Service lifts otherwise messy sightseeing day in London
The Tower of London was a mild dissapointment.
Yeah, the Crown Jewels were cool, and just being on the grounds is pretty amazing but between the rain and the Saturday afternoon crowds it was a suboptimal experience, and a rookie mistake. Saturdays are not good days to visit the Tower of London.
The rainy afternoon at the tower was preceeded by a acrophobia inducing trip on the London Eye when I had to take a seat on the bench in the center of the capsule to avoid getting reaquainted with my English fry breakfast.
That was followed by a dissapointing lunch at a crowded restaruant.
On the final day of a four-day swing through London things were ending with a whimper.
And so it continued until late afternoon. But sometimes while traveling the most frustrating, I’m ready to go home kind of moments, can turn into something pretty cool.
We arrived at Saint Pauls Cathedral too late to tour the inside. It was the last sightseeing attraction on our trip to London and one I had been looking forward to. But with time running out it was a bridge too far.
“I’m sorry but the last entry was 10 minutes ago,” the nice man at the door said. “But if you want, we’re going to have an evensong service at 5 p.m. and you’re welcome to attend.”
I’m not much of a church goer. My mom dragged me to church on Sunday mornings when I was a kid, but mostly I’d pretend to be asleep so I could stay home and watch the NFL or Mid South Wrestling. Eventually she’d get frustrated and leave me behind.
But a church service inside St. Pauls? This I can do.
My wife and I sat on the steps of the old cathedral until the doors opened again. Watching London play out in front of you from those steps is worth the trip alone. A couple who had just gotten married inside were taking their wedding pictures. Double decker buses and black cabs streamed by. The people watching was high grade.
Finally, the doors swung open and we entered. As we walked inside it was impossible not to be awestruck by the dome and the gilded features of the cathedral, but my temporary euphoria was interupted by another docent who was a bit of a battle axe.
“Are you here for the service or to look around?,” she asked. I’m sure it was obvious we weren’t there for the service.
We told her we were here for the service, not fully understanding what we were getting into. She pointed to seats under the iconic dome that somehow managed to survive a hail of German bombs during World War II. We sat along with about 100 other people and waited.
The program listed what would happen and I was lost immediately. There would be wine and communion wafers and a lot of things I didn’t fully understand. Anglican Church services are a world away from the Southern Baptist services I only vaguely remembered. But when in Rome, er, London, just go with the flow.
A minute later the choir dressed in their full robes entered along with several pastors. The smell of incense began to fill the space, causing me at least momentarily to gag because the smell was overpowering and totally unfamiliar. The incense didn’t smell like the incense I burned in my college days. Not one little bit.
Then the choir began to sing, and as I looked up at the dome above me and thought about the history of this 300 year-old building the moment was almost overwhelming. Sensory overload. Suddenly there was something caught in my throat, and why are my eyes watering?
As the choir finished their first song with a soaring flourish the service began. There was talk about ebola, which was in the news at the time, and peace in the world and a whole bunch of other things I can’t remember. As I listened I couldn’t help but imagine people 300 years ago in the exact same space doing the exact same thing I was doing.
There were more songs and more prayers sung in latin (I think). By the time the 90 minute service was over we had been rewarded with the single most memorable highlight of our first trip to Europe. And even better, it came at a time when we were least expecting it. That’s the magic of travel.