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.