amidst the prayers and hymns.
Here in this house of God and history, I searched for a prayer of my own and found only words of gratitude.
Alan Bodnar, Ph.D. is a psychologist formerly at the Worcester Recovery Center and Hospital.