HAD I BEEN IN LONDON TODAY, I might have taken the Bakerloo Underground to St. Augustine’s, Kilburn, for Mass while Nancy slept in. In that church in 2007 I experienced a kind of reconversion, a renewal of deep faith and trust in a sacramental view of reality, in the left-handed ways of Anglican catholicity, in ways of speaking and praying that I have engaged in with more or less enthusiasm and more or less habitual discipline, since my hyper-religious teens.
But, because of the necessity of Nancy’s having gall bladder surgery, we are not in London, and there is no church like St. Augustine’s, Kilburn, within 400 miles. Instead, we are “Up North” in Michigan, staying in a bare-bones tourist cabin with fake log walls and furniture fashioned out of polyurethaned sticks. It is surrounded on three sides by thirsty Michigan woods with wide, sandy spaces between the trees. Half-dead ferns proliferate among the burned-over stumps, and the air swarms with tiny gnats.
Given such an unpromising environment, why do I feel very much as I did at St. Augustine’s in 2007? Why do I sense myself surrounded and pervaded by sacred enchantment?
Holy Island got started because the monks who first came there (Aiden and Cuthbert and Bede and others) because it seemed forlorn enough to discourage even marauding Vikings from wanting to stop and plunder it. Oh, they got around to plundering it soon enough, and the monks fled to Durham, taking the bones of their saints with them, but after the Norman conquest (and what are Normans if not Vikings who speak French), new monastic inhabitants arrived, drawn by the field of sacred energy that (it is said) lingers about the place. And even now, when all that remains of a monastery are ruins and parts of the Anglican parish church, there remains an allure, a left-handed invitation that apparently can assert itself anywhere, even here, especially here, especially now.
Someday a doctor will speak to me as Nancy’s doctor spoke to us last Thursday, except this time it will be to tell me that my days are numbered, that this time there is no chance of postponing my departure or making new reservations at a later time. On that day I will be stuck with whatever furniture is present in the room, and with whatever landscape is visible from whatever window. If God is merciful, no one will want to watch “The Biggest Loser” on TV, but if they do…?
On that day, whether I recognize it or not, I will be inhabiting an island, bounded on all sides by gray, seal-infested waters. Vikings will sail by and take no notice, their war-boats headed for more attractive shores. I will watch them pass, and wonder what they will find to conquer at York, or Durham, or London. I will watch them pass, and (if I have my wits) remember today, this furniture, this unpromising moment, and this love.