It was something I’ve wanted to see for many years because of its place at the center of western civilization. Standing for over a millennium to shape the ideology of the civilized world—to be one of the only lasting vestiges of the Roman Empire for which it was born and gave birth to the nation of England in the form we know it today—the Cathedral of Canterbury is an awesome thing to behold. It sits atop the highest point of that little pilgrimaging town protected by law not to have any rivals holding the progress of mankind to its history it still sits perched above all else in a way that just isn’t seen in America anywhere. In New York skyscrapers would have long overtaken such a structure, but not in Canterbury where its Cathedral is still the star of the show and will remain that way for the rest of the foreseeable future. In many ways the Canterbury Cathedral is the very definition of America’s desire to have a separation of “Church and State” as defined by our Constitution which essentially changed the world and launched the most productive country on earth because the pent-up abilities of the human race had been stuck for over two thousand years under the weight of places like the Canterbury Cathedral and the kings who held the throne in London—which evolved directly out of the Roman Empire in Italy.
The figure I’ve long admired was Thomas Beckett the Archbishop of Canterbury. If you’ve ever wondered why there is a piece called “bishop” in the game of chess—you’d have to understand the role they played in monarchal politics as for many centuries they were directly challenged by power-hungry kings for the right to rule the minds of mankind. And kings often used them to acquire power and to keep them busy so not to allow the church to impose itself on the aggressions of the monarchy. So bishops—especially archbishops, had their role in European politics that were quite spectacular from the perspective of a scholar, but a pain to the public stuck between the church and the state. In fact, it was in Canterbury that the pilgrims which left for America and started the Holiday Thanksgiving launched—because they had enough of being stuck between the church of Canterbury and the politics of London.
Henry the II had pushed Thomas Beckett beyond his limits and provoked four knights to seek out the big man at the Cathedral to murder him in cold blood to appease the king. The reason was that Beckett refused to allow the king to believe he was superior to the papacy. King Henry II really didn’t mean to, because Beckett had been his friend for a long time, but his quest for power overtook him to the point of murder. Beckett was killed right in the Cathedral which made it an interesting place to visit, I wanted to stand in the spot where the knights had spilled out his entrails and stained the floor with blood. I felt fortunate to go through the door where the knights had come through to kill Beckett and to stand and face a murder I had read about for years. To me it was like visiting the site of the murders of Helter Skelter—an event of such evil and propensity that to attempt to understand it, you have to see and touch the surroundings. After all, Beckett knew they were coming to kill him and he refused to lock the door to prevent it. And for the knights to approach the Cathedral knowing what they intended to do—I had to see it for myself.
Once Beckett had been buried at the Cathedral down in the crypt which I was also able to see, pilgrims began to flock to Canterbury to visit the tomb of the slain and beloved Archbishop. It was this action that provoked the entire novel, (poem) The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer which chronicled the many pilgrimages to Beckett’s tomb from all levels of society—and is one of my favorite works in literature. It was Chaucer in fact that launched the age of great literature which then launched the western world. For me it was interesting to walk the streets that Charles Dickens, Chaucer and many others had walked before to see the roots of their musings. But there was nothing like the Cathedral to lay eyes on because of the ruckus it caused in the minds of mankind in so many ways—and to see it, and touch it was something that was for me necessary.
As my wife and I went to visit the site it was obvious the church had long lost its power and what we were seeing was simply a ghost from the past. Canterbury is stuck in the shadow of its own history as immigration has fundamentally changed the nature of the old town into something less English and more European. The days of great literature were gone as the minds of the inhabitants either settled into those shadows or left for their own glory leaving behind directionless ambition to study the old monuments with open notebooks only to learn nothing applicable to the modern world. The caretakers of the Cathedral were quick to emphasize that the place was a nondenominational church now. In 1536 the Reformation was well underway and the government turned against the papacy once and for all. After a hundred years of that the pilgrims tired of the struggle between church and state left for North America to live as freely as they could. From the time of Beckett’s slaughter on December 29th 1170 to the writing of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in 1389 AD to the destruction and looting of Beckett’s tomb in 1538 a very careful and pointed ache of understanding had attached itself to the human race. The kings of England had lost their godly justification to rule and turned more toward war to keep their people busy colonizing the world with empire pride to unify their kingdom. These forces of course would collide once and for all in America—the pilgrims who had left centuries earlier with the immigrants fleeing the king’s influence now that the Reformation had destroyed the church which built their country and people became free for the first time in all of human civilization. It was something to walk about the Cathedral and see the tomb of Henry the IV, the Black Prince, and the spot in the crypts where Beckett had rested—along with many hundreds of others buried in that historic place haunting the modern world with a foot back in time to when human beings were still trying to invent themselves in the wake of the Romans, the Greeks, and the Minoans (Atlanteans)—The Sumerians, and whatever came before them which is likely long gone now to the eyes of history. The Canterbury Cathedral served as a testament to mankind’s history and eventual evolution so it was a place to visit that was necessary.
Whereas the church has lost its power in Europe the effort has not led to a gain of intelligence. It can’t be helped but to notice that people are not better off without the church and its influence, but worse. Their freedom from religion and the state has not given them boundless philosophic presence, but left them standing naked and exposed to the cosmos—and an anxiety has emerged that cannot be covered up with drunkenness or upward social mobility. At the Cathedral, monks spent their time reading and contemplating—thinking which was the real magic of the place. If you take away religion, the scholarship offered by the church made people better because it at least encouraged people to be smarter. These days the shaping of minds has moved from religion to our modern media—but the imprisonment of reason is the same. To understand it, it helps to walk an ancient cathedral and visit the tombs of the most powerful people of their day and see how small their highest aims at life really where. And to notice how the cathedral architecture aimed to be bigger than anything human beings should build for worldly affairs—to reach up and touch the majestic of something greater. But they missed the point, and not all to their fault. After all they were the first to get there and we today have the benefit of hindsight. It is in that context that I found the Cathedral not a tomb of the dead, or place of the murdered, or even the destination of many pilgrimages over the centuries—but a step on the way to a heaven that isn’t so much “out there,” but much more personal. It is certainly a place worth seeing, especially to those who love books and scholarship and the zeal to be greater than our terrestrial surroundings.
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