Oh, the air wafted sweetly from the sea. Not like the humid, oppressive torpor of Vietnam: lighter, crisper.
With the sun kissing my face, I walked amid the amber wheat, the green pastures and the rolling hills, walking, becoming lost in the brambles and then found again. Ripe wild blackberries lined the trails, which felt like providence; berries of any kind are not native, and therefore rare, in Vietnam. I picked them voraciously.
This was England. County Kent, specifically, in the south. I had flown there to be with my parents, sister and nephew for a week before they boarded a cruise ship on the English Channel. Now I was on my own for another week.
I thought I would try walking to nearby Canterbury, in the footsteps of those who have done the same for centuries. I wanted to affect the spirit of the humble pilgrim on the path to its cathedral.
Canterbury Cathedral has long been a major spot of pilgrimage in England. This was made more so in the 12th century when an archbishop named Thomas Becket was murdered there defending the Catholic Church’s power against the king at the time. Four knights supposedly rode to Canterbury to reason with him, and when that failed, they scalped him with their swords. Becket hitherto became a saint, and the masses have flocked to the site of his martyrdom ever since.
But my pilgrimage (by foot) ended up becoming truncated. Morning turned into late afternoon, and I found myself at a pub in a small village only a few miles away from where I began. There was no accommodation in any of the nearby towns. I decided to catch the last double-decker bus of the day passing through toward Canterbury. From the upper level, I watched the villages and hills breeze by down narrow country roads.
A couple of mornings later, I walked through the quiet alleys of the old town to the cathedral, which was covered in scaffolding. I stepped through that old arched doorway.
A breath, in a place that could hold a billion of them.
The opportunity, and privilege, to realize one’s overall smallness and insignificance does not come often to us in everyday life. Only a few others milled about in the stillness contained within those massive pillars and high vaulted ceiling. I stared at the myriad of biblical scenes crystallized in stained glass, illuminated by the morning sun. I strolled.
It’s the feeling of the atmosphere on your mortal skin. The feeling you inherently know you never want to leave. Traveling had ground down whatever concerns I had about my work or social life back in Vietnam: the remainder was steamrolled flat by the weight of the accumulated time and space and stone and silence of this wonder.
Stone, stone, stone. Old stone, medieval grave marker slabs that time had worn down to smooth anonymity. Stone carved and stacked upon each other, cut, rounded, ribbed, arched, rising up to the ceiling, weaving, intersecting. Stone effigies of bishops, kings, noblemen with their cold stone hands folded in eternal prayer. I passed one medieval tomb of someone with the nickname The Black Prince.
The Black Prince. Cool name.
A small white marble slab denoted the spot where Becket was slain all those years ago; above it, a sculpture of converging swords was affixed to the wall.
Much is said about forging one’s own path in life, but not often do people describe the almost-holy exhilaration of literally stepping where millions of other feet have graced throughout the centuries. I walked through all the sections with their enchanting labels: the nave, narthex, aisles, transepts, apse, ambulatory. My eyes rolled over all of the details carved into the masonry: mysterious faces, coats of arms, saints, roses symbolizing the royal houses of old. I went down into the crypt, the place of shadows. There, in that dusky otherworld, time and space were even more still, and you could feel a peculiar serenity.
Who, or what, exactly does one bow to in ecstasy when the words of Jesus Christ are not inscribed across their heart?
I’m writing this from Vietnam, weeks after my return. The day-to-day hustle still crawls outside my window. The seasonal rains seem to have crept up while I was away. That disarming feeling of awe has subsided now to just a mere memory, though I try hard to keep its colors alive.
I find myself questioning the merits of devoting one’s life to chasing cathedrals, chasing the sublime wherever it might reside. I can see why others have.
Email Andrew at at.wernette@gmail.com.