I never thought I loved traveling, and I still don't really think of myself as a traveler, but more of a pilgrim. I'm on pilgrimage, wherever I go. Pilgrims contemplate, I suppose, and I do spend quite a bit of time contemplating. When you think of contemplatives, you don't usually think of them out on the road having adventures, but perhaps rather cloistered in a cell somewhere, oblivious to the world. I did read a definition of two kinds of spirituality once - there is the one kind, that closes itself off from the world to find God, and then the other, that opens itself up to the world, finding God in everything, eager for more and more. I fit into the latter category. And I do love traveling. Each time I get back from a trip to somewhere, I'm eager to go off somewhere else. I think I'm restless. And I inherited a sort of restless Wanderlust from my father. It's my mom's fault that I'm Celtic. Celtics are also known to be on the move. How can we find rest when we're such restless souls? One of the riddles of my life.
I met my husband Peter while in Germany. I'm still there, and now we have a 25-year-old son. I don't think I came to Germany on pilgrimage, when I think about it. I think I was actually running away from the bad things of my life in New York City, more than looking for God. But, they say, God has a sense of humor. God probably sent me there. It is, in many ways, the perfect place for me to live. Life here is pleasant and comfortable, and Cologne, the city where I live, is easy-going. Cologne is also only an hour away from both the Belgian and Dutch borders. And only six hours' drive from England.
Since Freddie asked me to write my blog for Christmas time, I think I should tell you about one of my favorite trips at Christmas time. We went away for a few days, right in the middle of the week, in 1993. I was living with my family in Brussels, Belgium. My sister had come to visit us for Christmas, and I was excited about showing her a European Christmas. We were just getting used to our beautiful home which even had a fireplace. I was looking forward to opening up presents in front of a crackling fire. Later we were to do just that, but before that day was to arrive, there were a thousand other things to do. I was singing in a madrigal choir - we had just given a concert. I had directed the children of my husband's colleagues in a Christmas program. I was an organist in our church, and I still had the entire Christmas Eve candlelight service to prepare for. I had some English students I still had to give lessons to (my main job is as an English teacher). Then there were the presents for my family. Our son, who was about seven, had a long list of gifts he wanted me to buy, mostly toys. And there was the cooking, too. I was a pressure cooker about to explode!
But I had a friend who owned a little house in Canterbury, England, and she had agreed to let us stay there for a few days before Christmas. I thought it was probably crazy to go there at this time, with so much to do, but I agreed to it.
"Mind you," she said, "the house is very small. There is only one room with a good view of the cathedral, and that's the bathroom."
Canterbury was only a stone's throw from Brussels. Two hours at most on the motorway, and then a short, restful, 1-1/2 hour ferry ride. Canterbury is only about a half-hour drive from the ferry, once you dock at Dover. Door-to-door, about four hours' drive from Brussels.
We arrived in the evening, walking into a tiny, ice-cold house, but we were prepared to love it. It certainly had character. You had to heat up each room with gas fireplaces. How English!
We all walked together into the bathroom. The view made us stop and stare. There was something romantic about going into this of all rooms, the largest one of all, to gaze through the black night at the cathedral, shimmering like silver, illuminated by floodlights.
Then we went outside and checked out the town. A river ran through it. Along the edge, and throughout the town, were ancient half-timbered houses. The Christmas lights strewn over the pedestrian zone in zig-zag fashion, were big round colored bulbs, not dainty and white like those in Belgium or Germany. It was a welcome novelty, looking at all that color. There was lots of greenery decorating the shop doorways. We passed a doll store with dainty porcelain dolls, some of them with real human hair. One of the dolls stole our hearts. She wore a red velvet dress, her skin was pale, her hair long, curly, and black. And she was on ice skates! We bought it for my mother-in-law, who loved porcelain dolls.
We found a music shop and bought a tin whistle. Then we went on a shopping orgy for English foods at Sainsbury's, my favorite English supermarket. Sainsbury's is proof to me that the English know how to cook a good meal after all. And they bake well, too! We bought things like shortbread, scones and clotted cream, a cream as thick as butter, sinfully loaded in calories, but oh so good on desserts!
I've been asking my husband and son, who's visiting us now for Christmas, what they remember of that little respite in Canterbury. Their highlight is the same as mine - a Vesper service at the cathedral, where we each found rest for our weary souls, exhausted from preparing for Christmas.
I have always loved the Christmas music of the English cathedral choirs the most of all. When I was a teenager, my parents bought a couple LPs of English cathedral choirs singing carols, and we used to listen to them each Minnesota Christmas time as we decorated the Christmas tree together. I love the pure, innocent voices of the boys, the intensity of timbre that pierces the heart. I love the soprano descants soaring over the melody like birds. And I swear, I find the English versions of the same carols lovelier than the American. "Away in a Manger", "While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night", "O Little Town of Bethlehem" - they all sound better to me in the English version. My dream was to go to England one day for Christmas. Well, at least I was in England during the holiday season, even if it wasn't for a Christmas service.
That evening we sat down in the ancient carved oak choir stalls and waited in the darkness for the choir and ministrants to appear. The church was dimly lit by candles and a few chandeliers. The choir marched into the sanctuary, singing a carol, dressed in white cassocks and black frocks, sitting opposite us. Such beauty! Peace began to trickle into my heart as I surrendered myself to the readings, to Mary's prayer - the Magnificat, to the boys and men, undergirded by the solemn pipe organ, to the music. I fervently prayed the "Lord's Prayer", letting its words fill my heart. I marveled at how everything in England, at least in the cathedrals, is real. Real pine boughs decorate the altar. Real poinsettias give color to the church. You hear real pipe organ music, not a fake electronic imitation. Real oak choir stalls and pews have been there for centuries. Real stone pillars support the ceiling. Real boys sing, real candles light the church.
Filling myself with the reality of God, with the faith and peace this church has imparted for a thousand years, I found rest. Refreshed, I left the church, ready for the remainder of the Christmas challenges.
There is a modern English carol I have come to love especially, written in 1947 by Elizabeth Poston. One of the stanzas in "Jesus Christ the Apple Tree" (the text was written by an American from New England in 1784) goes,
I'm wearied with my former toil,
Here I shall set and rest awhile;
Under the shadow I will be,
Of Jesus Christ the Apple Tree.
May we all find this kind of rest this holiday season.
You can see a version of "Jesus Christ the Apple Tree" sung here by perhaps the best cathedral choir of all, Kings College Choir from Cambridge, England:
Here is a link to the Canterbury Choir singing the music of Thomas Tallis, an English renaissance composer:
You can also get a good look at this magnificent edifice.
And here is a glimpse of the medieval city of Canterbury.
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