In less than two weeks I shall leave this barely scratched American earth and fly to a land where humans have left potent reminders of their loves, lives, endeavors, and losses. The Welsh poet parson, R.S. Thomas, wrote: “Thousands of years later I inhabit a house whose stone is the language of its builders. Here, by the sea they said little. But their message to the future was: Build well.”
My history teacher, a florid, tweedy, be-gowned wizard of a man, placed the spell of history on me. It lives with me daily. A dear friend called me a nerd because, as I watched Wolf Hall last night, I objected that Cranmer was bearded, whereas he only grew a beard when Henry VIII died.
What does it matter? Not much, I suppose. But to me, Cranmer isn’t merely a composer and editor of extraordinarily succinct and beautiful religious prose — language which feeds my soul and gladdens my mind. Nor is he simply a theological rebel or a martyr. He is a human being of humble birth who rose through academia to become Archbishop of Canterbury to the volatile, tyrannical Henry. I wonder what sort of a pastor he was, what sort of a preacher or husband. I want to know Cranmer. I lament that all too often he is merely a source, suffering modern martyrdom as scholars and liturgists seek to impose on him to settle contemporary disputes. Of course all disputes are temporary, although some are less temporary than others.
Near where I shall be staying in Wales is Llandaff Cathedral, an ancient building, often restored. Near its site Saint Dyfrig founded his monastery. He was succeeded by Saints Teilo and Euddogwy. A lonely Celtic Cross is all that remains of the lives they lived, but perhaps that is enough. The Normans built most of the present cathedral, dedicated to Saints Peter and Paul, as well as Dyfrig, Teilo, and Euddogwy; it houses also Teilo’s shrine, to which pilgrims came until the Reformation, among them Jasper Tudor, Henry VIII’s kinsman. And so back to Wolf Hall.
The stones I shall walk by, touch, and view tell their tales, as silently as the organ whispers and we pray together the Mass. Master Cromwell dissolved the religious community, but the new dean and chapter assumed their role. German bombs destroyed much, but the splinters of ancient stone, lovingly restored, continue to raise arches and roof, silently declaring the glory of God.
The stones cry out: Build well.
Reformers come and go, and holy Church through the common sense of the laity, accepts, rejects, or adapts their findings. As I contemplate that truth, I hear my history master saying: “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it never stops trying.” And: “Don’t tell history what you think: let history tell you what it thinks.”
Even here, hard by the Mississippi, in the simple wooden church across the road, lacking stone, barely remembering its hundred-year story, we repeat history, the history of the Upper Room, of Calvary’s green hill, of Roman Christians based in Britain, of Augustine’s little band with feet trembling at Thanet, of Celtic monks, of Cranmer’s study, of Jamestown’s settlers, and of the faith of miners from Northern England who settled in Glen Carbon and built the humble church dedicated to St. Thomas.
We are, like it or not, surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses as we run or walk or stagger the race set before us. The past may be just that, a dreary, schoolroom recitation of dates, and events, and bloodless people. However, to a Christian there is no past or present or future but only God’s now. We are called to rejoice in the fellowship of those we cannot see or hear or touch, but who witness to us, urging us to “Build well.”
And still the stones cry out.
The featured image is “Dundrennan Abbey” (2008) by Etrusia UK. It is licensed under Creative Commons.