Zen Abbot's Journal Vol 50 Aug 6, 2005 (Canterbury)

by Norman Fischer | August 06, 2005 at 7:34 PM

From Zen Abbot's Journal Vol 50 Aug 6, 2005 Charlotte's Way


In Canterbury we visited the Cathedral where I finally got clear about Thomas Beckett, whom I'd always gotten mixed up with Thomas More. More was later: the government counselor who quarreled with Henry VIII over the king's daring and willful takeover of the church and was beheaded for his integrity - or stubbornness. A movie and a play, "The Lion in Winter," about all this, in the 1970's. Beckett was an 11th Century cleric who'd been previously a government official, prodigy of Henry II, who'd eventually made him Archbishop of Canterbury. (Interesting that throughout English history churchmen and secular officials were interchangeable; not unusual for someone to be Chancellor of the Exchequer one year then Bishop the next — seemingly there was neither secular nor religious specialization; all education was both religious and secular I suppose). Both men were stubborn, and exactly like More and Henry VIII, ended up quarrelling over whether secular or religious authority should predominate. And, again, exactly as would happen later, Henry had Thomas killed, not beheaded but rather assassinated right here in the Cathedral (subject of Eliot's verse play "Murder in the Cathedral;" I guess these issues persist and engaged Eliot's considered sense of society). There's a memorial here on the spot, an altar with a sword affixed to the wall behind it. Also a plaque on the wall that says that Pope John Paul II and the Archbishop of Canterbury kneeled here together in 1982 to pray for Thomas' soul. 

Thomas had been buried here in the Cathedral, which is why it had been a place of pilgrimage for centuries, Thomas, martyred, having been sainted, so that by the 14th century Chaucer could write his Canterbury tales about a pilgrimage journey to the Cathedral to honor Thomas' bones. But Henry VIII found the memory of Thomas' churchish defiance threatening, as were the throngs that came regularly to visit the Cathedral, so he had the crypt removed, and now there's a small candle kept burning where the body had been. As in other European churches and cathedrals, many are buried here under the floor, the places marked with inscriptions, or in raised crypts, some kings (another Henry, forget which) and the famous Black Prince. These very important burials are shown as life sized realistic statues lying in repose on top of the stone sarcophagia in which the actual bodies are kept. Several archbishops etc also buried like this. 

I'd not realized that Canterbury Cathedral was founded by Augustine in something like 5th Century (I've got history and dates horribly botched up; I'd thought Augustine was earlier then this. October 6, 2005 note: internet search clears this up: two different Augustines. The original, more important, Augustine died in 430. Cathedral founded by the other Augustine in 497). Westminster Abby had been closed when we visited there but we'd somehow managed to stumble in through a side door, where we wandered down ancient stone corridors — also full of important burials — and into the famous chapter room of the original monastery, large circular room where in the old days the monks met in community. Most of the major churches (Canterbury too) had been attached to great monasteries. But when he took over the Church Henry outlawed and destroyed the monasteries. The chapter room had wonderfully restored stained glass windows, a domed ceiling, mosaic floor, very old crude religious paintings all round the walls. 

Christian architecture is pretty effective in creating transhuman space. Zendos are not transhuman spaces, they are simple human scale rooms for people to meditate in (Buddha Halls though are transhuman spaces — though more theatrical and less effective than Cathedrals, I'd say) whereas churches are God spaces, hushed, immense, humbling, and inspiring. The chapter room had that feeling. Certainly the Cathedral's main spaces did too.

In Canterbury we rented a car and began our great adventure on the English roads. Driving on the left side of the road's the least of it. What's difficult is that the English more or less (at least this is so in the countryside) do not mark their roads. Here in California, where almost everyone just arrived yesterday, the day after the highways were built, roads are marvelously well marked. Every few miles a clear sign tells you what road you are on, in which direction you are traveling, how many miles you have to go before you'll connect to another road. In England none of this. The roads are not marked at all — so you go along not knowing ever what road you are on — and I did not once see the words "east, west, north, south" so that unless you've got a compass, or a preternatural sense of direction, knowing at all times where the sun is and where it has been, you have no idea whether you are traveling toward or away from your destination. When you come to a junction numerous small signs direct you to various villages. But there are so many villages that chances are none of the choices offered is the one you're after — it's possibly on the way to the one you're after but you could only know that if the map you've got shows each and every village, and our maps did not. And so we did a lot of wandering around, always arriving somehow at our destination (once so bollixed up we had to follow a kindly young driver through a maze of obscure unmarked turns till we got back right) and never knowing how. 

Then there's the famous English "roundabout." Rather than a road connecting to or intersecting another road you have many roads all running together at a circular rotary that may have three, four, or five spokes, all going in different directions, but of course not marked "north, south, east, west" rather marked obscurely with destinations that have no particular meaning to the non-local party, so that you can go round and round and not know what you are doing, as cars join the circular parade, zooming in and out irregularly. Kathie did a good job driving, but was often in a state of high anxiety. She'd repeat "Ok…Ok… Ok… " in a very tentative voice that would crescendo whenever we came to a roundabout, each one of which was an absolute crisis of multi-directional disfunctionality. Somehow even major highways would suddenly devolve into roundabouts and it would never be quite clear to us, in our panic how merely to remain on the road we were already on, without inadvertently veering off and going for a long way down a road whose destinations and directions were unknown to us. Still, this adventuresome hardship had the advantage of bringing us closer together, causing us to be courteous and supportive of one another, as are soldiers in foxholes during attacks. Even simply returning the rental car at the end of our journey, a five minute drive from our bed and breakfast in Canterbury, we experienced this utter confusion and white-knuckled sense of dislocation.


Norman Fischer