In England, the Past Stands
In England, the Past Stands
On April 29th, 2018, nine students, my English Program colleague Jonathan Goossen, and I took a red-eye flight to London. Over the course of the next two weeks,
- we walked the cobblestone streets that Charles Dickens walked;
- we stood (and laughed) in the yard of the Globe Theatre, as playgoers did in Shakespeare’s time;
- we gazed in awe at the beauty and grandeur of Canterbury Cathedral, where Chaucer’s pilgrims directed their steps;
- we pondered, with Wordsworth, the passage of time amidst the ruin of Tintern Abbey;
- we braced ourselves against the wind as we walked the Moors where Anne, Emily, and Charlotte Brontë trained their imaginations;
- we ducked through the door of Milton’s cottage, where the epic poet put the finishing touches on his masterpiece Paradise Lost; and
- we sat and ate and talked in The Eagle and Child, where Lewis and Tolkien drank tea and told stories to whomever turned up.
These things we did, and more. And, as time passed, it became clear to us that to travel to England is to travel into the past.
But what exactly is the past?
Canadian writer Margaret Atwood, in her novel Cat’s Eye, likens the past to a body of water: “Sometimes this comes to the surface,” she says, “sometimes that, sometimes nothing. Nothing goes away.” It’s an interesting metaphor (one I think about often), but, with all due respect to Atwood, not one that springs to my mind when I think about England. For in England, the past is not something that simply surfaces from time to time; in England, the past stands.
For hundreds of years, St. Paul’s Cathedral was the tallest building in London, and, though now surpassed in height by such skyscrapers as ‘the Gherkin’ and ‘the Shard,’ it still dominates the cityscape. It stands on the site where, nearly a millennium ago, William the Conqueror first began work on what we now call ‘Old St. Paul’s.’ It stands because of those dedicated volunteers who tirelessly snuffed out incendiaries dropped on it by German bombers in December, 1941. It stands as a witness to a deep and unfathomable past.
But St. Paul’s is not simply a monument, not simply a historical building. It is a church.
Having survived our flight and dropped our bags at London’s Southwark Travelodge, sleep-deprived and bleary-eyed, we made our way to St. Paul’s for Evensong, that quintessentially English service of songs, psalms and prayers. Upon our arrival, we were met by one of the cathedral’s vergers (think ushers), who, before seating us under the central dome, arranged that we be taken first into the south quire aisle (behind the curtain) to see John Donne.
The John Donne monument, too, bears witness to history. It was carved in the 1630s, while Donne was still alive and preaching as Dean of St. Paul’s; it is one of the few monuments in the cathedral to survive the Great Fire of 1666. You can still see the scorch marks at its base.
And like the living church in which he stands, John Donne still speaks. He speaks in his sermons; he speaks in his meditations; and he speaks in his poetry—poetry that every student who takes EN 115 at Ambrose encounters at least once.
Batter my heart, three-personed God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
These words, which imagine God first as a tinkerer and then as a blacksmith, are no less applicable today than they were when Donne wrote them. They express the universal human need to be made new. And they assert that this making new is exclusively God’s work.
It is our work, by contrast, to think about—to contemplate—God’s work, both now and in history. This is, indeed, what both St. Paul’s and John Donne teach us: that the past and present are not two things, distinct or separate, but one. “No man is an island,” says Donne in one of his meditations; each and every one of us is “involved in mankind,” connected to one another, and these connections respect not the barrier of time. John Donne, long dead, speaks to me, not just because he is a great Renaissance poet, but because he is my brother in a timeless faith.
As I look back on that evening, looking up at John Donne, it seems to me that things in that moment began to come together: past and present, to be sure, but also cathedral and classroom, and body and imagination. This is what a travel study can do. This is what ours did.