Durham: three stories

I cannot come to terms with Durham Cathedral.

Scientists struggle to get a good picture of the blue whale, the largest mammal on earth, because those enormous creatures of course exist only in the water, and if you get far enough away to frame the entire thing in your shot, the ocean obscures the image. If you’re close enough to get a clear image, you’re only going to capture a portion of the whole—and the awesome immensity of the whole whale is of course one of the reasons why you’re drawn to it in the first place.

Alas, I’ll have to try using words. 

Here, too, frames fail. I’ll need more than one. 

Two stories

In our coursework, we’ve repeatedly observed that places gain meaning from the narratives that frame them, and here are two historical narratives—both factually true—that have given meaning to Durham Cathedral:

Narrative #1. Saint Cuthbert’s bones. Saint Cuthbert, the spiritual superhero of medieval Britain, died in 683, and his relics became a serious draw for pilgrims to the Holy Island of Lindisfarne. Although Cuthbert himself was revered for his simplicity, humility, and generosity, his cult brought considerable wealth and fame to Lindisfarne—which made it a prime target for invading Vikings in the following century. Fearing that the invaders would capture Cuthbert’s bones, the monks of Lindisfarne fled Holy Island and spent over a century moving them throughout northeast England, finally settling, in 995, in Durham: a safe spot high on a cliff formed by a hairpin turn in the River Wear. They built a small wooden church, and then a somewhat larger stone one, over his bones, which still lie in Durham.

As we were walking along the river to the cathedral, the student next to me said, “I like it here. It feels safe.” I was surprised, because that one word named exactly one feeling I’ve always had in the area, but I’d never really articulated. It must have been what the monks felt when they finally stopped here with Cuthbert’s bones.

So there’s that.

Narrative #2. Norman power. In 1066, William the Conqueror took control of England, but the northern regions—further removed from his power base in the south—gave him considerable trouble. William responded with “the Harrying of the North,” a grim military initiative that he himself regretted on his deathbed, and for which he is still hated by many in northeast England. William’s troops killed men. They killed women. They killed children. They demolished villages, slaughtered livestock, and burned the farmland. And shortly thereafter, they built a castle in Durham. It is a beautiful castle, but also preposterous, built as it is on top of an impossible cliff. It’s like building a skyscraper on top of a mountain: a deliberate statement of shock and awe.

And shortly after they began the castle, the Normans built the cathedral, replacing the one built by the monks for the shrine of Cuthbert. The bones of the saint were, and are, safer than they had ever been. But the Normans had now literally surrounded them in heavy stone, co-opting the myth and legend of this Anglo-Saxon saint in their own statement of prominence and power.

Realizing that he would need a strong presence in the north (not only to keep the northern English in check, but also as a defense against those menacing Scots), William gave the Bishop of Durham unprecedented power. The Prince Bishops, as they came to be known, could call their own parliaments, enforce their own laws, collect their own taxes, raise their own armies. Church and state effectively merged, and many observed that there were in fact two kings in England: the King of England and the Bishop of Durham, whose seat—by definition—is in Durham Cathedral.

So there’s that, too.

What is this place?

The problem, for me, is not in choosing between these two narratives; it’s the way in which the first one overpowers the second. Durham Cathedral seems much more like a shrine to Cuthbert and the Venerable Bede (whose remains lie at the opposite end of the building) than it seems like an architectural statement of colonialist aggression—which it undeniably was. Despite the superior physical and political power of the Normans, the narrative power of Cuthbert proves stronger still. How can this be?

It’s not because the Norman narrative has simply been forgotten. One of the novels we read before going to Durham was Frederick Buechner’s Godric, a 1981 retelling of the life of Godric of Finchale, an Anglo-Saxon hermit who was born the year before the Norman invasion. At one point in the novel, the old anchorite visits the newly finished cathedral, and his description of it—despite being written by a twentieth-century American—well captures an Anglo-Saxon’s view of this grand colonial architectural statement:

The aisles are vaulted now. The nave is done. Thick Norman columns stout enough to hold the welkin up support the high, dim vaulting in the roof. The columns have been carved around with deep-cut lines like garlands, serpents, crooked vines, each different from the rest. Behind the altar there’s a shrine to shelter Cuthbert’s bones they carted here, with many stoppings over many years along the way, from Lindisfarne.

Even the flames of many candles can’t light up this awesome dark, nor all the gathered throng of priests and monks and lords and common folk fill up this emptiness. The hooded monks chant psalms as we wend slowly down, but all their voices raised at once are but the rustle of the wind through trees, the call of owls, in this vast wood of stone. The towns the Conqueror razed when he came harrying the north, the crops he burned, the beasts he felled, the Saxon folk he slew, all haunt these Norman shadows. The silence is the sum of all their voices stilled. As long as these stones stand and this great roof keeps out the rain, Durham’s cathedral will be dark with death.

I invited students to revisit that passage after they’ve been to the cathedral. We’ll see what they make of it. Suffice it to say that this postcolonial reading of the building was readily available to all of us.

When I myself enter that space, though, the above passage from Godric is not the first that comes to mind. It’s Psalm 90, which our group reads aloud together every week. “You, O Lord, have been our dwelling place in all generations.” As one student observed early on, there are a lot of metaphors for God; it’s kind of weird to think of God as a house. But if I had to imagine a physical space that embodies that opening line of the psalm, a place sturdy and strong and holy and old—generations old—it would be the nave of Durham Cathedral.

I don’t know what it is. When I enter that space, my soul somehow settles down. I feel at home.

Telling (and not telling) the stories

In the museum attached to the cathedral—housed in a room that actually used to serve as the monastery’s kitchen—are several seventh-century artifacts, including Saint Cuthbert’s coffin and his pectoral cross (i.e., cross worn on the chest). The coffin is in pieces, so its fragments have been assembled around a box to retain its shape, and it’s easy to see the shattered casket as a statement that even death itself could not hold Cuthbert, whose tomb was opened years after his burial and whose body had not decayed in the slightest. The pectoral cross is small and broken and still—to me—deeply dazzling. This was a real man, with a real chest. A real heart.

So that’s one way in which Narrative #1 triumphs here: archaeological artifacts.

Still, the entire building is an archaeological artifact of Narrative #2. It’s a showy building. It towers over everything around it. So how does Narrative #2—Norman bluster—get overpowered by a crumbling casket and a teeny tiny piece of jewelry? 

Both of our tour guides interestingly evaded the shadows of Godric’s Durham. 

Our second tour guide—the one who showed us the coffin and the cross—chatted with me a bit as students explored the Chapter House (Professor McGonagall’s classroom in the Harry Potter films). She remarked in passing that there was sometimes tension when they had visitors from Jarrow, the location of the abbey where Bede had lived and worked. “They’re always suggesting that his bones ought to be there, and of course we have them here, so it’s a bit awkward, you know. It becomes a matter of how we work around that conversation.” I nodded appreciatively but couldn’t help thinking less appreciative thoughts about appropriation and the politics of dead men’s bones. That narrative is here. It’s being worked around.

Our otherwise thorough cathedral guide worked around it entirely. He told us all of Narrative #1, the journey of Cuthbert’s relics, but mostly skipped over Narrative #2, the Harrying of the North. In his telling, well, here were the Normans—no matter how—and weren’t they impressive? Whereas most cathedrals take centuries to build, they finished this one in forty years(!), which is why the building remains one of the finest examples of Norman (i.e., Romanesque) architecture anywhere. Our guide had once talked with a visitor from Normandy who, on a tour of an old cathedral in France, had been told that if we wanted to see the best, purest example of eleventh century French architecture, he’d need to go to Durham. This was clearly a point of pride for our tour guide.

He’s not wrong: those Normans were impressive. I’ve always felt that there was something, well, right and just about the place, and there’s a reason for that. The arches in the building are halves of perfect circles, no surprise there, but the round columns—I kid you not—are exactly as high as their circumference. You can measure them by the diamonds: twelve diamonds high, and twelve diamonds around.

And if you’re really analyzing one of the “diamond” columns and trace one of the diagonals, you’ll see that it ends at the top at the exact point where it begins at the base. Most of that doesn’t seem possible, but it’s undeniably true. That’s actually not a bad summary of faith itself.

From a postcolonialist point of view, however, here is how these tour guides come across. The Norman conquest is fully complete, reaching not only across eleventh and twelfth century England but also into the twenty-first, and even reaching down into the very narratives with which we define this place. The colonizer’s narrative has become the narrative; the Norman is the Normal. Alternate narratives have been appropriated into the Norman story, and if they cannot be, they have been suppressed, ignored, or (in polite British fashion) conveniently circumvented.

I think that’s truth. I’m not sure it’s the whole truth.

Narrative #3: Experience

You’re not going to really know a blue whale by seeing pictures or footage of it—from any angle. Or by reading about it. If you really want to know this thing, you’re going to have to swim with the whale.

I know the history; I mourn the history. Narrative #2 is always present in my mind when I enter Durham Cathedral. But Narrative #1 always eclipses it. Psalm 90 always eclipses Godric.

As I walked down the center aisle of the nave, I remembered that walk on my first visit, when a man in flamboyant liturgical vestments came billowing toward me. “I’m doing something wrong,” I thought. “I’ll say I’m sorry and step aside.” But just then a toddler started screaming off to my left, and his mother started desperately trying to shush him. The cleric stopped his stride, bent toward the child with a broad smile, and said, “That’s right, lad, you make a noise. This is your house, too.” That man, that lad, and that mother were with me in the cathedral yesterday.

The last time I had been in the cathedral was three years ago, with my wife and my son. I missed them. But they were present in their own way, too, and I smiled at the spot in the cloisters from which I had taken a picture of them.

It is difficult to quantify such things in heights and circumferences, but they are no less real.

What to do with all of this? How does a colonial power play become such a legitimate spiritual space—and in such a way that the power play itself becomes all but invisible?

Perhaps I’ve simply drunk the colonial Kool-Aid of the Normans. Or perhaps it’s reductive to characterize all Normans as brutal conquerors—however much they seemed so to the people they conquered. Or perhaps we might say that even selfish power plays can have inadvertently generous spiritual consequences. We have all known times in which gestures of love and kindness have had unintended effects of alienation and hurt; why might the reverse not also sometimes be true?

I cannot come to terms with Durham Cathedral.

I have now swum with this whale many times, but I cannot plumb the depths to which it swims.


I sure love these students. A couple of weeks into the program now, they’re finally showing me who they are—and they’re wonderful. They have some of the good basic qualities that every program coordinator would want: they show up on time; they keep track of each other; they’re flexible when things don’t work out. As they slowly showed up at Liverpool Lime Street Station for our train to Durham, I was honestly glad to see each and every one of them as they appeared. Every one of them is constantly on my radar, of course, but there is no one I’ve had to monitor or manage. 

But more importantly, they’re curious and thoughtful. I’ve now spent a couple of days reading their first rounds of real writing, and I’m gratified by their intelligence and insight. We talked in person about suffering and responses to it in our class a couple of nights ago—a Friday night class from 5-8!—and even at that terrible hour, they spoke with real honesty and wisdom. I took lots of notes. It’s a blessing for me to work with them.

I First

It takes a while to get into Chester Cathedral these days. Construction work has blocked off the main entrance in the rear of the church, so to enter now, you must ignore at least one sign that says “Entrance,” wind around the side of the building, snake through a couple of temporary corridors, and finally find yourself in the cloisters adjacent to the church. If you turn left, you’ll be blocked by a vaccination clinic. (“We can’t go around that way,” shrugged the tour guide, “because of all the jabbings.”)

So you turn right and find yourself in the grand old eleventh century nave of the church.

And, as with all churches, to get to the heart of the space—the altar—you must walk a long way forward, through the crossing beneath the great tower, through the quire with its ornately carved wooden benches on either side, and finally to platform and table where heaven and earth meet one another in the Eucharist.

As I followed that pilgrimage yesterday, I was reminded of George Herbert’s collection of poems, The Temple, which we had begun to read together the following evening. The book is not at all strictly allegorical, but it does begin by clearly signaling an architectural structure. First comes “The Church Porch,” a rather tedious 462 lines of very didactic instructions on Christian behavior. I usually skim it or skip it when re-reading The Temple; no such luck navigating the Church-Porch in Chester.

Then comes a very brief poem called “Superliminare” (literally, “above the threshold”) and then comes “The Church,” the section of the book containing most of Herbert’s lyrics. Once you’re past the threshold, you’re in.

And strangely, the first poem you come to in “The Church” is “The Altar,” one of Herbert’s most famous poems because of its shape:

It’s strange because Herbert has so clearly invoked the actual structure of a church up to this point, but the altar never appears right inside the threshold of a Christian church—not in Chester Cathedral or anywhere else. A Christian reader who has some knowledge of churches runs into this poem in The Temple and says, “Wait, I thought this was a building?” So why does Herbert put this poem right up front? 

I’ve read a number of academic explanations of Herbert’s choice, and I’m still not sure what caused this sequencing. Its effect, though, jolts me every time.

All of a sudden, unexpectedly, “The Church” gets real. It’s personal. After a long series of Sunday School lessons in the second-person, bammo, the poet is talking about himself, and he’s not messing around. He’s getting right to the very heart of the Christian faith.

The British often marvel at Americans’ willingness to bare their souls to someone they’ve just met. Even the extremely gregarious Liverpudlians I’ve met have been slow to offer up anything personal about themselves. It takes several rounds of small talk to come around to that sort of thing. 

Not for Herbert. The first poem in “The Church” is profound introduction to his deepest identity. As many have noticed, “The Altar” isn’t just in the shape of an altar. It’s also an “I,” and it raises several paradoxes about the nature of that “I”: is the altar broken, as it clearly says it is in the first line, or is it whole (as we can see it is without even reading the poem)? 

Herbert ends the poem asking for a swapped identity with Christ, putting the exact nature of the “I” up for grabs. The following poem, “The Sacrifice,” (essentially an extended footnote on the word “sacrifice” in “The Altar”) plays with this exchange by also speaking in the first person—lots of “I”s in the poem—in the person of Jesus as he is arrested and crucified:

      Lo, here I hang, charg’d with a world of sinne,
      The greater world o’ th’ two; for that came in
      By words, but this by sorrow I must win:
                   Was ever grief like mine?

The meaning of “I” has shifted (one might say altered) from what it meant in “The Altar.”

In other words, “The Altar” is both a startling assertion of personal identity and a sudden subversion of that identity at the same time (although the term “superversion” seems more appropriate in this case).

The experience of running straight into Herbert’s “Altar” is both like unlike the experience I had of walking into Chester Cathedral. The first time you step into any grand old church, you are supposed to feel the ground shift a little bit. You are supposed to take a re-orienting moment to ask yourself whether you are in a heavenly space or an earthly one, or at least whether a space so vast still counts as an interior (“Wait, I thought this was a building?”). You should feel very small. Herbert does not have space—he has words on a page—so he creates a similar effect through other means.

And one of those means is by creating an experience unlike the distance one must travel from a church door to the altar. There is no time to breathe and look around inside Herbert’s “Church.” Sin and grace are in your face.

As it turns out, one of the things they’re doing in their construction work on the cathedral is to know out a large piece of the back wall(!), so that it can be replaced entirely by transparent glass. They want the nearby commercial district to have direct visual access to the center of the worship space.

That seems to me like a total Herbert move.

Window in Chester Cathedral


Yesterday we journeyed to the ancient city of Chester, founded as a Roman fortress in 79AD and still surrounded by almost all of its (much rebuilt and restored) city walls. 

I scheduled it as our first excursion partly because we’re marching through British history in our coursework, and Chester is such a beautiful, comprehensive historybook of a city—but also because it’s a mere 45 minutes from Liverpool, one easy station-to-station train ride and therefore a good introduction to British rail and how we’ll travel as a group.

I’m glad to report that everyone was (mostly) on time, and no one was lost or left behind.

At the Roman amphitheater in Chester

We spent the first hour or so of our visit following a loquacious fellow in a Roman getup who called himself Crassus and gave us an informative and extremely entertaining account of the structures the Romans left behind and the kinds of lives that were once lived in them. 

I worried a bit when I booked this tour, because when I looked at the dressed-up tour guides on the company website, I could hear my 11-year-old’s voice in the back of my head: “Too babyish.” Would a group of university students really go for this kind of thing?

They did. I did, too.

I don’t blame the man for putting on a bit of a show, because Roman ruins—let’s face it—aren’t always that impressive on their own, mostly stumps of stone that require a great deal of imagination to bring to life in the mind.

The present on top of the past

We spent a good deal of time hearing about Roman baths, and the various implements Romans used to groom themselves (examples of which Crassus kept in various pouches under his cloak). We went to the amphitheater and talked about combat games. Perhaps the most dramatic moment of the tour, however, was when Crassus boldly marched up one of the main streets of the modern city and led us straight into… a Pret A Manger. 

In he went, in we followed, straight back behind the counter(!), straight down the steps to the basement, and into a room that contained the foundations of the original Roman principia or central building of the Roman fortress. We lingered for a few minutes in the shadows of the past, running our fingers over the old, weathered stones while tourists ate their hummus wraps in the shop overhead.

May we never see a Pret a Manger the same way again—or, for that, matter any modern city street.

Of course, the present and the past are rarely as neatly separated as we found them in the restaurant and its basement. 

The present in place of the past

Often the present simply replaces the past, especially if old buildings were not built as strongly as a massive Roman principia. The real jewel of Chester is its medieval Cathedral, begun in the eleventh century. Actually, however, the eleventh century is when the current cathedral was begun, the Normans having demolished the wooden structure that apparently stood on the same spot for four centuries before that. Alas, we cannot go into the basement of the cathedral to see the old Anglo-Saxon church. It is lost to time—or at least to space.

The present adjacent to the past

The cathedral does, however, preserve much of its past since the eleventh century. Original stonework is still visible, including the rounded arches favored by the Normans long before the pointed Gothic style became popular in the thirteenth century. At that point, some—but not all—of the church was rebuilt and expanded in the new aesthetic, so that a few centuries of architectural history are evident side by side in the existing building. 

In those cases, the present did not erase the past, as with the original church building, or preserve but eclipse it, as we saw in the Pret a Manger. Present and past sit neatly side by side.

The present disguised as the past


Most intriguing, to me, are the more baffling situations in which the present pretends to be the past. Many, many of the medieval-looking things in this genuinely medieval cathedral are actually nineteenth century. The Victorians were fascinated with Gothic architecture and imitated it wherever they could. 

So when you enter the original cloisters of Chester Cathedral, for instance, you are confronted with several windows of old saints—a few of whom we’ve read about in Bede—in faux-medieval stained glass.

If you take the time to read the text in the dedications, however, you’ll find mostly dates in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The Puritans knocked out all of the original glasswork in the seventeenth century, and the Victorians (and moderns) replaced them with what, to an untrained eye like mine, look like medieval windows.

When we look at these windows, we are seeing actually two panes of history—the medieval and the Victorian—but it seems as if we’re seeing only one. We are seeing the present disguised as the past.

Also impressive were the massive biblical mosaics along the north wall of the nave, featuring nearly life-sized images of figures from the Old Testament. The enormous panels were completed in the late nineteenth century, at great expense, in Italian marble to imitate the style not of medieval Britain but of ancient Rome.

Which brought me back to our good man Crassus and his feathered helmet. Why would someone disguise the present as the past? Our tour guide and the Victorian glaziers at the cathedral would seem to offer two different answers.

Crassus wore his helmet, cape, and sword to emphasize the difference between present and past. The disguise is not intended to be a disguise at all. We weren’t really supposed to believe that he was a member of the Roman legion. I asked myself whether the outfit helped us to bridge the centuries and see ourselves back in the second century—and I decided that it didn’t. There were too many schoolboy puns, too many modern movie references. The whole point of the “disguise” was the incongruity. (I spent a lot of time watching passers-by as they watched Crassus, wondering whether Chesterfolk were used to guys like him on the streets. The way they gawked and pointed and laughed suggested that they weren’t—but I suspect that most of them were tourists, not locals.)

For the Victorians, it’s obviously more nuanced and complicated. They weren’t going for laughs. They seem to have imitated the medieval style not as a gimmick with a wink, not to emphasize the incongruity of past and present, but rather to… ?

That’s an ongoing question for us in Liverpool, which is almost entirely a product of the nineteenth century and later.


Exactly a week ago, I wrote about the slow process of arriving in Liverpool. At this, point we seem to have arrived. Only one student tested positive for Covid before leaving the States, and none have failed their arrival tests. We’re finding our feet, learning how to get places, and more or less adjusted to the local time.

Last night we had our first class session in one of the huge old restored buildings on the downtown campus, with a beautiful sunset over the Liverpool skyline outside the enormous windows. It’s always reassuring to find myself teaching or learning in a classroom. Those roles are familiar to me; classrooms are home. (I’m not sure the students would agree with me.)

Yesterday afternoon, before heading downtown for class, I was walking back from the grocery store to my literal home here in Liverpool, a cozy little flat on the main campus. Suddenly my eye was caught by a frenzy of motion from the shuttle bus stopped at the curb: a number of my students were in the front window of the upper deck, waving to me like crazy.

I was home before I got there. I had just a little ways to go before I reached my building (it’s the red brick building on the righthand side of the picture above) and was eager to put down my load, but there’s something very heartening about a familiar face in a strange city.

Our Daily Bananas

At the end of a long day last week, I realized that I was out of fruit. I like apples and bananas when traveling, because they’re healthy snacks that be easily stashed in a coat pocket on the way out the door. If you don’t know exactly when and where your next meal is coming from, it’s good to be prepared. And I was completely out. Also, I was hungry.

So I had started my long walk to the grocery store when I got an email from the International Hub, my contact office at the university here. Did I want to stop by and pick up paperwork for a student, or should they just send it down to be waiting at the security desk?

I’ve learned to take face-to-face meetings whenever possible, partly because the people who work in that office are just profoundly pleasant people, but also because personal meetings have ways of quickly raising and resolving issues that won’t necessarily come up over email. “By the way, did you hear about…. Oh, that reminds me…. Hey, I can do that; you don’t have to.” Some of the best planning and problem-solving I’ve done here has happened almost accidentally on a walk across campus or a drive downtown to do something else.

So I turned my back on the grocery store and headed back to campus to fetch the paperwork.

When I entered the International Hub, I found a couch full of food. “Do you want any apples and bananas?” my colleague asked me. She explained that the university had bought provisions for a couple of other international students who would need to isolate until their Covid tests came back negative, but now those students couldn’t come.

“Pack like a pilgrim,” I’ve told students. “Don’t just pack the bare minimum you’ll need to get by. Pack less than that.” Why would we pray “Give us this day our daily bread” if we already had a cupboard full of bread and could totally take care of ourselves? Leave enough emptiness to be filled by serendipity, grace, and the hospitality of strangers. Because those things happen.

The Mirror of Frustration

In the Harry Potter books, the Mirror of Erised shows the viewer whatever they most desire. I’m not really sure what I most desire, which is why I’m so curious to look into that mirror—which is why that plot device is such a nifty invention from J.K. Rowling.

The Mirror of Noitartsurf doesn’t sound nearly as elegant, nor is it. Frustration is an inelegant experience: it makes us trip and stop; it makes small things big (elegance is the converse); it shuts things down. But it can also open our eyes to who we really are.

I have not had Wi-Fi for six days. That’s frustrating. Especially with an academic term starting next week, a new program to set up, and constant emails about travel changes, administrative matters, and—most ironic of all—how to fix the Wi-Fi. I’ve done all of this, and video chatted with my family overseas, on the strength of the meager UK phone plan I had arranged.

The natural response to this kind of frustration is to find somewhere to place the blame. Who dropped the ball? In this particular case, well, that’s me. Long story short, I didn’t think that I’d need the kind of internet account here that I do in fact need, so I said “no” when they asked—months ago.

Even if it were possible to point the finger at someone else, though, the more interesting question is what the frustration says about me. What is it in me that needs constant, convenient internet access? 

In direct contrast to the Mirror of Erised, the Mirror of Noitartsurf shows me exactly what I don’t want—which is of course a mirror image of what I do want and who I really am.

I don’t often like who I see in this mirror.

Years and years ago, I was writing late at night in a coffee shop in Washington, DC, and I paused to study the other patrons in the dark reflection of the front window so that I could study them without staring at them directly, instantaneously pigeon-holing each one: “First date over there, no doubt,” I thought. “Both so awkwardly trying not to seem awkward.” Next table: “Stupid nerd.” Next table: “Superficial little socialite, probably texting her BFF about the new nail color she found, or whatever.” Next table: “Pretentious, bookish little—oh, wait: that’s me.”


Looking into my frustration over this issue, I haven’t altogether liked what I see. So I’ve sent the requisite emails to IT, but then I’ve gone for long walks and runs far from any digital screen. I’ve read real books. I’ve written without the distractions of email and social media.

I would like to be the kind of person who needs less internet. Here’s my chance.


The best arrivals often happen slowly. 

I’ve been in Liverpool for a couple of days now, and only today do I feel that I’m 90% here. There’s jetlag. There’s culture shock (even for someone who’s lived in England before). There’s the figuring out of a new city and a new partner university. It all takes time. But I’m just now beginning to believe that it’s really 8:00pm, that no one is faking their accent, and that this funny-looking little piece of paper with a picture of the queen on it is in fact real money.

That not-quite-here sensation was reinforced, for me, by the fact that the campus where I’m living was literally locked down when I arrived—not because of Covid, I’m happy to say, but just because of the New Year’s holiday. No offices were open. No people around. No Wi-Fi in my flat, and no one to restore it.

The sensation was also reinforced by the number of my roots that had been pulled up. I’m a husband approximately 3800 miles from his wife; I’m a dad approximately 3800 miles from his son. And until today, I was a professor approximately 3800 miles from his students.

As a fairly strong introvert, I’m struck by how many points of my identity are relational. I wouldn’t be a professor without students, a father without a child, or a husband without a wife. I’m also a son and a brother. The only other way I would define my identity—the primary way—is as a Christian, and the good news in all of this is that as a Christian I am always exactly zero miles from God.

from the “Gateway to Hope” sculpture in the main entrance to Liverpool Hope University.

Today I stood in a car park (read: parking lot) in the middle of the housing complex where the students are staying, distributing Covid tests to the slow flow of students being shuttled from Manchester airport, and receiving completed tests from those students 15 minutes later for submission to the lab.

If the best arrivals happen slowly, the arrival of the Calvin group to Liverpool is downright awesome. Some came today; some will come tomorrow; some have been in Britain for the better part of a week.

With every student who entered the car park, though, I felt myself arriving more and more in Liverpool, because my role was being restored: I was more and more of a professor with each and every student who arrived.

But alas. Omicron rules dictate that those poor students must hunker down in their rooms until their tests comes back negative. “Don’t hole up in your room,” I told them during orientation; now that’s the law. “Don’t just eat American food,” I said; the university is literally delivering Dominos pizza and McDonalds to them in their isolation. “Don’t put an electronic screen between you and Britain.” Right now, that’s pretty much all they’ve got.

I’ve given them online readings, assignments for the semester, and so forth, to peruse so that they’ll be able to take up their roles as students just as I’m taking up mine as professor. But somehow, I doubt that’s very helpful.

They’re safe. They’re fed. But they’re somewhat trapped in a new environment without the means to acclimate to the new culture all around them. And some of them—delayed by airline cancelations and positive Covid tests—haven’t even begun this process of testing and isolation yet.

The best arrivals often happen slowly. But this is ridiculous. 🙂