Pockets for the past

It was the elephants that first caught my attention. I was meandering through the Spitalfields area of London this morning after church, enjoying the relaxed, happy atmosphere that often seems to fill the streets of big cities on a sunny Sunday morning. As I passed through a plaza between two enormous office buildings, I saw several sculptures of elephants and thought I’d take a look.

It turns out that each sculpture is a replica of an actual elephant who was rescued, and each one stands (or sits) above a plaque that gives its name, date of rescue, and the reason it needed to be rescued in the first place.

As I crossed the plaza, however, I realized that I was walking on a glass floor, and beneath the glass were—old stone ruins! I looked all around for a plaque and couldn’t find one. I tried to guesstimate based on the stones I saw. Roman?

Then I noticed that there was another courtyard several feet below ground level, and when I walked down there, I discovered a window that made the ruins visible from the side, along with a plaque explaining that they had originally been a fourteenth-century Charnel House (so my guess had been exactly right, give or take a thousand years). A charnel house was a place to store bones that had become unearthed digging other graves. This one would have held the final remains of hundreds of people who had died in a great famine.

The walls were discovered only in 1999, and the plans for the surrounding buildings were adapted to rescue the ruins—the whole plaza is apparently a rescue operation—and make room for this display. The two sculptures in the ruins, by David Teager-Portman, were added in 2014.

I had a heavy heart as I looked into the past through those panes of glass, partly because I was staring at what had effectively been a mass grave, and partly because the sculptures somehow made the enclosed scene seem sad and suffocating. 

In large part, however, I felt heavy because I’ve been thinking about what the students and I will make of our past in Britain, and my fear is that our experiences, learning, and wisdom will be sealed off in a way that enables us to walk right over top them. What does it mean that we were all here? What connection will our recent past have to our ever-emerging presents? Once the past goes into our pockets, will we forget it’s there?

I kept a blog when I directed this program in 2018. I wrote a lot. I’ve never re-read a single entry.

A couple of weeks ago, I asked students what about their experience here they wanted to keep, and then I asked them which specific actions they’d have to take in order to keep those things, because otherwise good intentions will evaporate on the return flight over the Atlantic Ocean, and present realities back home will quickly seal off habits and practices from our time in Britain. 

My hope is that the Semester in Britain becomes something more than a pocket for our learning, more than a glass case in which our experiences are preserved by being frozen, and quite possibly ignored. I would prefer the gains we’ve made here—and several students have made great gains, indeed, judging by their final portfolios—to grow organically into our ongoing lives, not to fall into some safe, protective space.

Leaving the plaza, I looked down the road to see the church I had attended this morning, Christ Church Spitalfields (CCSpits for short), a hulking eighteenth century church that dominates the local area.

The church runs three services each Sunday, a lively one at 5:00pm for young people; one for families at 11:00am; and one for guys like me: the 9:00am service strictly follows the old Book of Common Prayer, with music on the pipe organ.

It had been a strange service. Make no mistake: the language was exactly what I had come for: straight-up old school Anglican. No eye-rolling or irony about any of it. If you closed your eyes and only heard the service, it could have been from any time in the last few centuries. I have been looking for that worship experience, without success, since my first Sunday in Liverpool.

But I was one of only a dozen congregants, including a handful of regulars. The priest was young, sturdily built, with a bald head and full beard—I would have guessed that he brewed his own beer—wearing the traditional black clerical shirt and white collar with a tweed coat over jeans and Doc Martens. He was calm but charismatic, having a quiet conversation with each newcomer before the service. He looks you right in the eye when he talks and listens.

The setup was slick: large screens so that everyone could see, with lyrics to songs on all three of them and different images—e.g., shots of the organist’s hands—sometimes appearing on some of the screens. Someone behind the scenes was clearly operating a sophisticated sound board and video control panel. The lighting was perfect. The fonts and graphic design were impeccable.

How do a dozen people (eleven, because I don’t count) support the maintenance of an aging church that big, with that kind of infrastructure? They didn’t even take a collection.

When I chatted a bit with the priest after the service, it became clear that the church had fallen into serious hardship even within the last few decades, and he had brought the 5:00 congregation—the lively one, with all of the energy (and, presumably, money)—with him from elsewhere only seven years ago.

What he also did, however, was to create a space in the revitalized ministry of the church in which to house the historical liturgy, even though most of his flock completely ignores it.

In other words, he had done for the old prayer book what architects and archaeologists had done for St. Mary’s Charnel House a few blocks away—not even a decade earlier. In some sense, he had done what I was afraid would happen with our time in Britain, and before leaving his church I had sincerely thanked him for doing it. If he had not kept that place in the church day for that service—if he had let the old words grow organically into the present—the old words would undoubtedly have disappeared into watery modernized ones. There needed to be a place set aside, even if that meant people walked right on by it.

So when I walked away from the charnel house and saw the house where I had finally heard the “comfortable words” of Thomas Cranmer’s prayer book, I had some thinking to do.

It’s okay, I decided. It’s okay if the knowledge and wisdom gained over this semester is mostly contained in final portfolios that the students themselves will never read again. It’s okay to blog for oblivion. It’s okay for two reasons.

First, the acts of reading, writing, and thinking that my students have done—if those acts have been at all meaningful—will continue to shape our unfolding present whether we want it to or not. We’re all better read now. We’re savvier travelers. We have better instincts in some things. As my mom used to say all the time: “Education is never wasted.”

The kind of organic growth I want to happen is in fact already happening. Some students have endured some of the most difficult moments of their lives on this trip. They’ve written about those experiences in a “Traveler’s Tale” assignment, which is accompanied by an “Author’s Statement” explaining why the chose to tell the story in the way they did. I’ve noted with deep joy not one but two stages of development in some students, one in the tale itself and another in the statement. They tell these tales with a sense of humor, with the detachment of hindsight; tragedy becomes comedy (or at least much less tragic than it was in lived experience). And in their statements they recognize that this has happened, putting themselves at a second remove.

Second, it’s okay to pocket the past because there are always the elephants—those things that stop us in our tracks and move us toward the rediscovery of something long forgotten. I take comfort in the idea that, for instance, a student five years from now will hear a reference to George Herbert and say, “Hey, I know that name… wait, I marked up a whole poem of his with that group back in Liverpool. That was actually pretty cool.” And maybe the volume will then be rescued from a shelf, with the notes still in it. 

Or, more realistically, they’ll find themselves in one of life’s steep valleys and say, “Wait, I’ve been here before. I was here in Liverpool.” And they’ll re-read their Traveler’s Tale—or they’ll simply remember how they told and re-told that tale—and they’ll have thrown themselves their own rescue line, because they know from experience that the tragedy of the moment is not the final word.

Pick like a pilgrim

“It isn’t going to fit.”

I had pulled a carry-on suitcase out from the closet to see whether I’d be able to put a mandolin in it when I moved to England for four months. I’m not a good musician at all, but I play a guitar or mandolin every day, and at home I have a various instruments leaning against various walls so that I can easily grab one without opening a case.


But I could tell right away that the suitcase would be too small. Larger suitcase? I’d have to check that luggage with the airline—which I am loathe to do. Take the mandolin as its own carry-on, instead of the backpack? That would mean packing four months’ worth of clothing and books into a single carry-on suitcase.

“It just isn’t going to fit.” Even aside from the physical logistics, I had been thinking carefully about how I would travel. “Pack like a pilgrim” was my motto, because traveling light not only makes it easier to navigate airports, buses, and trains, but it also leaves me somewhat dependent on my foreign hosts—and that’s a good thing. 

I was sure that I would need to buy a few more articles of clothing in Britain. That would force me to shop (another thing which I am loathe to do), which would force me to explore, which would bring me into contact and conversations with locals.

So in the end, it wasn’t just that the mandolin didn’t fit into my suitcase; it didn’t fit with the way I wanted to travel. I decided that my deep need for daily music was actually a reason to leave the instrument at home. By traveling with less than I needed to get by, I’d have to seek the music among the British. Instead of self-sufficiently settling into my flat with my mandolin to play my little songs, I’d have to talk to other musicians to borrow an instrument. Or find some local shops, talk to the people there, and buy a cheap one. I’d have to figure it out.

Packing like a pilgrim is largely about what you don’t pack. 

So I landed in London sans mando.

It was a couple of weeks before the absence of an instrument became uncomfortable. Playing music, even by myself, always makes me less lonely. It restores my soul. And I had no way to do it. I would enter my empty flat at the end of a long day—tired from teaching and the long bus ride home, anxious about an upcoming excursion, worried about how a sudden change would affect the budget—and there were no melodies to lift my heart, no chords in which to disappear. I would sit down at my computer to work, and an hour later I’d discover that I had instead been identifying locally owned music shops and browsing their guitar collections.

(It would have to be a guitar, not a mandolin. Most shops had, at most, only one or two mandolins—not enough of a range in which to find the sweet spot between low cost and reasonable quality.)

Finally, on one of my free weekdays, I woke up and said, “Today’s the day.” The rain had let up, it was almost sunny, and I set off down my favorite running path toward Gateacre, a suburb a mile and half away, to find a six-stringed friend. As I crossed one bridge, I thought with a smile, “When I come back this way, I’ll have a guitar on my back.”

Gateacre (“GAT-ah-ker”; it sounds like “Gataca” when British people say it) used to be a self-contained village out beyond the city limits. Although Liverpool has now engulfed it, it’s still possible to imagine a time when it was a tiny little world all its own. I never would have seen it if I hadn’t been searching for a guitar. I had literally run past it several times, to both the north and the south, without knowing that it was even there.

Moran Sound has been in Gateacre since 1985, and in business since the late sixties. It’s a homey little shop, and not just because Tony and Helen Moran literally live upstairs and ask customers to ring the doorbell before entering. The space is a series of small rooms with comfy chairs, a fireplace—it was lit when I visited—and of course wall after wall of guitars. Tony greeted me at the door and offered me a cup of tea before returning to chat with another customer.

After that person had left, he poked his head around the corner to see how I was doing. The inevitable questions came in due course: Where in the States are you from? Michigan, now where is that? The inevitable pause of uncertainty about where to take the conversation next. 

I complimented his collection of guitars, which launched us into a thirty-minute chat on the struggles of local businesses, the audacity of customers who bought a cheap guitar off the internet and then bring it to Tony to fix because it wasn’t set up properly, the supply chain problems and labor shortages that meant that C.F. Martin currently had no guitars they could send him. (I suggested that he sell some of his Martins back to Martin; he liked that idea a lot.) The hard fact that he and Curly Music downtown were the only “little guys” left, and Curly was struggling, too. 

That sounds like a terribly sad conversation, the way I’ve summarized it, but the entire thing was conducted with quips and laughter, a sort of amused resignation to the realities of the world, a fatalistic cheerfulness that is quintessentially English.

“But you haven’t seen the best part!” he finally said, proudly showing me into the locked showroom where he kept his fabulously expensive guitars—unquestionably the “Guitars of Distinction” advertised on his website and sign. “Have a look,” he said. “Play anything you want.” I knew better. Once you’ve played a $5000 guitar, every guitar that you can actually afford sounds like junk in comparison. 

I browsed, with my hands behind my back, for what I considered a polite amount of time, and attempted a segue to my own purposes. “Those are brilliant,” I said. “I’m actually looking for something at the lower end of the scale. I’m only here for a few months, and I just need something I can pick away at in the evenings.” I had noticed a handful of candidates on my quick perusal of the fireplace room.

“Ah, well,” said Tony with a resigned smile. “You don’t need anything from me then, do you? You’re going to want to wait til you get back to the States. Yeah, you’ll want to put your money into a real guitar, a good one that you don’t have to leave behind or travel with.” 

He was so friendly about it, so warm and sincere, that I didn’t have the wherewithal to insist that I did indeed want to buy a cheap guitar from him. I nodded, said I’d be back, and he showed me to the door.

I smiled as I took a look around Gateacre and found my path back home. I had been looking for an instrument because playing music makes me less lonely, but my conversation with Tony had accomplished the same thing. “I might go back just for the chat,” I said to myself. It was only as I re-crossed the bridge that I fully registered the fact that I did not have a guitar on my back.

Tony Moran himself had inadvertently cued my next step when he mentioned his only local competitor, Curly Music. Following through on this Curly-cue, I paid the shop a visit a week or so later. It felt more like a typical music store: a wall of acoustic guitars, some flashy electrics, amps everywhere around the floor. On two of the amps sat a somewhat older couple, with the shop owner patiently talking to the man—who was just starting to learn guitar—about all of the different options for a first instrument.

I listened to their conversation while I worked my way down the wall. They had clearly been at it for quite some time, and none of the three was in any kind of hurry. The owner was extraordinarily patient and soft-spoken, low-key but enthusiastic. He gently nudged them away from some mid-range models toward something less expensive. He demonstrated several styles of playing on several guitars, explaining why one was more suited to fingerpicking than another. He followed them gladly down many digressions about the weather, grandchildren, and so forth, that had absolutely nothing to do with music.

All of a sudden, I found a guitar that sounded like home. It was made of mahogany, just like my favorite guitar back in Michigan. And almost as important as its sound, it felt just right: the radius of the neck and size of the fretboard seemed like a natural fit for my hand. 

Tony Moran was right about the evils of buying a guitar on the internet, but not just because doing that deprives small shops of the business. Selecting a guitar is—or should be—a thoroughly physical process. “Incarnational learning” is a fundamental feature of the program I’m directing here: we learn with our bodies; physical presence is crucial to the project. It’s crucial to instrument shopping, too. You can’t know how a guitar sounds on the internet. (Even if there’s a recorded sample of it, you have to ask who’s playing it, and how, with what kind of pick, with what kind of microphone; what kind of speakers do you have?) And you obviously can’t know how a guitar feels by seeing it online. This was perhaps another respect in which my search for an instrument was a kind of pilgrimage: the music I was seeking certainly had spiritual dimensions, but it was thoroughly grounded in physical realities.

In any case, the guitar in my hands not only sounded like home, it felt like home. 

When comparing multiple instruments, I always play the same thing on each of them, but as I held the Vintage Statesboro, I found myself trying out some of my older songs, too, the ones I play on the porch on summer nights back in Michigan.

“Hey, that sounds good!” the older woman said, looking straight at me. “I like that! That sounds good!” She gave me a thumbs-up. I thanked her and put the guitar back as she returned to listen to the shop owner’s suggestion that they try something with nylon strings.

I’d run across the Vintage Statesboro a couple of times in my online browsing. It’s in my price range, and it’s a somewhat strange-looking instrument. It’s a parlor guitar, which means that it has a smaller body and less volume—both physically and sonically—than most guitars. (Parlor guitars from the early twentieth century were exactly that: intended to be played in domestic parlors, not on concert stages.) That suited my needs: I was looking for something to play in a somewhat thin-walled flat without disturbing the neighbors. If you can hear the woman next door when she blows her nose, you probably shouldn’t be playing a dreadnought guitar.

Several online stores and reviewers described the guitar’s aesthetic as “blues man on a budget.” That’s me!

I thought I’d have a chat with the friendly salesman once he was free. But I waited another twenty minutes and played through the entire wall of guitars—even the expensive ones—and he was still laughing away with the older couple. I decided to take a walk in the city to think things through. I wandered around the block, past the Irish pubs, down the commercial craziness that is Bold Street. And I finally decided that the guitar would be there the next day, and the day after that, and that I might not really need to make this kind of purchase in the first place. 

“That’s it, then,” I said. “Not today.” I was surprised, however, to find my feet walking back toward Curly Music and into the shop, where the older couple were just leaving.

“Right, you go have a think,” the owner was saying to them, initiating the minute or two that British people often take to say goodbye.

When he turned around, I held up the Vintage Statesboro. “I’ve already had my think,” I said. “And I think I have to have this guitar.”

He held up both palms straight up, as if I had him at gunpoint. “I left you alone,” he protested, with a smile.

“It worked,” I said.

“I gave you a look,” he said. “I gave you a listen. And I said, ‘Right, he’ll see to himself. No need to interfere.’”

“Well,” I said. “This is just what I need.” And I explained a bit about my situation. As expected, he asked where in the States I was from, and—a first for me—his face actually lit up with recognition at the word “Michigan.” His son had just applied to Michigan Tech in the Upper Peninsula and was waiting anxiously to hear whether he’d be accepted.

“Is it very cold there?” the man asked. “Do they get any snow?” I told him that the Upper Peninsula had two seasons: Winter and, oh, about six days in August. I told him that some houses had doors on the upper floor so that people could walk out of them when the snow got that deep. I gave him my business card and explained that although lived hundreds of miles from Houghton, I was technically in the same state, and he now had a contact in Michigan.

After ten minutes or so of further small talk, he threw in a free rain cover for the guitar and a capo—I can see why his business is struggling—and sent me on my way. “I know what you’ll be doing tonight,” he said with a smile as I made my way out the door.

On the bus home, I sat next to another older couple, who asked what kind of guitar it was, where in the States I was from, where Michigan was, (awkward pause), and whether I had heard their son’s band play at the Cavern Club on Sunday nights.

Since that evening, every time I’ve returned home to my quiet flat, the flat has been less empty, because there has always been a guitar leaning against the wall or desk—exactly as there is back home in Michigan. It’s an extremely low-level guitar, which means that it perfectly matches the level of my playing skills, but it has been an invaluable companion.

I approach music as a writer, not as a performer. I don’t sing well. I don’t have a good ear for writing melodies. And I have no innate sense of rhythm. (I was told in the fifth grade that I could play any band instrument I liked—but not the drums.) What I mostly love are chords and sequences of chords, and matching these to words. I relish the narrative of music. I find it deeply satisfying to balance a budget in a spreadsheet, and I get the same satisfaction from finding a chord that completes a musical phrase in an interesting way—but of course music goes beyond that basic satisfaction because it is also beautiful.

And music is a kind of writing I can do even when my brain is too tired to put words on a page.

It isn’t going to fit. I want to take this guitar back home with me—it’s become a good friend, and it has such fond memories already built into it—but if I couldn’t make a mandolin work when I came, there’s of course no way to squeeze in a guitar for the return trip. 

And just as I was right to leave the mandolin in Michigan, opening the needs that were filled by these music shops, so it is right and fitting that I leave my new good friend behind. I could make it work. I could check a bag. I briefly considered leaving everything else here in Liverpool, crossing the ocean with only the clothes on my back and my humble guitar—blues man on a budget, indeed—but it needs to stay, precisely because it has come to mean so much to me.

Much of the wisdom in this world can be distilled into two small words: Let go. Consciously deciding to leave the guitar behind has been a specific, concrete way in which I’ve prepared myself for the larger, less tangible losses I’ll also be confronting in another week: losses of colleagues here in Liverpool, loss of an unusual weekly rhythm into which I’ve happily settled—mostly reading, writing, and running—loss of the best group of students with whom I’ve ever worked. Choosing to leave the guitar behind gives me some agency over loss. That’s no small thing.

Another group of Calvin University students, led by other Calvin faculty, will arrive a few weeks after I leave. Some of them, I know, are guitarists. They’ll presumably arrive as musical pilgrims, with less than they need to get by, relying on the generosity of strangers to meet those needs. Perhaps some of the humble blessings already loaded into this instrument will continue to bless them—and they’ll add their own to it before handing it along to yet another stranger.

Go in peace, good friend.

Past perfect

A little over a week ago, I finally perfected a running route that I’ve been working on since January—one that connects seven of my favorite parks. 

For the geographically curious (and/or Liverpool literate) those parks, in order, are: Calderstones, Wavertree, Greenbank, Sefton, Princes, Sefton (again), Festival Gardens, Otterspool, and Sefton (yet again).

I’d run bits and pieces of the route before, always seeing a path I wish I’d taken, or taking a shortcut that turned out to be a devastatingly long cut. Or getting distracted in Sefton Park, which has so many scenic loops and turns that I’d find myself adding miles I didn’t actually have in me. Calderstones Park is the closest to my home, and I always intended to hit it last, but I always had so much fun in Sefton that I’d run out of steam before I even got there.

Entrance to Calderstones Park (photo taken last November)

As I was falling asleep one night last week, though, anticipating a long run the next day, it finally came to me: “You have to do Calderstones first.” It would mean another mile or two, but I thought I was ready for that.

And I was. Good nutrition the day before; a good night’s sleep; beautiful weather. I ran 18 miles that day, through all seven parks, and as I hit “stop” on my watch, I literally said out loud: “Wow. That was the perfect run.”

And it’s part of the past. I should have known that I would injure myself, the way I was running. I’ve run four marathons, and I’d love to do a fifth in my fifties, but I’m realistic about the toll that training takes on an aging body. So my goal is simply to run 1000 miles this year. That boils down to 100 miles a month (figuring that I’ll need to take time off for various reasons). 

In March, I ran 183.8 miles. And they weren’t all leisurely runs in the park. Two days after my perfect 18-miler, I ran 15 miles along my other favorite route, inadvertently setting personal records at both the 10K and Half Marathon distances. All of this in shoes that should have been retired a month ago. (My plan is to leave them here. If I bought new ones, I’d have to pack them when I go home.)

Early this week, my ankle started to tell me that enough was enough. Twinges of pain around mile 10 or 11. When my body says that kind of thing to me, I usually say back, “Naw, come on, we can do this!” and sometimes that works. But sometimes the body says, “No, listen: I’m serious, and you can’t do this without me.” Somewhat sharper pain. I back off right away.

I can walk on my ankle without noticing any problem. I can run seven or eight miles. But my dreams of finishing my last week in Liverpool with some glorious long runs along my golden route—those dreams are all gone.

Today I took a long walk that happened to cover many of my old running tracks. It was cold and rainy. And windy: many of the daffodils have been devastated. If you had told me a week ago that I’d be walking today because I couldn’t safely run, I too would have been devastated. It’s my last full week in Liverpool, and many of my favorite parts of the city I know only as a runner.

It was a lovely walk, however—I mean despite the fact that I was cold and wet and anxious about our impending trip to London—for three reasons:

First, I had the satisfaction of having reached my limit. I cannot go home saying, “Running in Liverpool was great; I probably should have run more!” I ran exactly the right amount—maybe a little more—and I knew when to stop. The correct way to participate in a program like ours is “all in”: give it everything you’ve got. I certainly did that in my professional work on the program. I did that in my personal running as well. I couldn’t have done more.

Second, there was a strangely pleasing closure in thinking about my great runs in the past tense. Ordinarily the best experiences you have in a place become memories after you leave. Mine have become memories while I’m still here. “This is the place where I used to run,” I said. “By the time I was here, I had run 14 strong miles.” It seemed somehow efficient and tidy to have the perfect run already wrapped in memory, already packaged as the past. That will help me to say goodbye to Liverpool.

Third, I was able to be more present, experiencing familiar landscapes at a slower pace, in a more reflective frame of mind, unconcerned about time or distance or stamina. The old sunglasses I wear for running—even in grey weather—are two or three prescriptions old. Today I saw things more clearly, more calmly. I inhabited the spaces almost as a new person, noticing new sight lines and textures, getting a sense of the space all around and not just the road up ahead.

And I still had the past! I had all of my great old memories of running through Sefton Park, as well as my new experience of it. I saw it through the perfect past and the (admittedly imperfect) present at the same time.

On Saturday, we leave for London, where our program ends. 

I’m ready.

Sefton Park

First things, last things

We had our last official class session last night. Next week will be devoted to exams, final portfolios, and packing (and, for me, completing a few blog posts that have gone by the wayside in the course of the semester).

I bookended last night’s session with segments on “first things” and “last things.”

We started by going back to the beginning, to the two “academic axioms” we discussed on our very first day of class in January, when we shivered in the chill of the room (windows left open to prevent Covid circulation) and the Liverpool skyline was too dark to discern. Those axioms were and are:

  • Incarnational learning: the deliberate synergy of experience and academic study. In this program, our bodies are not mere carrying cases in which we’ve brought our brains to Britain; they are themselves the instruments of learning. The accents, flavors, textures and temperatures of this place are all part of the curriculum. We study our experience by writing thoughtfully about it, and we experience the books we study by going to actual sites connected to them.
  • Dialogue: literally “across-words” (dialogos) a verbal connection built across a difference. The connection part is actually fairly easy for American students in Britain; the difference is that part that always concerns me. Everyone knows that great things happen when you encounter a foreign culture. But of all our university’s international offerings, Britain is the least foreign. And especially when traveling with a close-knit group of fellow Americans, it can be a challenge to keep Britain sufficiently different. I presented this challenge to students already beginning last August, in their initial interviews for the program. And we talked last night about how it has gone.

Much of our final session was devoted to a discussion of Monica Ali’s Brick Lane, a novel set in the area of East London where we’ll be staying for our final week. Here, at last, the differences are sufficiently pronounced: the book tells the story of a woman who immigrates to London from Bangladesh as part of an arranged marriage, and several chapters are dominated by letters from the woman’s sister back in Bangladesh. All of the characters in book are some kind of Muslim: devout, zealous, hypocritical, nominal, lapsed. No Christians.

Beneath those differences, however, are some fairly ready connection points. One doctor names what he calls “Going Home Syndrome,” the inclination of Bangladeshi immigrants to return to their homeland after achieving success in England. They haven’t come to say. Nor have we: we all traveled to Britain on round-trip tickets, intending to mine the riches of intercultural experience and then go back home.

The characters in the novel are all somewhat adrift between their home culture and their host culture, as are we. I think most of us are both eager to return home and regretful to leave the last three months behind, because we’re Americans who have now made ourselves home in Britain.

So as we read Brick Lane, we have the two basic ingredients with which to build a dialogue with the book: connection and difference.

Last Things

Our final texts came, of course, from George Herbert. With the poems that conclude “The Church,” his main collection of poems, Herbert alludes to the so-called “four last things” in the Christian tradition: Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell. By the time Herbert was writing, these four concepts were deeply familiar as appropriate topics for sober meditation and spiritual alignment. 

If you were to approach a Liverpudlian and say, “John, Paul, George, and…?” they’d fill in “Ringo” immediately. The “last four” went together as tightly as the “fab four”: an early modern reader would just have automatically completed “Death, Judgment, Heaven…” with “Hell.”

Herbert completes his book of poems with one called “Death,” two called “Doomsday” and “Judgment,” one called “Heaven” and a final one called… wait for it… “Love.”

Not “Hell.” It’s not that Herbert is denying doctines of Hell—he’s simply taking his sequence in an ostentatiously different direction.

If you had asked me two years ago what we’d be doing in class last night, I would have said—without pause for thought—“Love (3).” That poem (the third which Herbert entitled “Love”) is the natural culmination of our weekly study of Herbert. It’s also my favorite poem, period.

Last night, though, we did something I’ve never done before: we approached “Love (3)” through the poem that precedes it, “Heaven”:

Oh who will show me those delights on high!
        Echo: I
Thou Echo, thou art mortal, all men know.
        Echo: No
Wert thou not born among the trees and leaves?
        Echo: Leaves
And are there any leaves, that still abide?
        Echo: Bide
What leaves are they? Impart the matter wholly.
        Echo: Holy
Are holy leaves the Echo then of blisse?
        Echo: Yes
Then tell me, what is that supreme delight?
        Echo: Light
Light to the minde: what shall the will enjoy?
        Echo: Joy
But are there cares and business with the pleasure?
        Echo: Leisure
Light, joy and leisure; but shall they persever?
        Echo: Ever

I read the long lines, and students read the echoes in unison.

I have to say: I don’t think this is Herbert’s best work. It’s a nifty gimmick, but nifty gimmicks alone do not make a great poem. Some of the echoes are a bit of a stretch (“bliss,” “Yes”); some of the lines are a bit strained (“Impart the matter wholly”) to set up the echo; some of the concepts are not altogether clear (“Bide”?).

The thing is, though, the poem makes a profound and moving point. I’m not sure that the nifty gimmick is alone here. Heaven is among us. It’s not some far-off land; it’s not the great beyond. Or if it is both of those things, it is so expansive that it also extends into the very words we speak. The answers to our questions are already there—in part, at least—in the questions themselves. In fact, the poem rather suggests that it is not the “Echo” lines that are the actual echoes: those lines convey eternal truths. It is the speaker’s words that inadvertently echo those truths.

The “four last things” pointed medieval Christians beyond their earthly experience, past death, to heaven and hell. Herbert will revise that ultimate chapter dramatically, but he also revises this penultimate chapter by bringing heaven down to earth—“heaven in ordinary,” as he describes prayer in another poem.

Even the imperfections in this poem seem productive: we do not see heaven fully or clearly, though we do see it among us and in us. For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known” (1 Cor. 13:12).

Love (3)

Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back
           Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
           From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
           If I lacked any thing.

A guest, I answered, worthy to be here:
           Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,
           I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
           Who made the eyes but I?

Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame
           Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
           My dear, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:
           So I did sit and eat.

“Love (3),” on a literal level, is about a guest with dirty feet showing up at home of a gracious host and reluctantly accepting the meal that is offered. It is a poem all about hospitality, and we know a bit about that, after three months living far from home. We know, for instance, that one of the hardest aspects of hospitality is accepting it—which is the central conflict or plot of this poem.

On a less literal level, the poem might be about a soul’s arrival in heaven, as suggested by the poem “Heaven” that precedes it. Here is where the poet sees face to face; here is how he knows as he is known by “quick-eyed Love.” One student commented that the “dust and sin” gesture gently toward the Hell that a reader might have expected to find here.

But the poem is also about the Eucharist, the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. There is an implied pun in the poem on the word “host,” which means a person who entertains a guest but is also a liturgical term for the bread used in the Eucharist. When Love says that the poet “must sit down and taste my meat,” the “my” signifies both the bread that I am offering and the bread that is me.

In short, the poem blends the glorious grace of heaven with the weekly human liturgy. The best line of the poem is the last one: six plain monosyllables to express the speaker’s humble acceptance of the fullness of heaven. For all of Herbert’s poetic acrobatics and linguistic hijinks, at the end of the day, it really is that simple.

When we got to the last line, I put on our screen a picture of the plain meal prepared for us by Johnnie Briggs, our host in Haworth. This experience has emerged in student writing as a high point of the entire semester, and I agree, if only because it was the perfect preparation for “Love (3),” which we had effectively studied before we even read the poem. We’ve studied its theme with dusty feet, tired legs, and stomachs hungry from hiking on the moors.

Heaven is above us and beyond us, but it is also among us, partially and imperfectly present in homemade green soup and freshly baked scones with clotted cream. We know what grace feels like when it is expressed through simple hospitality.

* * *

The very last thing students did before leaving class last night was to sign a homemade thank you card to Johnnie Briggs. We needed to thank him, and we decided—given his fondness for the handwritten letters of the Brontës—that an email would not suffice. One of our students is a bit of a calligrapher, and last week we all drafted a simple note that she could write and we could sign. It goes in the post today.

Wales (again)

Our university in Liverpool has an outdoor campus in Wales, and we spent two nights there this week doing some hiking, kayaking, zip-lining, archery, and so forth, stopping by Conway Castle on the way back up to Liverpool.

I had no hand in organizing this excursion. It was run entirely by the International Hub of the university as a deliberately non-academic getaway. In that spirit, I won’t write an essay for this post—I’ll just share a few pictures.

Plas Caerdeon, our home for a few nights.

On our first afternoon, the staff at the campus noticed immediately that the students all tended to eat and socialize in the same tight groups. “This group’s really cliquey,” one of them said to me. “Going to have to mix them up a bit, aren’t we?” Which they did for a series of team games.

On the second day, students could choose from a number of activities. I opted for the hike.

And for the third day, we drove through Snowdonia to spend a couple of hours in Conway.

This might be the most British photo I have ever taken.
We tall guys were not impressed with Britain’s smallest house.
I love Wales.

Brontë country

“There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.” With this simple opening line, Charlotte Brontë presents the confined situation of Jane Eyre. There are any number of ways in which Brontë could have signaled that Jane is trapped. She could have begun her novel with Jane locked in a room by her aunt or her cousins. She could have lodged Jane’s foot in a crevice or thick mud. She could have dressed Jane in constricting clothing that the growing orphan had really outgrown. Instead, Brontë made the point in a way that was probably most meaningful to Brontë herself: Jane couldn’t walk outdoors.

We could, though—and did we ever. Yesterday gave us cloudless skies for our visit to the Brontë home in Haworth, making a walk on the moors not only possible but practically imperative.

We have spent a good deal of time this semester talking about how stories are shaped by the places in which they’re written and, reciprocally, how places acquire meaning from the stories in which they appear. The first line of Jane Eyre is clearly influenced by the Brontë sisters’ habit of walking the very paths we walked yesterday. Charlotte and Emily, in particular, wrote stories shaped by their daily experience of the earth and air in North Yorkshire.

“What the Brontës cared for and lived in most,” wrote Charlotte’s dear friend Ellen Nussey, “were the surrounding of nature, the free expanse of hill and mountain, the purple heather, the dells and glens, and brooks, the broad sky view, the whistling winds, the snowy expanse, the starry heavens, and the charm of that solitude and seclusion which sees things from a distance without the disturbing atmosphere which lesser minds are apt to create.”

The title and poster of the 2016 movie on the Brontë sisters, filmed in several of the locations we visited yesterday, uses walking on the moors as a metaphor for the sisters’ lives and work.

If the Brontës’ experience of this place shaped their stories, however, the stories have now also shaped the place. The little town of Haworth now has Brontë Street, Shirley Street, Branwell Road, and Heathcliff Street—and those are just the ones I noticed myself. The shaping hand of those novels even reaches far out onto the moors. Top Withens is the name of the ruined farm to which we hiked, and the battered old barn bears a plaque that testifies to the mutual influences of fact and fiction that have defined the place:

“This farmhouse has been associated with Wuthering Heights, the Earnshaw home in Emily Brontë’s novel. The building, even when complete, bore no resemblance to the house she described, but the situation may have been in her mind when she wrote of the moorland setting of the heights. This plaque has been placed here in response to many inquiries. The Brontë Society, 1964.”

So the actual setting might have inspired Emily Brontë’s novel, which is now the filter through which many people see that setting. Top Withens, for many people, hovers in a liminal space between fact and fiction.


In fact, Jane Eyre explicitly uses liminal spaces to achieve many of its effects. Several significant encounters in the book occur at stiles, low places in a stone fence that allow humans (but not animals) to pass from one field to another. And throughout the novel, characters ask one another whether they are goblins, elves, sprites, or fairies. A first-time reader is often asking herself exactly what kind of book she’s reading: is this realism, or is it the kind of story where supernatural forces, creatures, and premonitions need to be taken seriously?

It is partly this tension between no-nonsense realism and fantasy that animates Jane Eyre herself. She is noted for the plainness of both her dress and her manner of speaking: she tells the plain truth, sometimes bluntly. There is an old anecdote in Yorkshire of a salesman calling into a shop to see whether the shop owner needs any of his wares, and the owner replies that he doesn’t. Because they’re both plain, direct Yorkshiremen, however, the entire conversation takes only two syllables:



Sorted. Jane has a bit of that Yorkshire directness about her, and she—like the men in the anecdote—might well have picked up this quality from the Yorkshire landscape itself: sparse, vigorous, and elemental.

The little tree toward the right of the picture is the tree at Top Withens (pictured below).

At the same time, however, Jane is often described as having an elvish elusiveness, the mysterious, superhuman energy of a fairy or a spirit. “You have rather the looks of another world,” Rochester tells her. “I marveled where you had got that sort of face. When you came on me in Hay Lane last night, I thought unaccountably of fairy tales, and I had half a mind to demand whether you had bewitched my horse.”

The moors, too, feel as if they have a quality other than the four elemental ones of earth, air, water, and fire. It is a fantasy landscape, and not just because most of my group photos looked like a still from The Fellowship of the Ring. “Lunar” is the word that always came to mind. If I were riding across this moor when I encountered a plainly dressed young woman on her own, I too might think she had come from another world; and if my horse were suddenly to slip, I too might blame the woman for bewitching my horse. (And there, Lord willing, my similarity to Rochester ends.)


Above, I quoted Ellen Nussey’s memory of the Brontës’ deep love for their natural environment, which included “the charm of that solitude and seclusion which sees things from a distance without the disturbing atmosphere which lesser minds are apt to create.” Nussey continues, however, to clarify the kind of “seclusion” of which she speaks when remembering the sisters and their walks: 

“For it was not the seclusion of a solitary person, such as Charlotte endured in after days, and which in time becomes awfully oppressive and injurious. It was solitude and seclusion shared and enjoyed with intelligent companionship, and intense family affection.”

It was a shared solitude: Charlotte and Anne and Emily were alone together. Charlotte Brontë outlived her siblings, however, and eventually she walked these moors alone, haunted by the memories with which they had filled the empty space. It was heartbreaking. I can only imagine that moors became, at that point, the very worst kind of liminal space: somewhere between past happiness and present grief, between literal loneliness and remembered companionship. I hung back from the group a bit on our long return to the bus, walking along with this image of poor Charlotte and gratefully reflecting on the fact that my own companions—the noisy, laughing students up ahead—were very much present.


Well, okay. The above reflections are all well and good, in their bookish sort of way, but I’ll bet that if you asked many of the students what they remember about the excursion to Haworth, they’ll immediately say, “the soup.”

Our guide for the day was the incomparable Johnnie Briggs of Bronte Walks, who took us all around the town, stopping for several minutes in various locations to tell us the full history of the Bronte family, beginning with the story of Patrick (the sisters’ father). Johnnie is a master storyteller who has been doing this for years. He doesn’t use notes, and he knows exactly how to ask questions to keep students engaged. I marveled at his teaching style.

When we first arrived, however, and sat down in a small church room to learn about the birth of Patrick Bronte, he wanted to make sure that we were well fed. There were apples, oranges, and fruit juices on the table. Johnnie himself made coffee and brewed tea for everyone. When returned from our tour of the town to set off on our moor walk, there was bread and cheese. And when we returned from the moor walk, there was all of that—plus a large pot of homemade soup, homemade scones (with jam and clotted cream), and a homemade cake. At several points throughout the day, as more food was revealed, several students turned to me with wide, disbelieving eyes. “Where did you find this guy?”

It turned out to be Johnnie’s birthday, no less. We all sang.

None of the food was fancy. All of it was delicious, and of course all the more so for being unexpected, made by hand, and offered by an exceedingly gracious host. As if a thorough history and vigorous walk were not enough, we also received a master class in hospitality.

Herbert Trios

Today I went to town with George Herbert, and I mean that literally: I sat down in three separate cafés with three groups of students to talk through three separate poems. And yes, there happened to be three students in each group.

The idea of these “Herbert Trios” came to me the hard way. When I directed this program in 2018, we read a handful of Herbert poems each week—as we are this semester—and I asked students to pick one on their own and write a critical analysis of it by the end of the term. Four of those analytical essays—20% of the entire group—turned out to be plagiarized. I made a note to myself that, if I ever ran the program again, I’d need to test their understanding of the poems in person, where I could look them in the eye and ask follow-up questions.

I chose to do that in trios and not individually, however, not just to save time but because the students in this group are the single greatest teaching resource at my disposal. Their energy and camaraderie is more powerful than anything I can manufacture, and my most common mistake in teaching has been to talk too much on my own. When they talk, the real education happens—mine included.

So I simply split them into groups of three and asked them to suggest a poem and a café where I could buy them all a cup of tea or coffee to have as they walked me through the text. I did give them some suggestions about the kinds of things to look for and the kinds of question to ask, and I did require that everyone in the group contribute equally to the conversation.

And I spent a good deal of time with each of their poems on my own, marking them up, tracking down words and references, reading notes in scholarly editions. I did much of this work in the fabulous Picton Reading Room in the Liverpool Central Library. 

Looking up from the book at one point, I realized that this grand room looks and feels like a good poem feels once you’re inside it: ordered but open, cozy and vast.

My agenda with the trios was simple: I asked them to read the poem straight through out loud, then describe to me the process by which they had analyzed it, and then to walk me through the text however seemed best to them.

Each student had very good things to say. They talked freely without reading pre-written sentences and paragraphs. They laughed a lot and responded to each other. Their talk was far less polished than a written paper would be (I’ve read my share of those, so I know), but also far more genuine. The sharp literature students did about the same level of analysis I would have expected in a formal essay; the non-literary types did much better. I mostly just sat and listened—sometimes biting my tongue to keep myself from jumping in. 

I had prepared questions for all three groups, and I listened especially for students who were hanging back and letting the other two do the work, because those would be the first students I’d ask. But everyone was fully present, and by the time each group finished, they had already answered most or all of my questions on their own. I didn’t agree with everything the groups said about the poems, but every group had clearly engaged a difficult text in a meaningful way.

Throughout these meetings, I felt like a grateful guest in two kinds of space: one literal and the other intellectual. The literal spaces were, in two cases, cafés that I myself hadn’t been to but students have been visiting for months. They were inviting me into their places. But I was also a guest inside the poems themselves, hosted by jovial scholars who were quite willing and able to show me around.

I left the three sessions with a headful of Herbert and a heart full of quiet joy. (Although that might have been because I had a lot of coffee.)

Beginning of the end

“Pity!” he said, and sighed, and paused. “It is always the way of events in this life,” he continued presently: “no sooner have you got settled in a pleasant resting-place, than a voice calls out to you to rise and move on, for the hour of repose is expired.”

Jane Eyre

Throughout our time here, students have been processing their personal experience of Britain both on their own and in small groups. Each of them has chosen a spot in Liverpool to visit every week for thirty minutes, with no screens. They simply sit. Then they write a short, ungraded reflection—for which I provide an optional prompt. 

They also meet every week with what I call a “Through Group,” a three- or four-person cohort that remains consistent throughout the semester, people with whom they can talk through the ups and downs of life in Britain. Each week, someone from each Through Group emails or texts me a quick summary of where they met and what they talked about. Again, I provide a prompt that they’re free to ignore.

This is the first week since January when neither of those things is required, however—our host institution is keeping them very busy—so I devoted some class time Monday night to the personal aspects of our experience.

Specifically, I asked students about two things.

  • First, how to handle FOMO (fear of missing out; all students know this acronym—it’s a thing now). As we find our time here growing short, students will increasingly panic about the things in England that they haven’t seen—and might never see. To make the issue somewhat tangible, I asked them how they would respond to someone who said this:

As eager as I am to go home, I also really want to make the most of this one chance to live in England, and I already regret not seeing all of the things I won’t get to see, so I just need to try to see as many of them as I can before we leave.

  • Second, I asked students to make a list of practices and habits that they’ve picked up in England that they’d like to take home with them and continue in the United States. Then I asked them to list specific, concrete commitments that they’d need to make in order to keep those good intentions from evaporating as they flew over the Atlantic Ocean. We talked through some examples. It’s easy for me to say, “I don’t drive here, so I’m going to give up driving back home.” But of course that isn’t going to happen, so I need to say: “I’ll walk to work on Tuesdays and Fridays.” Etc.

As has happened so often this semester, I was humbled and heartened by the wisdom of these students. In response to the FOMO quotation, they recognized the dangers of panic-traveling, scurrying all over a country or continent checking off a bucket list, and they recognized the unique quality of our program—which is to dwell in a single city, with only sporadic trips to a few other places, for a prolonged period of time. It will be easy for most of them to grab two days in Paris in the years to come; living in a single city in England for three and half months is a more precious opportunity. But built into that opportunity is the reality that we’ll miss out even on other parts of Britain. Taking advantage of this moment means being content to dwell well, and if you’re running all over the place, you’re compromising the unique quality of this situation. (I’m not sure that every student has actually lived by this wisdom—they’ve gone abroad at every opportunity, and I’ve heard some of their crazy mad-dash itineraries for after the program ends—but at least they were able to articulate it.)

I was most impressed with the thoughtful resolutions students were considering as they pondered the not-too-distant return home. All I wanted them to do was to make little lists for themselves to get them thinking, and because some of these issues are deeply personal, I hadn’t planned to discuss them. But when I asked, somewhat flippantly, whether anyone wanted to share what they’d written down, almost everyone in the room did want to share.

Some of them were unsurprising: it turns out we don’t need to buy clothes, wash those clothes, or drive a car nearly as much as we thought we did. But most of what they wanted to talk about were relational resolutions.

A number of students have made real strides in terms of independence: they’ve eaten alone in a café for the first time in their lives, and they’ve realized it’s okay. They’re willing to do things that interest them even if it takes them away from a group of friends. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure how that virtue develops in a program like ours—which is intently, almost obsessively, driven by work in groups. But there it is.

Several students, however, did a beautiful job of making resolutions about building and maintaining connections to other people—especially people outside their close friend groups. One student resolved to say hi to international students back at Calvin, even if she didn’t know them very well, because she now saw in a new and feeling way the kind of alienation they might be experiencing.

Ruminating on that surprise discussion as I walked to the bus after class, I realized that the deepest, most moving wisdom had grown from wounds: the greatest growth has happened in the students who have had the hardest time. This is not new or surprising. But it’s also quite possible to have the wounds without the wisdom—to struggle and drown. 

“What made the difference?” I asked myself. “What kept those students from drowning? What enabled them to turn their groans into growth?” It wasn’t me, I know that. It might have been the support of the other students. It might have been robust support networks back home invisible to me. It was surely the Holy Spirit, operating both indirectly through these human channels and directly in a student’s heart and mind. 

And of course much of the credit goes to the students themselves. Some of them are still having a tough time. They might not feel like they’re drowning, but they feel like they’re treading water—which is not the same thing as walking on water, as other students seem to be doing. In conversation and in regular reflective writing, I’ve heard some notes of jealousy: everyone else seems to be doing better than I am. What I haven’t seen is a struggling student lashing out at the others. Life has thrown some pain and ugliness at a few of these people, and they’ve all been big enough not to throw all of that onto everyone else. They’ve caught what’s come to them and worked it the best they can.

Based on the midterm results a couple of weeks ago, I’m not entirely confident that all of these students will leave England knowing when the Normans invaded or even able to locate Liverpool on a map. But based on our discussion Monday night, I’m content that the program has already been successful in more important ways. 

Part of the story

It turns out that glass doesn’t hold up very well after seven centuries. All of the fourteenth-century windows in York Minster are now on a twenty-year cycle for inspection, maintenance, and restoration. The York Glaziers Trust painstakingly removes each panel, each tiny pane of colored glass, puts it under a microscope, catalogs it, and tries to put it back in better shape.

One of the panels from the “Cuthbert Window”

One of the primary commitments of the glaziers is to make all of their work reversible. In a hundred years, when another generation of glaziers comes along to see what these technicians have done, it is crucial that they have the ability to undo even such careful, thoughtful work in order to bring a window back to an earlier stage of its history.

This astonishingly humble stance is something the glaziers have learned the hard way by grappling with the restoration efforts of the Victorians, who were quite content to intervene in dramatic, irreversible ways—as were those who removed and replaced the windows for protection from bombing in World War II.

The current project is to restore the Cuthbert panel—a series of windows telling the story of Saint Cuthbert. Previous “restorations” to the windows made some surprising changes. One window, for instance, shows St. Cuthbert talking to a small group of monks:

In researching earlier sketches of the windows, however, the Trust discovered that there had originally been a porpoise at St. Cuthbert’s feet in this image:

That detail is important, because it show which episode from the life of Cuthbert the window was trying to tell: the story of how he prayed for food and God miraculously provided him with a porpoise to eat. (It’s a strange story to us, but porpoises were commonly eaten in the seventh century.) The porpoise is the whole point of the story: without the porpoise, the panel has no purpose.

So where is the porpoise in the picture? It’s actually in a completely different picture, swimming beneath a boat. 

Look beneath the center of the boat.

The Victorians freely repaired windows with pieces of other windows. In another window, they simply replaced Cuthbert’s head with that of a common monk from another window, thus costing him the golden halo that had clearly identified him in the picture. 

From the point of view of narrative studies—fragmentation, bricolage, intertextuality—this is of course fascinating and exciting. To a historian glazier, it must be maddening. “Today,” a plaque says somewhat laconically, “such practices would not be acceptable to curators and conservators.”

But the plaque goes on, however, with two sentences that particularly struck me: 

“Losses and structural changes, over the centuries, to the glass and stonework, mean that it cannot be returned to its exact original state. These alterations, and the reasons for them, are part of the window’s long and fascinating history.”

What a wise and honest attitude not just toward the window but toward life itself, combining genuine lament with acceptance of—and even appreciation for—the losses being lamented.

We have reached the point in the semester when I am able to see my missteps as an administrator and as a teacher: choices I would make much differently the next time around. The coursework, in particular, needs to give students freedom to explore and take risks, but also give them requirements and structure that compel them to do things they simply will not do on their own. I can see in students’ copious writing all of the ways in which I failed to strike that balance. In some respects, I wish I’d rigged this ship with different sail.

But there’s no going back. I’m not going to re-rig the ship at this point. I’m making what adjustments I can along the way, but of course you can’t rebuild a program from scratch when you’re in the middle of it. Perhaps, I thought later in the day, I simply need to say that the mistakes I made, and the reasons for them, are part of the program’s long and fascinating history.

A few weeks ago I met a graduate student at our downtown campus who was about to launch a brand new program to bring children from the neighborhood—a hard-hit working class part of town—into the beautiful campus for free art and drama classes on Saturday mornings. She was terrified about how her first day was going to go. “As long as it’s the first day,” I said, “it can’t really go wrong, can it? There’s no benchmark, no expectation. However it goes is how it was supposed to go.”

I’ve probably needed to take a little of my own advice to heart. There are benchmarks and expectations for this program—some of them set by me when I directed it in 2018—but there comes a point where you have to say: “That happened. It shouldn’t have happened. But it’s part of the story now—and what a great story!”

A mandatory pilgrimage

I looked at my watch. 6:37. Not good. The train would leave York station at 6:54. I got out my phone while briskly walking (and mostly dodging oncoming pedestrians) to double check that time—only to discover that I had been wrong: the train left at 6:49. Extra not good. I didn’t want to leave any students behind, I really didn’t, but I picked up our already quick pace.

In all of the many times I attended Evensong at York Minster back when I actually lived in York—when I didn’t really care what time I left or got home—the service always ran to about 45 minutes. Tonight, with a group of students who needed to catch a train back to Liverpool, of course the service went over an hour.

I do not like to hurry with a group, and least of all do I like leading a group that needs to hurry. My preference is always for people to make their own way, at their own pace—especially when traveling through a city so rich in history, because it’s difficult to be attentive and appreciative when one is on a forced march.

At Bootham Bar on our walking tour into the city.

The march into the Minster had also been a bit of a forced march. When I scheduled this excursion several weeks ago, I decided that I would require students to attend Evensong at 5:30. 

I hemmed and hawed about this. I pondered it on long walks and runs. I do not like to compel worship experiences any more than I like to force people to hurry through a medieval city. But I was fairly certain that if I made Evensong merely optional, most or all of the students wouldn’t go—the heathens—even though they’d benefit deeply from attending. That benefit might amount to nothing more than articulating their objections to high church worship, but precious few of them have even experienced such worship in England on their own.

In any case, I called the Minster at some point in early February to purchase access to the building for a self-guided tour in the afternoon, when students would be free to wander at their leisure, and I happened to mention that we’d be attending Evensong, as well. The office at the Minster responded with two invoices, one charging me for the afternoon admission and one indicating a zero balance for Evensong—which is always free, although they graciously set aside a block of seats for us.

In the “Visit type” field on the invoice, someone had entered “Pilgrimage.”

On the one hand, that one word resonated deeply with the goals of our program. We spent a good deal of time in orientation talking about different ways of traveling—as crusaders, as explorers, as nomads, as tourists—and in particular the virtues of traveling as a pilgrim.

On the other hand, the word “pilgrimage” raised the question, for me, of whether a genuine spiritual journey can be a mandatory experience. Is there such a thing as a compulsory pilgrimage?

No. The way I understand the concept, even if a pilgrimage is a fairly defined part of a religious tradition, the journey itself needs to be driven by the voluntary choice of the pilgrim. A pilgrim, by definition, needs to be looking for something and choosing to go out and look for it. A pilgrimage is a journey of seeking and self-denial, and the self needs to be both the subject and the object of that denying.

So I decided that the stated reason for our visit was simply inaccurate—it couldn’t be a pilgrimage if students weren’t choosing to make it—but I did look forward to students ending a day in York with “the full Anglican”—the spiritual equivalent of a “full English” breakfast. I have such beautiful memories of Evensong: times when I dragged myself in, tired and anxious and not at all in the mood, but when—squirreled away in an oaken seat in the back—all of my cares dissolved, and I couldn’t tell whether heaven had come down or I had risen up, but I suspected both, and I knew for sure that God and I had touched. 

Last Saturday night wasn’t one of those nights. Attendance was sparse; the choir was small; the chants just seemed too long. It was, if anything, colder than it was outdoors. The ushers had shown us to folding chairs beyond the choir itself, where there were no prayer books in which to read the words being sung. And I had chosen to sit on the side of the church facing the construction scaffolding on the opposite side, so the fourteenth century majesty of the building—always an important aspect of worship there—was largely obscured.

Even so, however—even when Evensong at the Minster fails to enchant—it strikes a balance that I find crucial in worship. The first half of the balance is hospitality, and this is largely accomplished by the Minster staff, from the friendly man in the scarf at the door who showed our group right in, to the usher who chatted with me while we waited—introducing me to a couple of other Americans in the queue—to the lector for the evening, who came up to our group in all of her clerical robes before the service started and bantered with the students for a bit. A couple of students were astonished when she approached the lectern at the beginning of the service and welcomed the group from Calvin University, the name of our little school back home echoing through fourteen centuries of space and stone.

The second half of the balance, however, is the sense of something bigger than oneself. I would almost suggest that it’s not really worship if some element of the service doesn’t somehow say, “It isn’t all about you, you know.” The first question of the Heidelberg Catechism is “What is your only comfort, in life and in death?” and its answer begins, “That I am not my own….” A worship service ought to communicate this deep, difficult, counter-cultural truth. I need to be welcome there, but the service needs to bring me out of myself, to feel like something not my own.

In so many modern churches, the expectation is that a service will bring God to the worshipper: the music should be the kind I like to listen to, tuned to my taste; the Bible should be read in a clear, easy translation; the sermon should apply the Bible to my life. I should be able to sit back in a reasonably comfortable chair and simply receive all of that.

Evensong dispenses with most of those catering comforts. I am sure that, when my students sit down to write about the service, some will criticize it as being excessive: the robes, the organ, the nuanced harmonies. I suspect, however, that some of their discomfort springs not from these “excesses” but rather from felt deficiencies: a service like this doesn’t bend toward them the way their church back home does.

“Britain will not come to you,” I said to students during orientation; “you must go to Britain.” You can’t just sit in your dorm room in Liverpool and expect meaningful cultural experiences to come knocking at the door. You have to go seek those things, and doing so will involve some self-denial. It often won’t be easy, or comfortable, or even fun. Do it anyway. Get out there; get in there.

Students take in the Great East Window earlier in the day

So I sat in my little folding chair Saturday night, staring at the construction scaffolding and shivering, not understanding many of the words being sung, and more than a little worried about the hustle we would have to make to the train station. “This isn’t what I’d hoped it would be,” I said to myself. “The magic isn’t here. Students are going to hate this.”

What I was doing, of course, was to project my own disappointment on the students and blame them for it—which is, among other things, a gross unfairness to the best group of students I’ve ever worked with. And at some level, I knew that I was doing that, and that I needed to follow my own advice: “It won’t just come to you tonight. Get in there.” 

So I closed my eyes. I did slow breathing exercises. I meditated. And I prayed. Not really catching the lyrics of the psalms, I used my own words. And when I opened my eyes, I had the sense that my own words were becoming not my own, hovering upwards into the chilly air along with the harmonies of the choir, along with centuries upon centuries of other petitions, worries, griefs, and gripes that have risen in this place—little bits of lives as unintelligible to me as the words the choir was singing. I had been welcomed into a spiritual space far, far greater than its welcome of me.

We made the train. This is the other reality of Evensong: the reality of the real world that awaits just outside the great Minster doors, the long walk home or the worried hurry toward the rail station. Mundane concerns like this help to define the service by contrast, the slow time and huge space of Evensong somehow becoming even slower and huger in memory, compared to the rush-and-bustle of a busy street corner in downtown York. One cannot live in Evensong. It is, after all, tightly tied liturgically to just one moment of the fleeting day. So we found our train seats and settled in just in time for the train to hurry us out of York and off into the night toward Liverpool.