Since my boys have grown up and can travel independently, I am an infrequent visitor to England, where I was born. In fact, as we set off for a 4-day visit last Wednesday, occasioned by an invitation to my wife to give a lecture on iconography, we realized my previous visit had been very nearly two years before.
The talk was to a mini-conference on Eastern and Western church cultures organized by Benedictine sisters at the St Mildred’s Priory, in Thanet, just half an hour up the road from Dover, the main southern port of entry to England from NW Europe by car.
It was a pleasant time, surrounded by committed and intelligent Christians, in a language I fully understand. Irina, well coached, made a very creditable job of her first-ever lecture in English, and the ensuing discussion was good. The good experience here rather made up for the more difficult one at Bose earlier this month (see earlier posting).
The priory is a re-foundation in 1937 of a monastery that had existed from the early 7th century through to the Reformation, with the existing buildings incorporating a lot of 11th century walling, in a superb garden in a typical Kentish village.
We inevitably went off to Canterbury, under 20 miles away. Irina loved it, and there will no doubt be a whole row of postings. For me it was memories of visiting the cathedral several times in my early teens, now more than 50 years ago, fascinated by medieval architecture and moving towards what seemed then a vocation to the priesthood.
That being said, apart from the cathedral, there is precious little else to see there in the city. Very obvious also on the streets, in clothing, language and general demeanour, is the social split here (and throughout much of south-east England) between the wealthier bourgeoisie, including the pupils at the fee-paying King’s School, which provides the cathedral choir, and the lower class, cheaply dressed and much more noticibly on bad diets (lots of overweight women in particular) than in Belgium.
At the abbey itself, the morning masses were said by a French monk-priest who had started at the same French abbey I spent two years in thirty years ago and is now in another foundation of the same congregation. The monastery we started in is floundering, and could well not survive into the next generation.
I admit that as an Orthodox, I am jealous of the Catholics (and Anglicans) for their short weekday masses, which have a simplicity and brevity (35 minutes) which we Orthodox cannot match.