Thursday, May 12, 2016

A Time to Travel

I administer my last final today, and in five days time will be on a flight to places elsewhere. Being the son of my parents, I instinctively learned to hate pretense in all forms, and consequently try to be as low-key as possible about traveling, fully realizing that I am the fortunate beneficiary of particular circumstances in a particular period of time. That said, I have also consciously chosen this path and seen it through. My life is relatively uncluttered with much of the “stuff” of modernity--by and large just books in an old house, and a passport--no boat, no golf clubs, no guns, no hunting leases, no house full of electronic gadgetry, only one television, no ATV, and if I couldn’t make the point any clearer, I drive a Subaru. To be sure, I am painting with a broad judgmental brush here, but when I hear what others put out for those sorts of things, I smile inwardly when I compare it to the relatively small amount I spend on travel.

I also understand that there are some people who travel for leisure and relaxation. I simply do not understand this mentality. If you are tired, there is a bed at home with your name on it. No, travel should be something more substantial than indulging our hedonism. I travel to explore (literally to see what is over the next hill, whether it be in the next county or the next country); to learn; to feed my curiosity; to seek adventure; to watch and listen; to climb; to be silent; to get into binds and then figure your way out; and increasingly, to be in awe. And since 2003, my travels have largely taken on the nature of pilgrimages. This journey will be no different.

I plan to drive around rural England and Wales for about 11 days. After that, I will take the train across Europe to Romania, where I will do much the same thing for 9-10 days. I plan to stick to the out-of-the-way places, and studiously avoid anything that is suggestive of queues, tickets and tours. In England, of course, this means no cathedrals, castles or country houses, and probably anything managed by English Heritage. I’ll be traveling alone, which suits me just fine, and is probably for the best, as few people want to travel the way I do.

Other than to change planes at Heathrow, I have not been in the U.K. since 1996. Like many travelers before me, I caught “Eastern fever” and have not looked back. Since 2006, I have spent most of my overseas travel time poking around the Caucasus.

So, after all these years, why return to stolid old England? For starters, I sometimes feel like an unpaid, one-man tourist bureau for the Republic of Georgia. While this favored country of my heart entices me on many different levels, Georgia can also be very intense. Sensory overload is a real thing, and perhaps I just need a break. God willing, I’ll be back on track next year.

I take a long view of history, and of course this applies to church history as well. I plan to do a little compare-and-contrasting. The robust and visibly resurgent faith of the Georgian people resonates with me. They have their problems, to be sure, and the Georgian Orthodoxy is not without idiosyncrasies. But it is not romanticizing to acknowledge that the roots of Christianity run deep in their soil.  Even in the face of repeated invasions and subjugations, the faith has never departed that "broad and mellow land."  More unbiased observers might qualify this assertion somewhat, but I think the basic premise holds. The Orthodox Faith is alive and well on this eastern frontier of Christendom.

Were I to make a similar statement about the opposite historic frontier of Christendom—the British Isles--it would be met with widespread and much-deserved incredulity. There is no country on earth more choc-a-bloc with churches than Britain, yet they are often merely historical artifacts of a past with diminishing contemporary relevance. Often lovingly maintained and curated, many of these edifices are no longer the touchstones and beating heart of a living faith. At best, Christianity seems to be a faint whisper in the land. Clearly, I speak in broad terms, and individual situations may run counter to the overall trend.

The countless studies documenting the collapse of Christian belief in the U.K. all paint a bleak picture. Even nominal Christians are in the minority. The fact that the percentages are as high as they are is the result of African and Eastern European immigration. Native-born British who self-identify as Christians are a fast-diminishing demographic. In view of modern British history, one could posit that peace, prosperity and power are not necessarily the building blocks of a faith that will last the ages. I say this non-judgmentally, for American are fast on their heels. Our own de-Christianization--to the extent that we ever were such, in any meaningful sense, for it was always more proclaimed than practiced--is a fascinating spectacle to behold. In short, I want to spend some time in a post-Christian country where this is already the established order, if perchance to catch a glimpse of our own future.

And yet it was not always thus. As is often the case, I take a contrarian view of British history. The Whig View of History doesn’t hold much water with me. Working backwards in time, I think the Glorious Revolution was anything but. I find that the iconoclastic destruction unleashed by the English Civil War was as severe and unthinking as that of the French Revolution, or today’s Islamic fanaticism. The English Reformation under Henry the Horrible and Black Bess ripped the heart out of a traditional way of life—and according to one historian, "dug a deep ditch between England and her past."  The edifice they created in its wake--a bit of this and that--made for a great show, but has proven itself particularly ill-equipped to stand the test of time. Finally, in terms of cataclysmic consequences, I rate the tragedy of 1066 right up there with 1204 and 1453. Clearly, I take my historical cues from the likes of Eamon Duffy, Christopher Dawson, and J. R. R. Tolkien.

My view of the Normans is probably too colored by repeated viewings of The Lion in Winter. I take a dim view of the cursed Plantagenets and the Norman Conquest which spawned them. And it was just that—a conquering and a subjugation. Some important things were lost along the way, I think. One need not romanticize either the Celtic Britons or the Anglo-Saxons. The island before 1066--Wessex and Mercia and Wales (Gwynedd and Powys and Dyfed and Gwent) and Dumnonia and Kent and East Anglia and Northumbria (Deira and Bernica)--could be a brutal and treacherous place. And yet in its own way, it was a grand and glorious land, giving birth to a remarkably rich civilization emerging from the synthesis of native and invader. Even their treachery contained an element of nobility and honor, something the continental Normans could never quite pull off.

The history of “Dark Age” Britain--what I will call Old England--is well worth remembering. In a nutshell, my take on it runs something like this: The Britons of old--a Celtic culture encompassing Britain, Ireland and Brittany--survived the withdrawal of the Romans. The Christian faith hung on as well, in a form that was uniquely its own. The fall of the old order, however, unleashed an internecine struggle for supremacy among the tribes, laying the land wide open for the first invaders--the Angles, the Saxons and the Jutes from across the North Sea. They established their beachheads, and it was soon evident that they were in Britain to stay. Most natives (but importantly, not all) took refuge in their western redoubts--the Welsh kingdoms, Dumnonia (Cornwall), and Brittany.

This was the era of Arthur--not a mythical legend susceptible to Hollywood spin, but a real Welsh chieftain, whose place in a particular family and history is known. If the hagiography is to be believed (and I see no reason not to do so), his extended family almost single-handedly (re)evangelized Dumnonia and Brittany.

Despite the initial savagery, the Saxon invaders put down roots and intermarried with the natives. Christianity, while pushed back, was not obliterated. The arrival of missionaries from Rome in the late 7th-century aided in the re-Christianization of the land. In short order, something known as “English” began to take shape--a fusion of native Celtic and Saxon interloper. Even though Rome used all means to bring the English church into greater conformity, the faith in the Isles was still distinctly its own. One hallmark of this era--as in all Orthodox lands--was the abundance of local saints.

Arts and culture flourished--centered primarily in the Northumbrian monasteries, which was considered the great center of learning in the West, rather than Gaul. Kingdoms rose and fell, but five of the Saxon ones vied for preeminence: Northumbria, Mercia, East Anglia, Kent and Wessex. First Northumbria, then Mercia and finally Wessex took the lead. In the late 8th century, the first Viking raid occurred, and these Danish invaders proved even more fearsome than the Saxons had been. But like their predecessors, and despite the initial and sustained savagery, they settled down in the land, intermarried and became part of the “English” fabric. The house of Wessex battled the Vikings for many years, but finally gained a workable division of the island.

In 1066, an avoidable dynastic crisis allowed William of Normandy to press his claim to the vacant throne. With his victory at Hastings, everything changed. In the long run, the English did not become Norman, but rather the other way around. After the initial land-grab and disenfranchisement of the previous order, permanent changes were imposed by the new Norman overlords. The distinctly English church now became much more an extension of Gaul. The new bishops replaced the native saints with Continental figures; St. George replaced St. Edmund as the patron saint of England.

One result of this religious transformation was that the well of local saints dried up. Few new saints emerged, and the new Gaulist Catholic order discouraged it. And the 1066 date lines up conveniently close (if not a bit too convenient) to the accepted Catholic - Orthodox schism of 1054. There is a certain arbitrariness to using the 1066 cut-off date, but the fact remains that the saints of Anglo-Saxon England and before were also saints of the Orthodox faith. The question of saints after 1066 is a mute one, for their number is too few to even be a factor. Some might argue that I approve of one invasion (the Saxons) and disapprove of another (the Normans). Well, nobody ever said that the practice of historical interpretation was fair.

Under the new regime, many things changed, but on the local level, life often went on much as before, and the practices of the old English and Celtic Christians continued--most notably, their devotion to the saints. This continued on for centuries, until the tragedy of the English Reformation when the connection was finally cut. From this crucible, modern England emerged and started down the path to becoming “British.” Perhaps the obsession with money and real estate had its roots here as well. Something had clearly changed from before, however. I am seeking a glimpse of what went before, if perhaps I can make it out in my mind’s eye.

I want to seek out the relics of an once-enchanted land—in Wessex, Mercia, the Welsh kingdoms, Northumbria and East Anglia--the old Saxon churches, the stone crosses and the holy wells of the Celts and Anglo-Saxons prior to the Norman Conquest. “Then lived here saints that after were denied, By Norman lusts, then greed and faithless pride.” Churches were whitewashed, shrines stripped, and monasteries decommissioned. The sites become no less holy, however, simply because they’ve been forgotten, or worse, forsaken--"the parish has a saint’s name time cannot unfrock," and the “truth of Saints can never pass nor die.” To be sure, such a pilgrimage will have a different feel than in Georgia. But the saints who glorified and reflected Christ in their lives are alive, not dead, for as we are told, “I am the God of the living, not the dead.” The Cromwells --both Thomas and Oliver--did their worst, and it was very bad indeed, but the saints live on and their testimony continues.

Formerly, when men lived in the beauty and bounty of Earth, the reality of Heaven was very near; every brook and grove and hill was holy, and men out of their beauty and bounty built shrines so lovely that the spirits which inhabit Heaven came down and dwelt in them and were companions to men and women, and men listened to divine speech.

If I have learned one thing from my journey out of an intellectualized, interpretive, mental construct of faith--indeed, my own English heritage--it is that true holiness exists, and lingers on after the saints in places of worship and devotion. I hope to find my way to some of these “thin places” where I can reverence the saints of old, to remember the dead, and maybe in a small way keep these stories alive.

Of course, England is mostly the land of my forebearers. We’ve been in America for so long (and this story I largely know), that our antecedents on the other shore are only dimly understood. In my lineage there’s a Hessian soldier, a German Dunkard, a couple of Irish scoundrels (and the real thing--none of this Anglo-Irish or Scots-Irish), some Scottish hellions, and a Welshman or two. My surname (and the part of my family that I cling to above all the others) is supposedly Scottish, though the evidence suggests that they were more probably Saxons out of Bernicia, with roots in Lindesfarne itself. All that said, the vast majority of my DNA comes from the midlands and south of England. While in the Border regions, I do, however, plan to visit the non-juror church where my 6th-great grandfather and 5th-great grandfather were baptized in 1665 and 1686 respectively.

As for the Romanian leg of the trip, that needs no explanation.  Who doesn’t want to go to Romania? I crossed the Danube from Bulgaria into the country once, and that has whetted my appetite for more. As in England, my Orthodoxy will guide my explorations in Romania, and I hope to linger among the famous painted monasteries in Bucovina.

As these journeys may just be of some interest to a few, I hope to discipline myself to post something here as I go. We shall see.

13 comments:

elizabeth said...

I appreciate very much your travelogues. Married now over 3 years, your blog is the one I tell my husband he would enjoy reading, and this, of course, is a compliment towards your thought and writing. I do hope you will write on these trips. My husband often talks about what you are in part speaking of - how the Reformation destroyed so much in England.

I have not yet been to an Orthodox country, but I have had the honour of knowing Romanians who remain some of my dearest friends and I hope one day to go there.


John said...

Always enjoy your writing. You might google up Mull Monastery.

I bought "The Last Tsar" by Myers. So far so good. I'm nearly half way through it.

Write all you will with pictures. I get a lot of pleasure reading about your travels. Be safe and have a good trip.

John said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
123 said...

I'm reading Eamon Duffy's "Fires of Faith" right now, coincidentally.

Are you going to visit Mull Monastery (www.mullmonastery.com)? the relics of St. Edward? While under Old Calendarists today, it is also relatively near Elder Sophrony's monastery in Essex. Walsingham isn't too far from there. I've always wondered what if anything is left of Bede's St. Paul's Monastery. I believe his relics are in Durham Cathedral. Lindisfarne has echoes for me, as well.

There are some fine resources on early Christian English, Welsh, Scottish, and Breton (since you will be passing through France) saints in Road to Emmaus journal, if you haven't seen them already:

http://www.roadtoemmaus.net/back_issue_articles/RTE_40/The_Holy_Wells_of_Wales.pdf
http://www.roadtoemmaus.net/back_issue_articles/RTE_15/Brittanys_Celtic_Past.pdf
http://www.roadtoemmaus.net/back_issue_articles/RTE_15/Tro_Breizh.pdf

Also, in Spring 2015 (#61):

On the High Road with Scotland’s Saints: Six Early Christian Pilgrimage Destinations

Take an armchair pilgrimage of Scotland’s southern marches, lofty peaks, and windswept isles in this overview of six early Christian pilgrimage sites: Whithorn, St. Andrews, Iona, Glasgow, Edinburgh/Dunfermline, and the Orkney Islands. Join us as we recount the lives of Sts. Ninian, Columba, Kentigern-Mungo, Giles, Triudana, Margaret of Scotland, and Magnus Erlendsson.

Columba’s Children: Life and Community on a Holy Island

Iona guide Jana McLellan gives a fascinating view of daily life as a 21st-century Christian in the Inner Hebrides, and what it means for Iona’s native sons and daughters whose ancestral home is Columba’s holy isle.

How the Vikings Got Their Comeuppance: “Iona’s Revenge”

A look at how the tragic Viking raids of the seventh to eleventh centuries left not only a trail of martyred monks, plundered monasteries, and ravaged Christian communities, but in an unexpected turn of events, impacted the Vikings themselves.

New Beginnings: Orthodoxy in Today’s Scotland

An interview with Archimandrite Raphael Pavouris of Edinburgh’s pan-Orthodox Church of St. Andrew on Orthodox parishes in Scotland after the Second World War and the life and legacy of Archimandrite John Maitland Moir, who for over thirty years supported displaced Orthodox emigrants, new missions, and a growing number of native Scottish converts.

In France, I've wondered about meeting Fr. Placide Deseille, or Fr. Gerasim (Gerard Gascuel) of the Skete of St. Foy. Vladimir Lossky's "Seven Days on the Roads of France" (SVS Press) is a wonderful little book while traveling through France looking for and loving its ancient (or not so ancient by official "Orthodox" standards) Christian culture.

123 said...

The Greek Orthodox Church of St Nicholas in The Beatles' hometown is an enlarged version of St Theodore's church in Constantinople. That's not far from the far northeastern corner of Wales, and one can swing by Roman Chester on the way. York is further on, but it's the place of St. Constantine the Great was acclaimed Augustus in 306, not to mention it being the second city/see of England.

123 said...

Since Mull Monastery has been mentioned twice and given both the purpose of your trip and your itinerary, it's probably worth noting that Fr. Seraphim Aldea, the priest of the Monastery of All Celtic Saints on Mull is Romanian.

John said...

123, Mull is a bit of a stretch. I am aware of it, but it just doesn't fit in with the concentrated nature of my itinerary. I'm not going to Iona either. Yes for the relics of St. Edward the Martyr, Essex monastery, Lindesfarne, Durham and many others. And yes, I started building my trip from the Road to Emmaus articles! Incidentally, Rod Dreher is going to Mull in June, so I'm sure he will be posting about that on his blog.

123 said...

Archimandrite Constantine Chirila is at the church in Iasi with the relics of St Paraskevas, and he spent many years in the basement of the OCA Cathedral in NYC and at Fordham after he was kicked out of Putna and the country for not being cooperative enough with the Community regime.

John said...

Elizabeth--congratulations on your marriage, and I haven't already done so! Is your husband English, or has he just studied the Reformation era?

123--thanks for the heads-up about Iasi. I will be visiting the city.

Matthew Franklin Cooper said...

I just want to say I both love this essay (on a personal level), and I agree with your read of English history entirely. I also take a dim view of the Glorious Revolution and Whig history.

I got to visit East Anglia in summer 2006, in my days as a lab grunt for the Brown EEB department. Visited Norwich Cathedral and the cell of Julian of Norwich (one of those rare post-Schismatic English saints) - but, you're right - both were well-curated museums rather than points of true veneration. It's still a dream of mine to go back to the old ancestral homestead in Yorkshire, though I fear that would end up being as much a pilgrimage of breweries as of holy sites.

At any rate, thanks again for the essay! Just asking in case it comes up at some future date, would you mind terribly if I quoted you at length from it (either on my own blog or on Facebook)?

Cheers,
Matthew

Anonymous said...

I recommend the Saxon church at Escomb, between Lindisfarne and Durham. St Cuthbert's tomb in Durham Cathedral was, for me, very numinous: wait until no-one else is there, light a candle, and sing the trisagion in the funeral tone.

Also the St Edward Brotherhood at Brookwood, not too far west of Heathrow, guards and venerates the relics of young King Edward, the martyr.

In Wales, seek out the hermitage church of Saint Melangell.

Expect big crowds at Iasi, venerating St Paraskevi.

I look forward to your posts about your journey.

John said...

Matthew,

By all means, you may quote me. I would be honored. It is now 23 May, and I am in the north of England. I plan to start my posts very soon, if not tonight!

John said...

Anonymous,

I have already visited the Shrine of St. Edward the Martyr, and the Church of St. Melangel. They are 2 of the highlights of my travels thus far. The other sites you mention in the north of England are coming up in the next 2 days.