Sacred Places Journal
15 October, 2001: Canterbury to Glastonbury: Brilliantly New
I leave Canterbury in a rain as heavy as the one on my first visit, but thankfully, I encounter no broken pavements. And my lovely cathedral is still there. Living so close, even for such a short time, I feel as though I've come to know her in a special way. We looked over each other, so to speak. I'm currently reading a novel set in a cathedral city in 1942. Hitler has initiated his Baedecker raids - targeting sites given highest rating in the famous guidebook. The Dean worries constantly that his beloved cathedral will be bombed. Now I can truly empathize with him-not the first time the present situation has raised images of World War II.
Train to London. Across town on the tube. Train to Bristol. And then the serendipity. I had pegged the lady across from me as a teacher long before she said so - it was the intelligent face and air of authority. Eventually the conversation led to our shared interest in British Christian history and the play she is currently producing on that subject for her village.
Abbey grounds by evening light
Recent archeology at Shepton Mallet has uncovered the oldest Roman Chi-Rho in Britain. The present Archbishop of Canterbury had a replica of it engraved on a disc to serve as his pectoral cross. "As a matter of fact, I've just been to Lambeth Palace this morning. The archbishop has loaned us his pectoral cross and made a recording which we will use in the final scene of our play."
I was still gasping in amazement when she asked, "Would you like to see it?"
She pulled her blue nylon carry-all from behind her seat. "I have it wrapped in my nightie." She proceeded to unwrap a beautifully burled wooden box from its white knit shroud and produced the silver disc with the replica of a cross actually worn in the first centuries of Christianity in this land.
I can't wait to find a photo of the Archbishop wearing the cross over his violet cassock. Actually, this is my second vicarious brush with the Archbishop, as the monastery in which we stayed in Durham was formerly his vicarage when he was vicar of a church in Durham. I am hoping to have a third encounter, less vicarious, as I have applied to interview Dr. Carey at Lambeth Palace, his London residence.
But now, a city bus ride across Bristol. I recognize St. James Church where Charles and Sally Wesley and their children worshipped in the eighteenth century and John Wesley's New Room now in the center of a busy shopping area, but then a meeting place for the Methodist Society.
And then a coach to Glastonbury, with people around me reading papers full of headlines and photos of war. I share a seat with a woman with cheery, rainbow-striped hair who very kindly helps me with my luggage - which keeps falling over - and lectures me on nuclear disarmament. Outside, rain streams down the windows.
View from Bath window
The rain lets up as I walk the long way around to the back of the Abbey grounds and ring a bell at Abbey House, the Church of England retreat. "Donna Crow, weary pilgrim," I present myself.
My timing is perfect. Tea will be served in 15 minutes. But first I'm shown the bath. Never in my wildest imagination could I have imagined taking a bath overlooking the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey (see history).
Abbey House guests are allowed free use of the Abbey grounds after hours, and this day of drenching rain has suddenly turned golden, gilding the stones of the broken arches and intensifying the green of the rolling lawn, the blue of the sky and the white of the billowing clouds. And then bells peal from the parish church.
Looking for a place to write, I use the signboard as a prie dieu/drafting table. Appropriately on my knees, I wonder how I can find words for this perfect moment. Grace? Certainly. Epiphany? Yes. Apotheosis? I feel lifted up to heaven.
Plaque marks site of original burial of Arthur
Glastonbury has always been a magical, sacred place to me, a place of calling. Perhaps this is something like a person who returns to one's childhood home after long absence and finds it far lovelier than any of one's dreams or memories. I lived here so intensely in my mind through the years of writing my epic novel Glastonbury: The Novel of Christian England (which I was delighted to find on the shelves of the Abbey House library), and I had scoured in such minute detail all the history, legends and romance of this place that I had almost dreaded to return - what could there be new? Surely I had said it all in an 800-plus-page novel. And yet I find it all brilliantly new.