Westminster Abbey was the first significant thing I saw in London when I spent a semester in England during my junior year of college. I got off the tour bus with my classmates and was immediately accosted by the Abbey’s West Towers. It was the first time a building quite literally took my breath away. As everyone else streamed past me off the bus, I stood still and whimpered, “OhmyGod. Oh, my God. Oh. My. God.”
2013 marked the 50th anniversary of the death of C. S. Lewis—an author and thinker who has perhaps had more influence on my inner world than anyone else save people I’ve actually personally known. To mark the occasion, a stone was placed in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey in his honor. I will confess that before this event I had not been aware of the existence of Poets’ Corner, but knowing that Lewis was going to be honored in the Abbey was enough for me. I requested and received permission to travel with a wise and wonderful friend, and I began to make preparations for the both of us.
I take preparation very seriously. My preparations for this pilgrimage involved hours of poring over various web pages seeking lodgings, hunting down public transportation options, using Google Maps for things I had never before known it could do; exchanging emails and phone calls with people thousands of miles away to make sure that every detail was as close to being in place as I could make it from another continent. Those preparations boiled themselves down into a spiral bound book—nearly sixty pages of plane tickets, bus tickets, maps, walking directions, hotel confirmation pages, and the addresses of a dozen good restaurants within walking distance of each venue.
Eventually, these manic preparations gave way to actually getting on a plane and going to England. After getting settled in London, my wise friend and I spent a couple of hours wandering the Abbey the day before Lewis was to be honored so that we could be overwhelmed by one thing at a time: first by the Abbey itself, and then by the momentous event. So we paid 18£ each and slipped inside. I wandered west down the nave, passing tombs or memorials to people like Neville Chamberlain and Isaac Newton. I examined the famous grave of and monument to the Unknown Warrior from World War I; I sat still for a few moments before the choir screen.
Then I followed the nave back the other way, passing the choir stalls and the altar to the eastern end where the monarchs are buried. Edward the Confessor; Henry V; Elizabeth I; Mary I; Mary Queen of Scots; myriad others. As the voice of Jeremy Irons (who narrates the audio guide) told of the horrors and excesses and intrigues and births and beheadings and conniving political maneuverings of those interred there, I shivered and was so grateful not to have lived during their lifetimes that the whole great bubble of my gratitude wouldn’t fit inside me, and I had to walk on.
I turned into the south transept, and there before me was Poets’ Corner. Geoffrey Chaucer’s tiny coffin on my left. On my right, the marble statue of William Shakespeare. A memorial to George Fredric Handel on the opposite wall. And affixed to a pillar at my side, a glowering bust of William Blake kept vigil over a place on the floor covered by a tarpaulin where something was being installed.
It was only then that the full significance of the event really hit me, because it was only then that I really took in what Westminster Abbey is. As presumptuous as it may be for an American woman with barely more than a quarter century of life under her belt to offer an opinion on the purpose and identity of what is arguably the most magnificent gothic cathedral in the world, I do think I have a sense of what Westminster Abbey is. Westminster Abbey is the repository of the crown jewels of British history and culture. Yes, the actual crown jewels are kept in the Tower of London. But the crown jewels of, as it were, the corpus of quintessential Britishness—the best and brightest and wisest and most influential; the most famous (or infamous) of leaders, thinkers, writers, artists, scientists; the cornerstones of the palace of the history of that proud and ancient and magnificent nation—those jewels are memorialized (if not actually interred) in Westminster Abbey.
And therein have they now memorialized one Clive Staples Lewis.
Many Americans’ reaction to this revelation of mine might easily be, “Well… duh.” But I suspect that relatively few of the many Americans who have read something of Lewis really have a sense of the antagonism much of Great Britain has exhibited toward Lewis (during and after his lifetime). I heard a story in the midst of the proceedings at the Abbey about an author who, at first, sold remarkably well in Great Britain, only to have those sales plummet when a critic referred to him as “the next C. S. Lewis.” So truly, his memorialization in Westminster Abbey—this jewel box that holds and represents the best of the best of what England has offered the world—was (and still is) a miracle. A miracle I crossed a continent and an ocean to witness—only to realize I hadn’t understood its full significance when I set out.
I’m beginning, just a little, to recognize how true this is of absolutely everything in my life. I set out thinking I know what’s going to happen; how I’ll deal with it; how I’ll get from point A to point B; thinking I actually know what point A and point B are. Thinking I have some degree of control. And then, sometimes, I get a fleeting glimpse of the big picture. And sometimes the big picture has very little to do with all the details I’ve been trying to have under control.
Getting the details lined up is not a bad thing. To the contrary, it’s a thing I would like to continue doing as much as possible, thank you very much. But I’m learning that in life, as in Westminster Abbey, it is important to slow down and suck the marrow out of what’s right in front of me. And to do this often enough to make a pattern of it—and to leave enough space in my life for those things to be used to clarify my understanding of what’s real and what matters.
Another thing I’m learning is that, for me, part of how this happens is through writing. Flannery O’Connor once said, “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” Putting the moments of life into words is one way to force myself to pay attention to what’s real and what matters; to find shining fragments of what’s real and what matters scattered throughout what would otherwise be a mass of black-and-white details. So while I set out to write a blog about music when I was preparing to launch my album (another detail, ha-ha) I think the purpose of these pages is changing. Music will still be part of the discussion, because the tapestry of my life is richly woven with music of many kinds, and music—and art in general—does fall under the umbrella of What’s Real and What Matters. But it’s not all that does. There are a lot of other fibers in this tapestry that are worth examining; a lot of other matters that matter.
So to whatever degree I do this henceforth, I will hope to find What’s Real and What Matters in the midst of the details. And when and if I find it, I will announce it… At the Top of my Lungs.