by Marjorie George
(I was fortunate to make a pilgrimage to England and Scotland this past summer. This reflection comes from two days spent at Canterbury.)
At 236 feet high (about 20 stories), the central tower of Canterbury Cathedral stands starkly alone against the back drop of a clear, brilliantly-blue sky. Looking up at it from ground level is dizzying.
In length, from the entrance to its farthest wall, the massive cathedral stretches back 515 feet. That’s 171.6 yards. In Friday Night Lights language, one and three-quarters football fields. This is no fragile structure. Its stone columns are thick and rough, giants shouldering the weight of the building.
Immediately surrounding the cathedral is an expanse of open lawn, setting the cathedral somewhat apart from the rest of the buildings within the cathedral precincts – the smaller St. Martin’s Church, the ruins of St. Augustine’s Abbey, a school, gardens, administration buildings, some visitor lodgings.
Young families spread blankets on the lawn and chat; older couples stroll the paths, always with a leashed dog at their sides. Pilgrims sit on a bench and pray. No one is in a hurry; time is suspended.
Then, from the cathedral precincts, through the centuries-old arched stone gate, one enters the village of Canterbury and is immediately dumped onto the town square with its quaint shops and market. These days tourists jostle about, but there is no stretch in imagining the villagers once bargaining and swapping wares here, their bleating goats and cackling chickens crowding the narrow streets.
And there is a sense that this, too, is part of cathedral life. Amazingly, from any point in the village one can look into the sky and see the cathedral tower holding watch. Her bells ring out hourly and audibly.
In that earlier time, the church was not a distinct and separate part of life reserved for Sundays only; it was the central part of all of life, always apparent, always offering comfort and shelter. We think of the nave of a church as being filled with pews. But the nave of Canterbury Cathedral was not a place for prayer in medieval times; there were no rows of chairs neatly aligned. The nave was a gathering place for the villagers: here they conducted business and swapped stories and socialized.
What would it take for me to live out Canterbury and understand that every part of my own life – my shopping life, my working life, my being a mom life – are all sourced by the church? For it is the church – for all of its faults and all of its mistakes and all of its political bickering – that bears Christ. As the church, we are the body of Christ gathered and living out our ordinary lives. In Christ, said Paul, “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).
Not just on Sundays. Not just in another time. Not just in a small town on a distant continent. But today, in my own neighborhood, with God overseeing my life like that ubiquitous cathedral tower.
Marjorie George is editor of ReflectionsOnline and Reflections magazine. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.