We experienced 1,400 years of English history today, passing through Christ Church Gate into the ancient walled city of Canterbury, walking the same halls Thomas Becket walked, and kneeling in the ancient choir stalls while choir boys offered an Evensong anthem in the words of St. Thomas Aquinas.
It’s hard to imagine the hundreds of thousands of priests, kings, bishops, pilgrims, believers, and tourists who have come to Canterbury Cathedral since it was founded in the year 597, but today we took our place in the history of the cathedral as we made our own pilgrimage through its corridors.
We saw the tomb of the Black Prince, the Archbishop’s Purbeck marble seat, and the very spot where Thomas Becket was murdered. We learned that Trinity Chapel was designed to lie slightly to the right of the Cathedral’s center to honor the position of Christ’s head as He hung on the cross. We heard about the architects who built, and rebuilt the cathedral, the king and archbishops and dignitaries who are buried there, and we had a lesson on the difference between Norman and Roman architecture. But it was more than facts we had traveled 4,000 miles to discover, and our choristers came away with some remarkable reflections:
- “I learned about cathedrals in history class this year, but now that I’ve seen an actual example, I understand so much more about the difference in Roman and Gothic architecture.”
- “It was amazing to hear music that I love but have only heard in recordings. Seeing the cathedral choir in person and worshiping alongside them gave me a chance to see the effort they put into the sound, how they feel about the music, and what they have worked to accomplish.”
- ‘“I love hearing all the different accents and languages and seeing all the different ways people from different cultures communicate.”
- “In St. Martin’s, there was a covering on the altar that said “In the end is my beginning, in the beginning is my end.” I guess I could have seen those words anywhere, but seeing them here, in that old church, was amazing. I think they really stood out to me because I am about to finish high school and begin college.”
- “The marks left by all the students and monks on the seats and walls of the cathedral really got my attention – the way those ordinary people left their mark on history just by being in the cathedral day after day, doing their ordinary work.”
- “The blend of cultures and languages mingling around the historical sites we’ve seen is wonderful. I love the wall that surrounds Canterbury and knowing that people just drive past these ruins that are hundreds of years old and it’s just part of their everyday routine.”
- “When you see pictures of cathedrals in books, they all look alike from the outside, but now I know that inside a cathedral is a very unique place. And it’s not just the architecture, it’s the sound inside, the way the stones feel, the voices you hear, the history. I guess cathedrals are like books – they look alike on the outside but there’s something special about each one on the inside. I wouldn’t have known if I hadn’t come to see it for myself.”
After lunch we took a short walk to Augustine’s Abbey, and beyond that to St. Martin’s, the oldest Anglican Church in continual use in all of the English speaking world. In that still, ancient place our own choristers gathered to sing Beati Quorum Via.
As we made our way back to Hatfield for the evening, Jonathan Harbin provided the perfect end to our Canterbury Adventure: The first ten verses ofCanterbury Tales, delivered from memory in Middle English!