What a perilous thing is revisiting.
In retracing the steps of former joys, one always runs the risk of replacement. There is always the danger of finding things not quite so magical as memory has painted them. Be it the effect of time or merely the angle of the sun on a given day and our soul’s alignment with it, we can never really recreate a past happiness. Once vouchsafed, a remembered joy is ours to keep in token and pledge of the eternal joys it signifies. But not ours to recover; that’s not in our power any more than the original gifting. That’s part of the deal.
But there’s a contrary to this fact, an opposing force that lures us back to scenes and settings where we have known a deep encounter of the soul, all danger notwithstanding. It’s the longing that stares down the fear of change and makes high adventure and pilgrimage of a simple return visit. And I believe that it is truly spiritual at its heart, as all profound desires really are. It stems from the same motivation as that of the patriarchs, scattering their altars to the Living God in the wake of their wanderings. A going-back can be a reaffirmation. It can be a context within which the mercies of God stand out in startling color and where we silently bow the soul and remember the miracle of His kindness.
I experienced this very thing last September, standing on the Green before the western front of Wells Cathedral in Somerset, England. We had driven over from Devon, leaving our cottage in its steep, wooded combe well before daylight, crossing into Somerset in a dawn-lit haze of autumn mists. The early gilding on shrouded hills and hedgerows, the light-filled vapors out of which materialized church steeples and barn roofs, seemed things of joy in themselves and a loving prophecy over the gladness of our day.
We had promised ourselves that we would come back one day, after that dazed and happy Maytime discovery when the sudden realization that we were literally walking in the pages of an Elizabeth Goudge novel had been treasure and gift. Dear Wells! I think it must be the most perfect little city in England—in the world! And never more so than on a sunny Sunday morning in September with the day’s first kiss gleaming on the cobbles and wakening the riotous colors of flowers burgeoning from every basket and barrel in town. The streets were so quiet as we made our way to the Cathedral, expecting at any moment to see the towers and spires looming golden above the medieval gates, that the place seemed enchanted, dreaming over days gone by. But just as before—just as if I had never seen the majestic western front with its myriad carvings and portraits in stone mounting to the blue sky in a triumph that could never be mistaken for mere loftiness—it took my breath away.
I stood on the quiet Green in a kind of rapture. And then I turned to Philip, who was just as delighted as I was.
“Let’s pretend that we live here!” I cried. “Just for this one day!”
And for one magical day, we did.
We passed before the western front and beneath the age-blackened Penniless Porch to find the High Street and its pretty Market Place almost as deserted as the Green. The cobbles were shining and the well at its heart was bedecked with flowers, geraniums and petunias and impatiens. Tucking into a quaint little café just outside the shelter of the Porch we had a “full English” in a sunny window overlooking the square until the bells summoned us back to the Cathedral for sung mattins.
We entered the hush and holiness of the great house of God at an ancient oaken door in the western front and made our way down the shadowy aisles to the Quire, from whence the strains of organ music were issuing. The steward directed us to a seat just behind the choir stalls, to my infinite joy and satisfaction, and we took our places in an awe-filled silence. I didn’t know where to look first—from the centuries-old yet still-vibrant tapestries that hung behind the stalls, to the soaring vaults of the magnificent roof, to the splendor and radiance of the exquisite Golden Window to the east. But then the choir processed in with the clergy and the beautiful old service of sung mattins had begun. And I could think of nothing else.
We followed with a quiet joy through the hymns, the lessons, the responses, and before the service was half-over we both knew, as we confessed to each other afterwards, that we were coming back at three for evensong.
After service we spotted the friends we had arranged to meet—another golden blessing upon our day—and hastened to catch up with them in the Cloisters. Hugs and then proper introductions all around before repairing to a pub on the High for lunch and the face-to-face conversation we’d been looking forward to for so long. As Aaron and Jessica were agreeable to the evensong plan, we spent the intervening time wandering about the city, weaving back towards the Cathedral by way of the medieval Vicar’s Close just north of the great edifice, brought to life by Elizabeth Goudge as Henrietta’s little street of walled gardens and uniquely personified houses in A City of Bells.
We made it back to the Quire just in time to take our seats, this time quite intentionally behind the choirstalls. And the organ swelled and the clergy processed in once more and the robed choir—this time with the cherubic addition of the boy choristers, fidgeting with their ruffled collars and holding their music almost before their very noses.
The evensong service was even more worshipful to me than the mattins had been, as I was able to enjoy the magnificent setting as a part of the very act as opposed to a wonder in itself. It has always been so striking to me to consider the particulars of a cathedral’s construction, and with what careful intention each feature was designed to anchor the unseen realities and draw a worshipper inwards and upwards with an irresistible awe. To lift my eyes to that splendid Golden Window that seemed to spill the very light of heaven as the choir sang of lifting one’s eyes to the Lord; to close them and sense the glory and joy that awaits every saint as the music resonates with the joy of the Gloria; to face the east as a body with strong voices invoking together the great Creed of my faith—all of these things make worship a very real and tangible thing for me.
The Magnificat was a setting by Howells and it was so firmly triumphant that my heart swelled and throbbed and my eyes burned. I glanced over at Philip, and his eyes were wet, too. It was that magnificent, and had about it, strangely, that same sense of sublimity as that moment in time at Cape Cornwall. And those beautiful little choir boys, with their distracted, fidgety air and wandering gazes, opening their mouths perfectly on cue and giving us perhaps the purest music on earth.
After our friends had gone we strolled slowly over the Cathedral, still wrapped in the golden haze of happiness that the service had produced. We visited the Chapter House, mounting the stone steps worn by 700 years’ worth of bishops and clerics, deploring the senseless destruction of many of the carvings by Cromwell’s men; we peered at the Cathedral towers through the tiny leaded lattice of the Chain Gate, by which the vicars passed from their residential Close into the Chapter House and Cathedral. We visited the tomb of the knight that Henrietta favored and paid our respects to the faithful little dog at his feet, waiting patiently all these hundreds of years.
“I can perfectly understand how Elizabeth Goudge could have an imagination fired early with such color and life,” I whispered to Philip, “with the spiritual and the holy literally breathing through it, being born in a place like this!”
This Cathedral in this lovely little gem of a city in the midst of this green and pleasant land.
We walked back down the echoing aisle hand in hand and stood long at the western door, admiring the symmetry of the medieval “scissor arches” and the grey forest of pillars stretching into the distance of the nearly-deserted nave.
After supper at the same pub we’d had lunch in, Philip went to get the car and I cherished my last few moments in the heart of Wells. I walked all around the Market Place in the gathering dusk, breathing in the beauty and the quiet—even the street musicians packing up from their quarters beneath the Penniless Porch and bantering with people they passed on their way back down the street seemed touched with the sheen of fancy like a centuries-old vignette in the cool magic of the night. I passed beneath the arches of the Porch and stood on the Green one last time, looking up at the beautiful edifice golden against the evening sky as if the very stones were alive and lit from within. Serene and benevolent it seemed in that light, with the time-worn faces of the saints and apostles and kings and queens gazing placidly down.
“I’ll come back,” I promised both them and myself. I’ll keep tryst again.
Then back through the Porch and back to the well were I sat until Philip returned, looking dreamily at the golden spires rising over the golden gates, like a vision of the Heavenly City.
The joy of the day was a tangible thing shared between us. We had braved the loss of our first sweet fascination with the place and found it doubled—trebled. We had known the blessing of God there once more. We hope to know it again, to retrace our steps one day and marvel anew at the love that broods over our ways.
We drove home that night in a mostly-silence of utter content, with the waxing moon and her lady-in-waiting of an evening star raining silver down upon us.
But that moon told me how long we’d been there, and how soon we’d have to go.
“One full moon to another!” we had once said so merrily.
It had seemed endless. And it had flown, as all truly happy things have a way of doing.
But it was ours. And it was as safe as memory could make it.