After a very busy week of conference activities in Cambridge – going from early morning until late in the evening – Candice and I came to London for two days to rest and reconnect with each other and with our souls.
Knowing that we were likely to need a break from seven days of nonstop travel, meetings, tours, discussions, and connections, we chose to see where the spirit would lead. Little did we know that although we were quite a distance from home, we would connect to friends old and new in ways wonderful and unexpected.
The train from Cambridge deposited us at King’s Cross Station on platform 9, and that was the first reconnection. My mind immediately went to those summers of reading Harry Potter books to Andrew and Claire at the river house. And I thought…hmmm, I bet Platform 9 3/4 is around here somewhere. Sure enough, there was a queue of twenty-somethings waiting to take their picture at Harry’s famous point of departure for Hogwarts. We laughed, and reminded ourselves that our Claire stood in this very spot about 18 months ago to get her picture taken as she pushed her school cart through the wall.
On Friday afternoon we explored the Belgravia neighborhood around our hotel, and then found a wonderful Italian restaurant nearby for dinner. Il Convivio was a treat, as we took our time and enjoyed the wine, good food, and incredibly friendly staff.
Saturday was a leisurely day for rambling around the city…seeing streets, shops, and more. If we found a cafe that intrigued us, we’d drop in for an iced coffee, scone, or tea. If we wanted to sit for a while, we’d find a pocket park and put up our legs and rest. It helped that the London weather was picture perfect.
The second reconnection came through the wonders of social media. Candice had been checking her Facebook account and discovered that dear long-time friends from our days together in the Shenandoah Valley were in London for a four-month stay. Tom and Sarah O’Connor lived across the street from us in Staunton, Virginia, and their twin girls – Rachel and Charity – were born 10 days after Claire and Andrew. These four grew up together for the first few years of their lives and we’ve all stayed friends even after both families moved from Staunton. Candice and Sarah made the plans, and we came together – again at Il Convivio – for a delightful evening. Even though it had been several years since seeing Tom and Sarah, our conversation picked up right where we last left it, as we caught up on life. What a wonderful treat.
Sunday’s morning’s wrap up to cycling’s Tour of England closed many streets, but we still made it in time for services at St. Martin-in-the-Fields, an active, diverse, and engaging congregation in the heart of London. Internationally known for its music program, St. Martin’s came to be known to us today for so many other elements of its life together.
Yes the music was wonderful, and I was reconnected with an old friend – Palestrina’s Kyrie from Missa Brevis. But we also heard a passionate and challenging sermon from the Rev. Richard Carter on the Syrian refugee crisis gripping Europe at the moment. I’ve seldom heard such strong political language – put in a Christian context – in a church in the U.S. but we were connected with powerful preaching that reminded us of some of the best we’ve heard through the years at St. Alban’s Parish in DC. We saw – in the ministries, the outreach, the words shared – how this parish “draws inspiration from our patron saint St. Martin who, by cutting his cloak in two, demands that we look both at the resource that we create and possess, and the way that it is shared.”
We also saw connections between parishes. When the prayers of the people included Ben Hutto – a name we recognized – we both wondered if it could be the Ben Hutto we knew. Yes, it turns out, it could. The vicar told us that he had exchanged pulpits with St. John’s Lafayette Square in Washington, where Ben is the choir master and Andrew has sung over the past several summers. It was a connection we never expected, but we were glad to add our prayers for Ben to those of our new friends in London.
At the end of the service, the young lady with the beautiful singing voice sitting next to me reached out her hand and asked if we were visiting. Over the course of the next half hour, Helen had told us about the homeless ministry at St. Martin’s (the Church of the Ever Open Door), invited us down to the beautiful new gathering space for coffee and tea, introduced us to some 8-10 parishioners, learned about Candice’s work with our healing ministry, and generally ensured that we were welcomed and connected. It was the most meaningful welcome I’ve ever seen…and I’ve been to a great many churches in my 60 years of life!
After a lovely lunch in the St. Martin’s crypt, we wandered across the street to the National Gallery to see a number of Impressionists works by some of our favorite painters. Candice was especially delighted to see the Monet Water-Lily Pond, as we’ve had a poster of this painting in our house for years.
I’ll end these stories of connection by quoting from this morning’s parish newsletter from St. Martin-in-the-Fields. In a piece entitled From a Distance written by their Vicar, Sam Wells connects so many thoughts that have been swirling in my head in this summer of Syrian refugees in Europe, immigrant-bashing in the U.S., and a loss of concern for fellow human beings who do not share our ideological beliefs and are perceived as outside our tribe.
From a Distance
In Ernest Hemingway’s novel “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” set during the Spanish Civil War, a republican guerilla spots a nationalist cavalryman from a distance and kills him. He raids the man’s purse, and inside finds a photograph of the soldier’s wife, intimate letters, and items of intense personal faith. Suddenly the cold act of war is revealed for what it was, and a feeling of revulsion creeps over the reader. This is no longer an ideological struggle; it is the ghastly abrupt shattering of a beautiful set of relationships and loves.
I’m writing this on 11 September: a momentous day. Rowan Williams described a suicide bomber as someone who can only see from a distance. All violence requires distance; it depends on not seeing, not hearing, not sensing certain things.
Christianity tells us that God never sees at a distance, never sees things only in general. There are no lives that are superfluous. 11 September starkly contrasts the cold calculation of terror, the calculation of distance, that cannot see, cannot hear, cannot feel, lest it be revolted and turn from its murderous purpose, with the counter-narrative of intimate complexity, those anguished cell phone messages, those desperate acknowledgements of what most mattered in lives about to end, those extraordinary sacrifices of firefighters and strangers and honest bystanders.
The life of St. Martin’s is textured by precise detail, by careful evaluation and by discernment over minor differences. It is life close up, and in that sense it imitates the life of God, close up and giving full attention to the world’s intimate detail. Let us, as a community, renew our commitment in loving attention to details that matter. And so let us defy those who harden their hearts to bring about savage destruction through seeing merely from a distance.
More to come…
Image: “Sunflowers” by Vincent van Gogh taken by DJB at the National Gallery in London