[This post originally appeared in January 2005 on the now-defunct blog that preceded “Quid Plura?” It seemed fitting for this week.]
Journeying to Canterbury is no longer quaint. Medieval pilgrims ended the trip tired and footsore and damp, but fields and villages now fly past train windows at speeds that test the imagination of the wide-eyed medievalist. Go ahead: Count the spires. Pretend you’re a motley-clad traveler rambling past hedgerows while a whistling minstrel spurs you on with his idiot’s rendition of “Greensleeves.” The vision fades. In moments, a smokestack or minaret shakes you from your Pre-Raphaelite reverie, as well it should.
In Canterbury, you’ll seek in vain for the pregnant hope that called to medieval pilgrims, but you will encounter the humanity, the “God’s plenty” Dryden saw in Chaucer: throngs of foul-mouthed schoolgirls, market-stall merchants hawking grape leaves and portraits of Elvis in frames. In the holy gloom of the cathedral, docents outnumber clergy; tourists outnumber docents. Beyond the quire, Becket’s shrine once stood exposed to devotional groping; in its place sits a lone candle, roped off for its own protection. In a more fervent and tactile age, parsons and plowmen might have found it disappointing—or maybe they’d distinguish, as we often do not, between things that are transient and things that are lasting and real.
At Canterbury Cathedral, that flame lights the murk where distinctions blur. Stand where Becket was murdered, by arches carved with jagged Romanesque fangs, and the pained reaction Eliot ascribed to the masses is sudden and true: “But this,” he wrote, “this is out of life, this is out of time, / An instant eternity of evil and wrong.” But then you look away from Thomas’s name gouged in red across the floor and those magnificent walls and windows draw your eye up, and up, and up. You’re happy; you’re lost in heavenly complexity.
Thirteen years ago, I found Canterbury with my best friend, almost by accident. Last week, while he hunched over law books in a Cambridge suburb, I went there with his wife, a dear friend in her own right but in 1992 someone I didn’t know existed. Part of my return was a vain attempt to confirm small, cherished myths—Did they move the bus station? Where’s that place we ate breakfast?—but after several cold, quiet hours with fellows like Anselm and Becket I cared less for 1992, 1399, or 1170 than I did for the future. Who will join me next time? Will it be their eight-month-old son, destined to inherit his dad’s sword-and-sorcery gene and his mom’s eye for architecture? Will I pause in those chapels with someone I’ll meet tomorrow, or ten years hence? Will it be someone who’s yet to be born?
I don’t know; it’s good not to know. Now that I’m home I imagine two things: One day I’ll wander back through Canterbury, and when I do, I won’t be alone. I may have no need for saintly intercession and miraculous cures, nor boundless faith in either, but to anticipate that next visit is to plan out a new sort of pilgrimage. If that turns out to be one more thing I was wrong about, so be it—but waiting to see who walks beside you is, even for the most aimless of pilgrims, a fine premonition of hope.