One Lord. One faith. One birth.

Wade in the water/wade in the water, children/wade in the water/God’s gonna trouble the water (African-American spiritual)

Flat Polycarp and I had all kinds of things to say about our wanderings through the UK. The first two-thirds of my sabbatical journey were easy-going, green and friendly. In contrast, upon my arrival in Israel/Palestine, all my muscles tightened, words stopped working and the travel experience became largely sensory and visceral. So no blog for a week.

Wading at Banias Nature Preserve
One week ago I arrived in Tel Aviv. It was before I even had left London, however, that I entered Israeli territory. I spent 20 minutes at Heathrow answering questions about why I was going to Israel, who I was seeing, what I was doing, where I was staying. And for how long. And why was I going, again? I don’t know anyone there? Where was I staying? Who? What? Why?

This is my second time in the Holy Land. Last time, our tour guide was an Israeli Jew: a scholar and former soldier born the same year as the nation. This time, I am taking a course at St. George’s College in Jerusalem (“Women of the Bible”), and our guide is an Israeli Arab Christian. Suffice it to say the two men tell the story differently.  

Microcosm: a Jew and a Muslim, both wearing the Star of David of the Israeli police, shopping for candy in Nazareth.

This land we call “Holy” is a strange place. Bitterly contested for thousands of years, given by God to several people at once: the land itself is a story. From the desert wilderness to the cities to the lush Galilee area, today’s people live right on top of the ancestors. 

We pilgrims have traveled the land and told the stories of the women, in their places. We remember some of them by name: Bathsheba, Elizabeth, Martha and her sister Mary of Bethany, Mary of Magdala, and of course Mary of Nazareth. Others are known to God, but we know them only by their relations or their deeds: Jephtha’s Daughter, the Syrophoenician woman, the woman healed of the hemorrhage, the woman who talked to Jesus at Jacob’s well. All these women lived and died in an area which today can be traveled from top to bottom in less than three hours.  

You know how in the movie National Treasure, one of the great finds is this freaky pair of glasses with multiple, colored lenses? Manipulation of the lenses made it possible to decode the treasure map on the back of the Declaration of Independence. This land could use such a translation device. 

One’s view, and one’s perspective–one’s truth– depends entirely on the lenses one sees through, and where one stands. There are infinite contrasts and layers: of history and religion, hate and love, war and peace. We strain to understand this land, but ultimately it can only be felt in the gut.

I waded in the water at Banias, one of the three springs that create the River Jordan. The springs rise on the Israel/Syria border, form the boundary with the Kingdom of Jordan, flow into the Sea of Galilee and beyond, and finally die in the Dead Sea. Banias is a paradise of archaeology and greenery and cold water. It also sits adjacent to a mine field. Like I said: one’s experience depends on where one stands.

A woman. At Jacob’s Well in Nablus.

The Holy Land speaks and sings and prays and scolds and feeds. The music of prayer layers–like baklava–with the music of the people’s speech and the smell of spices and dust. Depictions of the Lion of Judah pop up all over: near the Western Wall in Jerusalem, in Christian cathedrals and monasteries in the desert. Like C.S. Lewis’ Aslan, this lion engenders awe and fear and deep love: this is not a tame lion. We must not presume to say we understand it. 
The separation walls and barbed wire, the soldiers and the checkpoints, are outward signs of deep divisions. And yet they do not tell the true story. So many people- Jew, Muslim and Christian-are working and praying for peace and the healing of the Holy Land. Last Sunday at St. George’s Cathedral, we sang The Church’s One Foundation. Like a cloth woven of many textures and colors, we embodied the people of God as one body. We sang in English (from several continents) together with Arabic:

Elect from every nation, yet one o’er all the earth. Her charter of salvation: one Lord, one faith, one birth. One holy name she blesses, partakes one only food. And to one hope she presses with every grace endued.  

Cheerio, England. Lovely to have met you. 

and I don’t want to be alone/but sometimes I just want to be somewhere else/untethered and unknown/when I am far from home/From departure to arrival/what does it mean to travel? (MCCarpenter)

Along one-lane roads and train tracks, and back and forth across borders, I have been wandering around the UK for three and a half weeks now. My peregrinations have taken me from Galway to Edinburgh to Hexham to Devonshire and finally to London, from which I will launch into the final phase of my journey.

I have loved all of it, every single moment. I have reveled in the fact that all places are holy, not just the “holy” places. Before I leave England, a few random non sequitur observations.

Flat Polycarp appreciated that there are no silly toilet wars in the UK. This one has accommodations for weirdly shaped babies.
  • I have appreciated–even as it caused me stress–that there is a lot to be learned by not knowing what to do or how to do it. 
  • Cities are the same everywhere: London looks a lot like St. Louis or New York. 
  • On the other hand, there is always something to remind you that you are Somewhere Else: things like backwards traffic and doors, weirdly numbered floors, and mushy peas. 
  • It’s so hard not to think that everything and everyone in England is adorable, for which I blame every single Hugh Grant movie. 
  • Where else are you going to get the Piccadilly line to Cockfosters?
  • Duvets are brilliant. 
  • The English are the masters of the subjunctive. 
The Queen has had quite enough of this silliness .
  • It turns out that the yellow flowers as far as my eye could see were canola.
  • The words “in” and “on” are totally reversed: You live in Croftdown Road, but you don’t leave your bags unattended on the train station.
  • You don’t ask for the bathroom, which would be a place you take a bath, silly. You ask for the toilet. And it is down 100 stairs and the light switch is on the outside. 
  • American news is news in England. I heard an Irish priest called Fr. Brian talking on the radio about a trip he had taken to Louisville, where he had met Muhammad Ali–whose name means “Beloved of God”–while on a pilgrimage to Thomas Merton’s monastery. Fr. Brian quoted Ali: if a man does not have the courage to do something that scares him, he will accomplish nothing.
  • American music is everywhere, in the form of Michael Jackson, Motown and the 60s. 
  • If you miss your train, another will come along. That will preach. 
  • It’s pretty cheap entertainment just to read the labels in other countries. “Upend before pouring.”

What’s in a name? Part 2

My two weeks in England have been bracketed by two deeply personal bookends. As I have mentioned elsewhere, my journey started in the far north at the sweet River Tyne, whence came my family surname in the 11th century. I had an atavistic reaction to the Tyne valley, a combination of imagination and emotion, and the place brought tears to my eyes. 

I left the borderlands in the northeast, and made my way to the far southwest. Armed with some family tree data and a map, my intention was to find a more tangible, “recent” family connection in Devonshire, in the form of a 17th-century Anglican vicar named John Tindall. 

England is a country where words like “new” and “old” seem insanely out of whack to an American. Glory be: a visit to the Devon Heritage Center in Exeter turned up parish marriage, baptism and burial records relating to the Rev. Tindall and his family, my most recent English relatives, 350 years ago. 

The Rev. Tindall was vicar of the Church of St. Andrew’s in the tee-ninesy village of Bere Ferrers, Devonshire, from 1655 until his death in 1673. Bere Ferrers, about as big as a football field, is tucked obscurely at the end of a peninsula in the River Tavy. After (yet another) hair-raising drive, I found St. Andrew’s, a funky, 750-year-old wonder. It’s got 13th-century effigies, and a crazy floor plan, and steps so worn they would hold water. The pews date to my ancestor’s time. Parish records show that John and and his wife Ann were married here, baptized at least two children, and were buried here. 

If you know your Anglican church history, you can appreciate that this was a hell of a time to be a vicar in the Church of England. I would love to know where the Rev. Tindall received his theological education, whether he came to Protestantism willingly, and how he avoided being burned at the stake. Did he know anyone who knew George Herbert? 

Unfortunately, no headstones exist at St. Andrew’s from the mid-17th century, so my usual, favorite touchstone was not available to me. There was this, though: in the heritage center, I had seen the record of a letter stating that the Rev. Tindall and others asked permission in 1665 to start a school with the next parish, two miles up the road. Late that afternoon, alone in the church, I found a banner celebrating the school’s 350th anniversary. Now that’s a legacy. 

Pilgrimage: doing the walk of life

But we look back, with thanksgiving, in order to look forward. We cannot stand still. God is always calling us on to larger life. Geoffrey Tristram SSJE

I am mulling over the difference between a trip and a pilgrimage. The two things have a lot in common, of course: the careful planning, and the evaluation of potential stops along the way.

Perhaps a key difference is intention. At the beginning of a yoga class, the teacher will often ask participants to “set an intention” for the class period. The idea is to call to mind something–a person, a joy, a worry–and set it down in the space at the front of the mind. This is a way of clearing the way to make room for the practice, as well as marking the intention as a kind of offering. 

There is also the matter of why one travels. The purpose of my to-ing and fro-ing is not simply to see some other landscape, but to seek the transformation of my own, interior landscape. It also helps if the outer landscape is already holy.

Which brings me to Lindisfarne. The road signs point to “Holy Island,” so that’s pretty helpful. On the other hand–and this will preach–the road only goes there sometimes. Or rather, the road is always there, but sometimes it is obscured. The road to the sacred place is not always open. 

A tidal island in the North Sea off the extreme northeast coast of England, Lindisfarne has been destination for pilgrims and monks and Vikings for more than 1500 years. Whether they come for prayer or pillage or just commerce, all comers must cross the water, and take heed of the tides.

It is easy here to look back and visualize the past, to feel oneself walking in the same footsteps as Aidan, Cuthbert, and other saints whose names are known only to God. The priory is in ruins, of course, but it is still tangible. Adjacent to the priory, St. Mary the Virgin Church stands on the site of the monastery founded by Aidan and is an outward sign of the continuity of faith. I worshipped there with a small group on a Sunday, the 1662 prayer book communion presided over by a vicar whose sonorous voice made me think of Simon Callow.

Just on the other side of the vicarage is the beach across from Cuthbert’s personal retreat island. While Lindisfarne’s buildings evoke humanity, the beach transcends human memory; it is empty and timeless. A bit of devotional beachcombing yielded a tiny crinoid known as a Cuthbert bead. This is pilgrimage: mindful walking, in anticipation that the path will bestow a gift.


Keep Calm and Stay Left

As an old woman, Georgia O’Keeffe once claimed that she had been terrified every moment of her life, and it had never kept her from doing a single thing. O’Keeffe had a habit of living her life on the edge, disregarding boundaries and borders, whether they had been self-imposed or imposed from without. 

I have always admired O’Keeffe, but I have come to admit that my admiration is more theoretical than motivational. One of my shortcomings is that I almost never seek out experiences that scare me. Until now. 

Having a saint ride shotgun is a good idea.
Last weekend I rented a car and drove all around Northumberland and the Border Lands of England and Scotland. Driving on the left side of the road is a spiritual experience, in the sense that a brush with death brings you closer to God.

Driving in England was a disorienting combination of knowing what to do and having no idea at all. I mean: I know how to drive. But I was worried about my instincts: I am careful checking for oncoming traffic, but it wigged me out that the traffic would be coming from the wrong direction. It was the quick, instinctual decisions that terrified me in advance. 

It had not occurred to me to brush up on UK road signs, of course. Also–and this turns out to be important–measuring speed in miles per hour and kilometers per hour is not the same thing. I figured that out after throwing gravel while squealing around a couple of turns. Oh, and another thing: rural roads in England are not wide enough for two cars. So that’s fun. There was a bustle in my hedgerow a couple of times there. I was alarmed.

God being my helper and St. Polycarp be praised, there were no serious mishaps. I handled the roundabouts just fine. I only got honked at once, and only twice started to get in the wrong car door. I did skim the left curb about 1000 times and grip the wheel like my life depended on it. Which I guess it did. 

The wonder of the experience was that after a while, I got my bearings and worry gave way to joy. After traveling several plane and train segments, it was so wonderful to be free to pick my own strange roads, and arrange my comfort stops as I pleased. When I got lost, I problem-solved with the help of a stained and dog-eared atlas, in combination with the little blue GPS dot on my phone. 

Seeing variations of my family name never got old. I saw this sign while I was lost.
I saw things I would never have seen from the train, and when something caught my eye, I turned around and went back. 
I kept thinking that what made it possible for Moses to hear the voice of God was the fact that he noticed something–a bush, burning!–and turned off his path to see. This was one of the greatest mid-course corrections in history and a model for us all. God grant us to seek new roads, even in fear. May we always turn aside to look when something wondrous catches the eye.

What’s in a name?

I’m liking the feel of my feet on the ground. (Mary Chapin Carpenter)

The Northumberland flag
The original staircase spirals clock-wise, favoring the sword of the defender, coming down.
Medieval toilets.
After two nights in a semi-sketchy hostel in Edinburgh (a basementy wonder with an alley-floor view complete with pigeons, a tiny, grimy window and weird lighting,) my accommodations have gotten steadily nicer. (I hasten to say, however, that the hostel was a Great Sub-Cultural Experience and I got to stay there with my daughter. So, no complaints here. But yeah: the room had room for improvement.) At the other end of the spectrum, I arrived yesterday at Langley Castle.

Built in 1350 on land held by the barony of Langley, the castle overlooks the River Tyne valley in the Northumberland region of northeast England, just west of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Most personal to me: my family surname, Tyndall, comes from this place.

It is well documented that our name–my sisters’, my father and his brother’s, and their father’s, and his father’s… all the way back–has its etymology in the dale of the Tyne. I take it for granted, really. But traveling there, being there in person, has caused this intellectual interest to settle down into my gut.

Langley Castle is a schmancy hotel now, after having been things like a girls’ school, a private residence and a 400-year ruin. Many features of the 14th-century fortification remain: teensy spiral staircases, low doors, and giant fireplaces. There are deep window wells in the seven-feet-thick walls, some are for sitting and gazing, and some for defending the castle.  The view from the very top turret shows the entire estate of several hundred acres, which ends at Hadrian’s Wall.

I was ensconced in the Tindale Room, named for Adam de Tindale, first baron of the estate. I had hoped to be visited by the ghost of a long-dead ancestor, but alas. Instead, I just went very slowly, and walked around touching everything. I took a bath, because there were bath salts. I wore the robe and the slippers. I had a lovely dinner and breakfast in the restaurant. My clean laundry appeared magically on my bed. Except for a little walk around outside for a selfie, I stayed inside the castle for my entire 24 hours there. I paid for all of the services, of course, since I was a guest and not the lady of the estate. I received a deep gift in my blood, the heavy weight of my history. I am grateful.

I let time go by so slow, and I made every moment last. And I thought about years: how they take so long, and they go so fast. 

In which our heroine is charmed by an abbess and a vampire

After two nights in Whitby, I am leaving with a brand-new love for a place I had barely heard of. My calendar shows a saint’s commemoration for “Hilda of Whitby,” but the person and the geography were just words to me before yesterday.

Doing travel research and laying out an itinerary is a lot like collecting shells on the beach. Every single option looks more lovely than the previous one, and before you know it, your pockets can’t possibly hold all the pieces you’ve picked up. So you sort and throw out, either randomly or with reasons that make sense only to you.

The plans for my journey around the UK got quickly and completely out of control and had to be wrangled into submission. I have a nostalgic/Anglophilic weakness for ruined abbeys, and that helped me with the sorting. Looking for a destination about a four-hour train ride from Edinburgh, I dropped a pin at Whitby. It has an abbey. And it’s on the coast. That would be cool. 

I ended up in this seaside town without knowing anything about it. As it turns out, it’s an enormously popular destination, and the spring bank holiday ensured a crowd. Super-historic and adorable with narrow streets, shops, and cobblestones, Whitby also has its share of crap-shops, temporary tattoo booths and “attractions” like every other tourist town. 

But by far the most wonderful thing about Whitby is the ruined abbey atop the cliff, 99 steps above the street and overlooking the North Sea. The present ruins are from Henry VIII’s destruction of the monasteries around 1540, but they rest on more ancient monastic ruins dating to the 600s. Adding to the moody atmosphere on the clofftop is the fact that the graveyard of the nearby Church of St. Mary the Virgin is where Dracula met his first victim upon his arrival in England. 

St. Hilda (614?-680) was the founder and abbess of a co-ed monastic community. Hilda was so respected by the Anglo-Saxon kings and religious leaders that her monastery was the site of a key council of the church in 664. For reasons more political than religious, the Synod of Whitby decided that the still-new Christian religion in the north od England would follow the practices and the calendar of Rome, rather than the Irish and Scottish (Celtic) ways. (More’s the pity, I say.)

The abbey is an English Heritage site, of course, and as such is a prime location for costumed interpreters. During my long afternoon there, “Benedictine monks” were introducing visitors to the temporary labyrinth mown into the lawn below the abbey. Even more than abbey ruins, I am a sucker for a labyrinth, so it was a wonderful surprise to find one there for the walking. It was mostly tourist attraction: racing kids and laughing friends made it an interesting semi-devotional, communal experience.

I said someting to one of the monks about “that damned Henry VIII” and he, in a perfect (and unintentional) impression of Hugh Grant said: “Yes, well. HE’LL have some things to answer for, won’t he?”