Friday, June 15, 2012

Church visits and daily reminders

Our class has had quite the busy and exciting week. As my classmates have said, we visited Westminster Abbey and Oxford on Monday and Tuesday. Over the course of the past few days, we scattered ourselves across London to visit various churches with longstanding histories.

All of the eight churches were located in the area of London slightly further east of Big Ben and Westminster Abbey. The area was the old city of London; the original city of London. Today, it is home to the financial district, although there are monuments attesting to London’s spectacularly long and old history throughout this area.

Overall, the entire city is full of monuments that attest to its incredibly long existence; London has lasted through every century since its creation despite fire or high water (or plague). These monuments are everywhere, and it’s amazing to walk down the street and be constantly reminded of its past.

Each student in class was assigned a particular church within the area and then we were to report on it. The students visited St. Giles’ Cripplegate, Saint Sepulchre-without-Newgate, St. Helen’s and St. Ethelburga the Virgin Church; St. Michael Pasternoster Royal, St. Olave’s and St. Bride’s, as well as St. Katherine Creechurch.  

So, you may ask what common theme among all of these churches is. The answer: their foundations lie in the Middle Ages. Their histories reach back as far as the ninth century, and they began to flourish thereafter. For example, St. Giles’ was a Saxon church just outside of the Roman city in about 1000 AD. Saint Sepulchre-without-Newgate was a church from around the mid-ninth century. Each one dates back hundreds of years, and the value of visiting them is to gather a better understanding of medieval religion in London.

The majority of these churches are not actually medieval anymore. London underwent a series of disastrous events, from the plague, to the Great Fire, to bombings from war and internal conflict. However, a few still maintain quite a lot of their medieval past, such as St. Olave’s. Many do not. St. Helen’s was completely damaged from two bombs and the fire, and has been rebuilt numerous times. St. Katherine Creechurch, which I visited, is similar in that it has undergone total reconstruction. Today, the only thing that remains is a small pillar, no taller than my waist, now painted blue and almost unnoticeable next to a desk and a lamp.

Although the visits did not yield copious amounts of medieval artifacts, they did demonstrate something else. Every single part of London is reminiscent of its past. It can be a small pillar, or in the case of St. Olave’s, it can be the medieval walls or the outside courtyard, which was actually a huge gravesite for victims of the plague. Today, stairs lead from the yard into the church because the amount of bodies was so high that the level of ground eventually became elevated. Such examples show a building, a piece of stone, or a small trinket carries a huge amount of history. These medieval churches were eventually affected by outside factors, often not relating to religion or theology, and although today they are religious artifacts, they represent the entirety of London’s past simply because they have survived through so many years, and consequently, so many events. Each small surviving piece has its own story that we can learn from.

The churches that we visited are examples of this idea: that London is living its history even today. In order to even attempt to experience the middle ages in the United States, we physically have to go to the recreated Medieval Times, or (although it’s not the medieval era) the Renaissance Faire. In England, all you have to do is walk from your flat to the tube or from the tube to a restaurant. The men and women working in the financial district walk along roads and pass bricks that have existed since the Middle Ages, and some since the Roman city.

Sometimes it can be easy to forget how old and precious a city actually is. Luckily, in London, you are reminded of it everywhere. 

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Mysticism or Psychosis?

When reading Julian of Norwich's "Showings" I couldn't help but wonder if the mysticism of old is homogeneous to a modern day definition of psychosis. In her accounts of various visions, which are often vivid and extremely detailed, Julian could easily be misconstrued as psychotic. Is this rightly so? It is incredibly easy to interpret her incredible visions of Jesus, which are very much direct experiences outside the influence of an intermediary, as nothing more than religious hallucinations of someone with a mental illness.
I decided to do some research into this subject. Dr. Tomas Agosin, a former psychiatrist in the Department of Psychiatry at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, tackled the very question that crossed my mind while reading Julian of Norwich. In his words, would the "great mystics of the past have been considered the psychotic patients of the present," or subsequently, would his patients, many who experienced similar religious visions, have been considered the great saints in the past?
" Is the mystic psychotic?  Is the psychotic patient a misunderstood mystic?" Dr. Tomas Agosin

It is surely an interesting question, and one Dr. Agosin is far more qualified to answer than myself. Here is his explanation, mixed with my own analysis of Julian after the jump.

A More Loving God

When we were discussing the first half of Julian of Norwich's Showings in class today, one very simple point stuck in my head.  The God Julian spoke of was, according to her, very loving and compassionate.  We discussed a couple of interesting implications this had, but I couldn't quite place my finger on why this stood out to me more than anything else in fifty vividly descriptive chapters of bizarre visions.  Something that was pointed out was that Julian's writing was not as 'scholastic' as the writing of other well-known clergy who have had visions, with the distinguishing factor being that Julian was a woman while most other clergy who have claimed to have visions were men.  However, in thinking back to men like Augustine I remember that their depiction of God is much more focused in power and judgment.  God is there to remind you that if you wish to enter Heaven, you must live a good life and suffer for your sins.  And while Julian does mention fearing God, she does not mean it in the way of being scared of God.  'Fear of God' in her sense is closer to 'respect of God', because for all of man's sins aside, God is a loving being.

We tossed around some ideas of Julian's statements concerning God could be radical or forward-thinking for her time, but I started to think about what effects this simple change could have on a person's idea of God.  So, I started with the basic idea of God I was given through elementary and part of high school.  An omniscient, omnipotent being that created humans in his image.  God gave humans strict rules and standards that we are expected to follow, and if we stray too far we will be punished in the afterlife.  Something I want to note is that I am purposely referring to God as a male being.  And that is because most people, whether they realize it or not, refer to God as a man.  Which is consistent with the image of the all-powerful, ever watching and (depending on who you ask), judgmental God.  These traits resonate with a stereotypical image of an imposing father figure, someone to be feared, not questioned.

Thinking about this is when I realized why the idea of a primarily loving God stood out to me.  We are told that God loves us, but it usually somehow circles back to the idea that we should fear and serve him.  Reading a text where someone essentially says, "God loves regardless of sin" as opposed to "God loves in spite of your sins" was something very new to me.  So, I applied this new feature to the 'standard God' image I had in my head.  The first thing is that the idea of God being a strict rule-maker faded a bit.  As if the rules were still significant, but had room to make mistakes and learn.  Next, I started wondering about how judgmental God would really be, if God's ability to love could overpower the ability to judge someone for their sins.  This was actually a question raised in my religion class in Senior year of high school by Father William O'Malley.  As close as I remember, his quote was, "If God is a loving father of all humans, I can't imagine him being able to see his children suffer for a mistake."  His point was that while there are supposed to be punishments for sins, there are also supposed to be ways to repent that do not involved being damned to Hell.  This idea is present in Medieval Christianity, but it is shadowed by the idea that we will be punished greatly for our sins with repentance coming at a heavy price.

For any other trait of God I could think of, applying the idea of God being loving cause a consistent effect of making God less intense.  By this I mean that the God I envisioned became more nurturing.  For example, God's omniscience being a way of watching over mankind to help as opposed to watching for mankind to pass judgment.  The most significant distinction that I made in my mind without realizing though, is that I had categorized the 'original' traits of God as being masculine and the 'loving' traits of God as being feminine.  This is why I pointed out my use of the pronoun 'he', because Julian's God seemed much more female to me.  This had less to do with sex and more to do with gender attributes usually associated with femininity.  Even in stereotypical parental imagery, the father is seen as being the more imposing figure while the mother is seen as more nurturing.  While I do not think Julian was by any means trying to spread the idea of a female God, that was the effect her writing had on me.  The gender of God has always been curious to me as God is supposed to be a being beyond our human concepts of gender, sex or even physical form.  But, because of the way most societies categorize masculine and feminine traits, it is very easy to slip into the habit of viewing God as a man.  Very few texts have ever caused me to subconsciously think of God as a woman, but Julian's loving God created the image of a feminine, and therefore, female being.

For whatever reason, a female God seems not only more loving, but less imposing and judgmental than a male one.  Being male does not inherently make God incapable of love, but I don't think 'loving' is a very strongly represented characteristic in comparison to more stereotypically masculine characteristics.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Oxford University

Our class and those in Prof. Meera Nair’s “Writing London: Outsiders in the City” donned our best and headed to Oxford for a tour of Prof. Hornbeck’s alma mater. We dressed for dinner, but did not feel overdressed during the day. Our trip coincided with final examinations for Oxford students. During these exams, students are expected to appear in academic dress known as subfusc that includes a gown and white bow tie for men and thin black tie for women . Variations indicate academic status, and the colors of the carnation corsages reflect what stage of examinations the student is in that day. Oxford takes tradition very seriously, and students who do not show up properly dressed are not permitted to take their exams.

After some discussion about the medieval foundations of the university system, which went partially toward explaining the often quirky way Oxford still structures its education, we took a tour of the world-class Bodleian library. Access to the collections is highly restricted, but we were able to go into rooms most students do not visit including the Convocation House and the Chancellor’s Court. The 17th century Convocation House is a somewhat hidden and guarded space which King Charles I used to hold Parliament during the English Civil War and is still used to grant high level honorary degrees requiring tight security. The Chancellor’s Court next door, where misbehaved former students like Oscar Wilde were tried, is even more remote and leads to the Oxford prison below, now used to store computer equipment and wine for receptions.

The afternoon was spent at Christ Church, the largest of the colleges. Christ Church was founded by Cardinal Wolsey in 1524 on the site of the dissolved Augustinian monastery of St. Frideswide with funds taken from several other dissolved religious houses. He originally named the school Cardinal College in honor of himself. Not to be outdone in modesty, King Henry VIII suppressed and refounded the college a few years later as King Henry VIII’s College. The present name, Christ Church, was settled upon in 1546. The monastic cloister of St. Fridewide’s has been well maintained and counts as the fourth medieval monastery our class has visited in our last three meetings! Most of us opted to attend the beautifully done liturgy of Evensong at 6:00pm sung by the cathedral boy’s choir.

Much of the conversation during the day that was not about places filmed in Harry Potter had to do with the place Oxford has occupied in Britain’s social and cultural imagination. Oxford has long been perceived as a gate to the aristocracy, and Oxford’s symbols, traditions, and even architecture are associated with prestige, authority, and success and mimicked in institutions of higher education throughout the world. Not to be outclassed by Oxford, however, our Fordham students concluded the day with a fantastic dinner served in a private dining room next to the main dining hall, now better known as Hogwarts in Harry Potter. We will spend the next two days outside of class visiting various medieval churches in London and preparing presentations on them.


Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Westminster Abbey

Yesterday the class met for a tour of Westminster Abbey. I'd visited the Abbey once before, years ago, and I remember that it seemed much smaller, dimmer, and more crowded than I'd expected. It hasn't changed since then, and our recent visit to Canterbury made the impression all the more stark. As Kiley noted in her blog post, Canterbury feels open, celestial, and its identity as a parochial church and pilgrimage site is still an integral part of the space. The halls seem almost endless, stretching both upwards and forwards, and even the crypt felt airy and bright, despite a steady stream of tourists and pilgrims.

Westminster, by contrast, feels cramped and crowded, overfull of both the living and the dead. Tombs and memorials are stacked one on top of the other in a hodgepodge of styles, all competing for prominence. Every aisle and chapel is stuffed to the brim with composers, scientists, privy councilors, and knights, from the front of the nave all the way to the walls of the cloisters. Even the royals can't find a free space: Elizabeth I and Mary I actually share a tomb (although it would be easy to overlook Mary's presence, given that she receives only passing mention on the side of Elizabeth's grand monument-- certainly by design). The whole building is a fascinating display of artistry, pageantry, and civic and religious devotion.

Rather than rehearsing all the notable monuments we saw today (you can find a list of most of them on the site's website), I thought I'd make a list of my top 3 of the Abbey's more easily overlooked attractions.
  • The main draw for pilgrims is the shrine of St. Edward the Confessor, which sits on a dais behind the high altar. The shrine is roped off now, due to its fragility and the tight confines of the raised platform, but visitors are invited to attend an intimate prayer service there twice daily. Several members of our class chose to participate, and I'm so glad that we did. It was an extraordinary experience, sitting at a remove from the crowds circling around the shrine that both lies at the heart of the Abbey and remains unseen by most visitors.
  • Most of the Abbey's monuments and decorative schemes post-date the medieval period, but we did see a few examples of the original wall paintings. In the Chapter House, some panels of a 14th century cycle depicting the apocalypse survived bombings during WWII, and a few monuments have been removed from the wall of the south transept, revealing vivid 13th century paintings of doubting Thomas and St. Christopher carrying the Christ Child. It makes you wonder what other treasures lie behind the enormous baroque monuments.
  • All throughout our tour of the main Church, we kept wondering, "Where are all the monks buried?" After all, the Abbey functioned as such from 960 until its dissolution in 1540. We finally found a handful of Abbots' monuments on our way out, tucked halfway beneath the stone benches in the cloister. Here's one example.

I hope to return to Westminster for Evensong later on in the month. I imagine the space will feel very different, once it has been cleared of tourists and filled with music. For now, onward to Oxford!

Monday, June 11, 2012

England in Photos

The Canterbury Cathedral
Just thought I'd share some of my photos I've taken thus far in England. They include some from the Jubilee, which many of us attended, as well as our excursion to Canterbury. Sadly, due to restrictions, I was unable to snap any photos at Westminster. I guess it's their attempt to reduce the already "touristy" feel that Westminster has--I likened it to that of Time Square packed inside a church!

Here is the first shot in Canterbury--more photos after the jump!

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Canterbury and the Experience of God

Over the past couple of days I have tried to reflect on the cathedral at Canterbury and its place in the medieval realm. We had the outstanding opportunity to visit the church and take a guided tour of its interior on Friday, and experience none of us will soon forget. Naturally, we as 21st century Americans were awestruck to be standing in a church that had been a place of worship for over fourteen hundred years, with much of its architecture dating back to the medieval era. However, I am quite our experience there made less of an impression than it would to a medieval Christian.

During Canterbury's heyday in the 11th and 12th centuries, many if not most English Christians were living in small villages with rather unimpressive architectural landscapes. Wattle and daub was the building material of choice for the huts of the poor, and even the wealthy were resigned to one- or two-story houses made of wood that served as homes, offices, and workshops. The nobility at the time did live in larger quasi-castles, but only later in the era did they begin to be built for comfort instead of fortification. Thus, Christians were used to buildings that served pragmatic purposes and provided shelter, but that did not do much else.

That being said, I can not fully grasp how overwhelmingly impressed the pilgrims who traveled to Canterbury Cathedral would have been when they saw its ceiling that reaches for heaven and its intricately carved interior. I would not put it past any one of them to believe that God himself had a hand in building this church that seemingly defied the limits of human creation. They probably literally believed that they were standing in God's house, because a building like that cathedral is certainly too grand to house any earthly entity.

Thus, I think that the cathedral itself may have had more to do with the experience of God in the minds of medieval pilgrims than the relics therein. Christians purportedly traveled to Canterbury in order to see and revere the remains of Thomas Becket, and many reported having experienced healing and grace after visiting them. The remains of the saint have since been removed from the church, but I for one still left it feeling peaceful and imbued with a sense of divine omnipotence. Perhaps the sweeping architecture and ornate decor of the cathedral actually affected medieval pilgrims just as much as the relics of the saints that were kept there.