Monday, November 23, 2009

The Traveler and Religion

Canterbury Cathedral is one of the most impressive buildings that I have seen. If I had to guess why, I would say that it is because the area around it—including the city center—gives off a medieval atmosphere. That’s not to say that there are people dropping dead from the plague left and right—that would be absurd. It is just that one walks around the city center and is surrounded by buildings older than the U.S. by a couple hundred years. I feel sorry for the English, because they are used to this. They are missing out on a legitimate feeling of awe by virtue of living in a country where this is normal. Now, coming from the University’s campus, situated on a hill, the feeling of awe is amplified. The only tall building in view is the Cathedral, and it is quite easy to imagine oneself as a pilgrim on the trek from Oxford or Cambridge or London, or wherever else, clearing a hill and seeing the top of the Cathedral’s tower poking above the town, houses and shops spewing smoke from chimneys.
Then again, I might just be easily impressed.
The grounds of the Cathedral are well-kept, though the building itself is in a nearly constant state of repair—which may be the biggest drawback to being such an old structure. The lawns, courtyards, and gardens are always green and flowering. The grey stone of the Cathedral (those portions which are not hidden behind scaffolding, that is), chiseled by the work of masons over the centuries and decorated with images of kings, saints, and gargoyles, stands as a testament to the importance of religion to humanity over the centuries. If I remember what my professor said from my medieval civilization course, it is a nearly perfect example of what the Gothic architecture was supposed to do: inspire a religious sense of awe in the viewer. Even for someone like myself, who is agnostic at best, the Cathedral does the trick.
Admission is usually £7.50, but as students of the University, The Traveler and I had a free pass in the form of our student IDs. We crossed through the gate, under the carved image of St. Thomas á Becket and made our way into the Cathedral. Adhering to the proper décor of a sense of awe, we kept our conversation to a whisper. “You never struck me as the religious type,” I said to The Traveler, who had been walking around with a very odd, satisfied grin on his face since we passed through the gate.
“I’m not,” he responded.
“Then why do you seem so…” I searched for the word. It eluded me. “With it?”
We passed the tomb of a long-dead bishop.
“There’s something about places of worship,” he said, “and holy sites in general. I can’t really place it. Being religious is the wrong word, since that implies that you have a strict adherence to a singular dogma; being spiritual is the wrong word, since that has a connotation that you go around saying stuff like ‘I am so one with the Deity’ or ‘my chi is really in balance today.’ It’s just…” now it was his turn to search. He stood in front of what I would call the bimah and looked at the podium, the front of which was a golden eagle to represent—I think—John the Evangelist. “Comforting,” he finished. He turned to me, “you know what I’m trying to say?”
I made my way around the choir pews towards the back of the church, where there were around eight stained glass windows depicting miracles. “Not really. I walk into a cathedral like this and I see excessive wealth and the violence perpetrated in the name of God.”
The Traveler thought on this for a bit. “There’s always that, but I would say that such things go into the realm of dogma. I don’t know,” he said, “it’s hard to explain. There’s something that’s separate from that in a place of worship. Something that’s not Christian or Jewish or Muslim or Buddhist or whatever. Something that just is.”
“That might just be silence,” I said.
“True,” he said. We now stood in front of the place which was the focal point of centuries of pilgrimage, the site where there would have been the shrine to St. Thomas Becket. “That might be what we need most in society: just somewhere where we can go to be quiet and think from time to time. But, then again, it’s a different feeling than I get from just being in a silent place. Take libraries, for example. They’re silent, but I go to a library and I don’t get the same feeling. It’s a fulfilling silence, like you’ve just had a nice warm meal and are looking forward to the cheesecake at desert. That’s what I get out of religion.”
“A warm meal and cheesecake?”
“Funny, isn’t it? Want to go into the gardens?”
“Sure,” I said. We walked out of the cathedral, passed a priest who nodded to us with a welcoming grin—we nodded back. The gardens were neat, tidy, and calming.
“You joke about the warm meal analogy, but that’s the way I see it. A feeling that life’s going to be good after all, that no matter how many times you get down into the doldrums, there’s good in the world, even if it’s just in a nameless silence.” We sat on a bench across from a marker dedicated to an archbishop from the nineteenth century. “I went to a monastery for a week once.”
I arched an eyebrow. “You joined a monastery?”
“No, I just visited for a week. It was free room and board, and I was going through a rough patch—I get those from time to time, where I just feel like the most base, absolute shit on the planet—so I figured I’d give it a shot. There was a British journalist there as well; he stayed in the cell next to mine. We had a vow of silence and everything. Woke up in the morning for Matins, worked in the fields if we felt the need, or just sat around in contemplation. By the second day, the Brit was talking in his sleep, reciting Doctor Who episodes and scores from Premier League matches.”
“And you?” I asked. “Did you walk around with showtunes stuck in your head?”
“No, actually,” he responded. “I meditated about my life. The chanting helped out a lot. I imagined what it would be like to go into a monastery as a young man—cause some of these guys were in their mid-twenties or early thirties—and spend the rest of your life in silence, completely cut off from the rest of the world. The Brit imagined the same thing, I think, but judging from the faces he made at the monks that week, he came to the conclusion that they were insane. I admired them. It takes a lot of self-discipline and -knowledge to know whether or not you can hack it in that sort of condition. I enjoyed that week in the monastery, and I came out of it with a bit of a new perspective on life, but, man, I don’t think I could have done that for my life. At least the Zen monks have koan to think and discuss.”
We fell silent for a while, let the breeze pass by us, listened to the other tourists walk around in their families and chatter to each other in foreign languages. Foreign languages? “Holy shit,” I thought, “I’m a foreigner.” I shivered. “So, a warm meal and self-knowledge,” I said.
The Traveler shrugged. “Yeah. But really, I’d say that, out of all the possible feelings one could have towards religion, that’s not too bad.”

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