Landschlacht, Switzerland, 29 November 2017
It is a season of grey days and black, almost eternal, nights.
As much as I comprehend why Canadians celebrate their Thanksgiving in October rather than November because the growing seasons are shorter up there, I occasionally wonder if the Americans might not be onto something by celebrating life at a time of darkening skies and colder temperatures.
Thanksgiving, celebrated every third Thursday of November in the US, is meant to convey thanks to God for the blessings bestowed upon self, friends and family through the bountiful harvest received and shown by a fully laden dining room table.
It is a New World celebration meant to commemorate the Pilgrims´ first year in America when they gave thanks to God that through the help of native tribes they learned how to produce food to survive and thrive as a transplanted people.
Above: The First Thanksgiving, 1621, by Jean Farris (1899)
Above the Equator, in the Northern Hemisphere, there are many countries who have similar seasonal changes and similar harvest times, and to be fair Americans did not invent the concept of praising divinity for blessings received as this ritual has been celebrated in one form or another for millennia.
As the weather turns colder than even Donald Trump´s soul, I find myself thankful that I am still alive, that I have a roof over my head and regular food in my belly, that I am of (relatively) sound mind and body and that I have people in my life whom I love and by whom I am loved.
I am truly a fortunate man.
That having been said I am not unaware that there are those who don´t feel so fortunate.
I have known people, good people, for whom reality seems to them to be cruel and unkind, for whom life seems to be a never-changing cycle of sadness, of eternally grey days and black ink evil evenings with slim hope for the dawn.
I cannot begin to imagine what life must be like for those who feel illness within their minds, who feel an emptiness within their souls.
I cannot but feel sympathy for those who feel death is a release, a relief, from the hell of their perceived existence.
I know just enough, and yet far too little, that changing one´s perspective is not simply emotional determination but could also be both a product of one´s history and chemical make-up.
It is easy to condemn humanity´s monsters, like the recently deceased Charles Manson, for they made life decisions that brought extreme pain and suffering to others.
Above: Charles Manson (1934 – 2017)
It is impossible and frightening to imagine how on God´s green Earth that the murder and torture of others can be justifiable in the minds of these rare abominations of the mentally unwell.
I say rare abominations, for I believe that the vast majority of those hurting members of the psychologically unhappy are more victims to their condition than they are bent on taking others down with them in their descent into darkness.
We, the seemingly rational and arrogantly confident in our inappropriately felt superiority, blame the illness on the ill victims, not sensing nor caring that they too wish to feel welcome by a humanity that does not understand them and thus struggles, often in vain, to assist them, or, failing that, remove them from the general populace.
I watch in silent frustration when those I love hurt themselves and others as they blindly grope their way through illogical reality simply trying to survive.
Life has somehow injured them and they have selfishly sought solace in safer corners of their minds where no one else can go.
I have seen wonderful, compassionate friends and family victimised by their own private pain and there seems nothing I can do or say to help, because the everpresent fear of swimming into psychologically insecure deep waters instinctively instills a fear that we too might be swept along in and dragged down by the wake of their thrashing.
We judge them by standards we understand, rather than by their standards we can´t understand.
I want to hold each one of them and tell them in a way they might truly believe, that their lives matter, that they are worthy of love and dignity, but sometimes I am scared by my inability to do so.
I want to tell them that though there truly is a vast amount of pain in this vale of tears that we share, there is also the potential for great joy.
Perhaps here is the value of Thanksgiving, of giving thanks to something or someone beyond ourselves, of prayer to whatever or whomever may be either within or from outside ourselves.
In the brutal honesty of a sleepless night, I reject my rational analysis of the folly of believing in a God whose only proof of existence is that His non-existence has yet to be proven and hope beyond reason that God does exist whether or not His existence is a creation or a manifestation of my own making.
Above: Michelangelo´s The Creation of Adam, Sistine Chapel ceiling, Rome
And this I think is the value of faith, of religion – finding hope and comfort in that which might exist.
To somehow believe that pain can be endured, that there will be a dawn beyond the darkness, even if it is unclear how this can happen.
Mankind has built mighty edifices in an attempt to enclose the divine and bend it to our will for our benefit….
Yet the symbolic gathering together of humanity into congregations, bound by faith and traditions, giving meaning to the passages of life in its forms of birth, maturity, matrimony and death, gives purpose to the construction of shrines of worship.
Though cathedrals and churches, monasteries and mosques, temples and tabernacles, by the very act of enclosure create a division of people between those within and those outside and have caused those within to feel both a superiority and a zeal to extend the choir invisible beyond the ecclesiastical doors with some even willing to break the taboos of religion in the name of religion, nonetheless these places of illogical and irrational faith sustain and console us.
I am reminded this morning of the places of worship I visited while I was in London last month and though the seeds of the religious fell mostly on mentally stubborn and stone hard ground, my visit to these places still left their impression upon me.
A visitor walking around London cannot help but be impressed by the number of churches in this city more renowned for trade and commerce, but, as we know from the remains of the Temple of Mithras at Walbrook discovered in 1954, religious buildings have always been an integral part of the fabric of London.
Some of London´s most breathtaking modern structures are religious buildings dedicated to many faiths, whose communities form a strong part of the social fabric of modern London.
As hard as it is to imagine London without its many churches, it is even harder still to imagine London without its many faiths.
Our discovery of the faithful of London began on our first night in town….
London, England, 23 October 2017
My wife, aka She Who Must Be Obeyed, wanted to take pictures of the Thames River before we headed back to our B & B in the Paddington district.
It had already been quite the full day: pre-dawn departure from our beds and dash down the highway to Zürich, the bureaucratic exit from one designated country and the bureaucratic entry into another, the search and finding of our week´s accommodations, the navigating of the nefarious nightmare beneath called the Tube, and a mad race through one of the world´s most famous museums – the Tate Modern.
Above: The Tate Modern, London
But my wife wanted to see more while she could with what remained of her day´s energies.
I had no objections.
We, like many before, crossed the London Millennium Footbridge, or as it is affectionately known by Londoners “the wobbly bridge”, the steel suspension bridge for pedestrians crossing the River Thames, linking Bankside on the south bank with the City of London to the north.
Above: Millennium Bridge, as seen from St. Paul´s Cathedral
The Bridge, 1,066 feet/325 metres long, 13 feet/4 metres wide, officially opened on 1 June 2000 and quickly was closed again shortly thereafter as the 90,000 people crossing it on its opening day felt that the Bridge was wobbling and lurching dangerously.
It reopened in 2002 after engineers refitted 37 energy dissipating dampers to control horizontal movement and 52 inertial dampers to control vertical movement to solve the wobble effect.
You may have seen the Bridge and not realised it….
The Millennium collapsed following an attack by Death Eaters in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007).
The Bridge also appeared as part of the climatic battle scene on the planet Xandar in Guardians of the Galaxy (2014).
And the Bridge was in the video of the Olly Murs song “Heart on my Sleeve”.
To the south the midpoint standing pedestrian on the Bridge sees the Globe Theatre and Tate Modern.
Above: The Globe Theatre, London
To the north the red brick City of London School (actor Daniel Radcliffe / “Harry Potter” ´s old alma mater) can be spotted nestling below the magnificence that is St. Paul´s Cathedral.
How strange and yet familiar St. Paul´s appeared to me in the fast-approaching darkness.
Above: St. Paul´s Cathedral
The enormous lead-covered dome of St. Paul´s Cathedral has dominated the City skyline for generations and will probably continue to do so for generations to come if Star Trek: Into Darkness is any accurate omen to go by.
The Cathedral facade is particularly magnificent, fronted by a wide flight of steps – seen in Mary Poppins (1964) and Sherlock Holmes (2009) – and a two-storey portico and two towers, and is said to be amongst the finest examples of Baroque architecture in London.
The west front of St. Paul´s shows the Saint surrounded by others of his ilk as he is dazzled by the glory of God whilst on the road to Damascus.
In the northeast churchyard, a plaque marks the location of Paul´s Cross, a popular centre of fake and real news and contemporary commentary, where during the Reformation William Tynsdale´s New Testament was burned because it was sinfully an English translation.
While it can´t compete with Westminster Abbey for celebrity corpses, royal remains and awesome atmosphere, St. Paul´s is nevertheless a perfectly calculated architectural space, a burial place for captains rather than kings, artists not poets, and a popular wedding venue and favoured funeral locale for the privileged few.
The current Cathedral is the fifth on this site, including Old St. Paul´s, a huge Gothic cathedral built by the Normans, with a 489 foot spire that once was part of the longest and tallest Christian church in the world.
During the English Civil War and the Republic which followed the execution of King Charles I in 1649, St. Paul´s was allowed to become dilapidated and was used for stabling horses and as a marketplace with a road running through it.
When the monarchy was restored in 1660, King Charles II threw out the traders and began to return the scarred Cathedral to the status it once had, but before work could begin the Great Fire of London intervened.
The blaze started on 2 September 1666 and destroyed 2/3 of the City of London.
It burned for four days and nights, destroying 13,200 houses and 87 parish churches, including Old St. Paul´s.
Miraculously, fewer than 20 people lost their lives.
In 1668, Christopher Wren was asked to produce a new Cathedral.
Above: Christopher Wren (1632 – 1723)
Wren was not only an architect, he was also an astronomer, scientist and mathematican.
Wren was a founding member in 1660 of the Royal Society, a national academy for science, but he was also a man of profound Christian faith.
He came from a family of clergy who had been loyal to the Royalist cause during the Civil War, and it was faith which inspired him.
He once explained: “Architecture aims at eternity.”
As an architect favoured by royalty and state, Wren´s commissions varied widely, including the Greenwich Observatory, Greenwich Hospital, Hampton Court Palace, Kensington Palace, as well as some magnificent buildings in Oxford, where he studied and worked as Professor of Astronomy from 1661 to 1673.
St. Paul´s was just one of over 50 church commissions Wren received in the wake of the Great Fire.
Sir Christopher Wren
Said, “I´m going to dine with some men.
If anyone calls,
Say I´m designing St. Paul´s.” (Edmund Clerihew Bentley)
Hassles over his initial plans and wrangles over money plagued the project throughout, but Wren persevered and England´s first Protestant cathedral was completed in 1711 under Queen Anne, whose statue stands below the steps.
Above: Statue of Queen Anne (1665 – 1714), St. Paul´s Cathedral
Opinions of Wren´s Cathedral differed.
Some loved it.
“Without, within, below, above, the eye is filled with unrestrained delight.”
Some hated it.
“There was an air of Popery about the gilded capitals, the heavy arches. They were unfamiliar, un-English…”
Until his death, at the age of 91, Wren regularly returned to St. Paul´s to sit under its dome and reflect on this masterpiece of faith and imagination.
For over 300 years this particular reincarnation of St. Paul´s has been a place where both the individual and the nation can express those feelings of joy, gratitude and sorrow that are so central to our lives.
St. Paul´s has borne witness to the funeral of Admiral Lord Nelson (1758 – 1805)(buried in the centre of the Cathedral Crypt), the funeral of Arthur Wellesley, the first Duke of Wellington (1769 – 1852)(buried also in the Crypt)(13,000 people filled the Cathedral.), the Diamond Jubilees of Queen Victoria (1897) and Queen Elizabeth II (2012), the bombs of the Blitz (1940), a sermon from Martin Luther King Jr. (1964), the funerals of Prime Minister Winston Churchill (1965) and Margaret Thatcher (2013), and the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana (1981).
Above: Queen Elizabeth II
Services have also been held to mark the valuable contributions made by ordinary women and men involved in armed conflicts in the Falklands, the Persian Gulf and Northern Ireland.
A vast crowd also gathered at St. Paul´s following the terrorist attacks on America on 11 September 2001, as London expressed its solidarity with Americans at a time of great grief.
People of other faiths also have a place in national services at St. Paul´s.
The memorial service for King Hussein of Jordan in 1999 was the first Christian service in St. Paul´s to include a reading from the Qur´an.
In 2005, at the service of remembrance following the terrorist bombings in London in June of that year, young people representing different faith communities lit candles as a shared sign of hope during turbulent times.
Take a journey through this place mortal designed to evoke the divine.
We took our own calculated journey through St. Paul´s two days later.
London, England, 25 October 2017
Begin with the Nave, the font of baptism, marking the beginning of the journey of faith that Christians believe leads from Earth to Heaven.
Here is the final stop, the last resting place, of the Duke of Wellington, best known for his defeat of Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.
Above: Wellington (1769 – 1852)
Wellington died 37 years later and is buried in the Crypt beneath the Monument.
Nearby in the All Souls´ Chapel is the Kitchener Memorial, dedicated to the servicemen who died in World War I and to Field Marshal Lord Kitchener who died at sea and whose body was never recovered.
Above: Lord Kitchener (1850 – 1916)
Kitchener is best known for his restructuring of the British Army and for his most effective recruitment campaign reminding Britons that “Your Country Needs You”.
Quietly light a candle for those you wish to have remembered inside St. Dunstan´s Chapel, a place of prayer and stillness.
The silver pyx that hangs above the altar in this chapel contains the sacrament – the consecrated bread that Christians believe is (or represents) the body of Jesus, shared at services of Holy Communion.
The Chapel of St. Michael and St. George honours those who have rendered important service overseas.
It takes only a modicum of observation to see that St. Paul´s is built in the shape of a cross with a large dome crowning the intersection of the cross´s arms.
At 365 feet / 111.3 metres high, the Dome is one of the largest cathedral domes in the world and weighs approximately 65,000 tons.
The area under the Dome is the space where congregations congregate for the Cathedral´s most important rituals of faith – the Liturgy, the worship of God.
The altar is the focus, the place where the Eucharist (mass) is celebrated every day, where people of all ages of many different languages and nationalities, gather to eat bread and drink wine that symbolise the body and blood of Jesus Christ sacrificed by God the Father to save mankind from itself.
Or so the story goes.
The Dome is actually not one dome but three: the outer dome shell is seen prominently on the London skyline, while the painted dome that the congregated sees from the cathedral floor conceals an inner layer of brick which provides the structure strength and support.
Within the Dome´s construction there are three gallery levels.
The Whispering Gallery runs around the interior of the Dome, 257 steep steps up from ground level.
There is a charming acoustical quirk in the gallery´s construction which makes a whisper spoken against the walls on one side audible on the opposite side.
Two higher galleries encircle the outside of the Dome – the Stone Gallery and the smaller Golden Gallery offering superb views across London….
Or so we were told as they were closed the day of our visit.
Upon our descent from the Whispering Gallery, further exploration of the Cathedral reveals many aspects of what makes St. Paul´s unique unto itself.
To the north of the interior is the Chapel of Saints Erkenwald and Ethelburga, with a statue of Dr. Johnson.
Above: Dr. Samuel Johnson (1709 – 1784)
Above the altar is William Holman Hunt´s painting The Light of the World, showing Jesus holding a lantern as He knocks at the handleless bramble-strewn door of the human Soul which must be opened from within, above the caption that reads:
“Behold, I stand at the door and knock.
If any man hear my voice and open the door I will come in to him and will sup with him and he with me.”
Close by the Chapel is Henry Moore´s Mother and Child, a sculpture he made when he was recovering from an illness so it is heavily indolent in religious meaning.
Above: Mother and Child by Henry Moore (1898 – 1986)
By Moore´s Mama Madonna with child are two pairs of wrought-iron gates made by Jean Tijou.
Inside the gates at the top northern part of the architectural cross is the Quire, the first part of the Cathedral to be built.
The organ within, built in 1694 and rebuilt several times, is the third largest in the UK with 7,256 pipes.
The 1694 version of this organ was much loved by the composer George Frederick Handel (1685 – 1759).
The organ case and the stalls on both sides of the Quire are decorated with exquisitely delicate carvings by the Anglo-Dutch sculptor Grinling Gibbons, whose work can still be seen in many royal houses and great houses.
One contemporary commentator wrote:
“There is no instance of a man before Gibbons who gave to wood the loose and airy lightness of flowers with the free disorder natural to each species.”
Yet free disorder seems particularly ironic here, as each of the canopied stalls has a designated occupant and definitively determines how the Cathedral is to be governed.
It is within the Quire where choir, clergy and congregation gather to sit for Evensong, the service that draws the day to a close.
As dusk descends, we the people are to be remanded and reminded of the proper calculation of our place in the universe, both manmade and celestial.
Queen Victoria, she of the inaccurately attributed “We are not amused.”, is said to have complained that St. Paul´s was “dull, dingy and undevotional”, so in response William Blake Richmond decorated the ceilings and the walls of the Quire with mosaics depicting the story of Creation and the story of the angel Gabriel´s visitation to the Virgin Mary with the news that she is pregnant with the Son of God.
Above: Queen Victoria (1819 – 1901)
(That had to be quite the shock!)
Behind the alter stands the Jesus Chapel, commemorating the 28,000 Americans who were killed on their way to, or while stationed in, the UK during the Second World War, their names recorded in a 500-page roll of honour glass enclosure.
“Defending freedom from the fierce assaults of tyranny they shared the honour and the sacrifice.
Though they died before the drum of victory, their names and deeds will long be remembered wherever free men live.”
So reads the American roll of honour, but as the Canadian descendant of Commonwealth soldiery I cannot help but cynically observe that the Cathedral today is funded by multitudes of tourists, the majority of whom are American.
A cynical attitude that is met with a punch in the arm by my loving spouse whose German ancestors were conscripted soldiers of the aforementioned tyranny.
In the south is the statue of John Donne, which somehow survived the Great Fire of London intact.
Above: Statue of John Donne (1572 – 1631)
Donne, a former Dean of St. Paul´s, wrote passionate love poems and eloquent odes expressing with eloquence his zeal for God.
He is perhaps best remembered for his meditation on the human condition:
“No man is an island, entire of itself….
Never send to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.”
Fourteen bells of St. Paul´s toll for thee: Great Tom tolls to mark the death of a sovereign; Great Paul, the largest swinging bell in Europe, strikes the hours; the remaining twelve bells sound the peal.
And here one finds a statue of Nelson, a cloak covering the area where Nelson´s right arm should be – amputated in 1797.
Three skulls guard the entrance to the Crypt.
Nelson lies buried in a coffin made from the timber of a French ship he defeated in battle, atop a black marble sarcophagus.
Would he have thought his memorial truly “humanity after victory“?
Keeping him company across from him in the Crypt, the Iron Duke, Lord Wellington, rests in a casket of Cornish granite.
Wellie would have hated it, for he was said to be a man not prone to bask in his own glories:
“Nothing except a battle lost can be half so melancholy as a battle won.”
Why do places of worship glorify those who murder in the name of a flag?
Beside the Crypt, close to the foundations of the former church, is the Chapel of St. Faith, created in recognition for the contribution made by women during the First World War.
Surrounding the Chapel are memorials celebrating the remarkable of the arts and sciences: painters Joshua Reynolds (1723 – 1792), J.M.W. Turner (1775 – 1851) and John Guille Millais (1865 – 1931); composer Arthur Sullivan (1842 – 1900) and poet William Blake (1757 – 1827); scientist Alexander Fleming (1881 – 1955).
Sir Christopher Wren himself is buried here, his tomb marked by a simple stone which translated from Latin reads:
“Reader, if you seek his monument, look around you.”
And, so we did.
“I was glad when they said unto me:
Let us go into the house of the Lord.” (Psalm 122:1)
St. Paul´s has stood here defiantly unscathed amid the carnage of the Blitz and was defended by the St. Paul´s Watch – volunteers who patrolled the Cathedral´s roof every night to combat the incendiary bombs and died carrying out their duties.
Time and choice did not permit us to see the worship of God at work, or listen to virgin boys attempt in song to reach within us to find something beyond ourselves, or ponder important issues ranging from global economy to climate change by prominent speakers, such as Kofi Annan or Bianca Jagger.
As we leave St. Paul´s, I recall the words of Mary Poppins:
No, we didn´t feed the birds, for security measures no longer permit little old bird women to feed assemblies of pigeons on the steps of St. Paul´s.
Poverty is very offputting for the tourists and, after all, charity begins at home.
The tourist entry fee at the door is 18 pounds per adult.
In October 2011, the anti-capitalism Occupy London encampment was established in front of St. Paul´s, after failing to gain access to the London Stock Exchange on Paternoster Square nearby, costing the Cathedral revenue of 200,000 pounds per day.
The encampment was evicted at the end of February 2012, by court order, without violence, by the City Corporation.
Our visit to St. Paul´s made me ask, as St. Paul´s Cathedral Arts Project and its artistic installations have asked:
What makes life meaningful and purposeful?
What does St. Paul´s mean in that contemporary context?
Those questions, much like questions of faith themselves, can only be answered by individuals themselves.
Should one care to ask.
Above: St. Paul´s Cathedral, 29 December 1940
Sources: Wikipedia / Google / DK Eyewitness Travel, Top London 2017 / The Rough Guide to London / Lonely Planet, London Condensed / St. Paul´s Cathedral / http://www.stpauls.co.uk