Living in the Extremes: Of London and Retreat Centers

“When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life. Why, sir, you find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London.” Samuel Johnson

Tired of “full English breakfast” in the morning, but not of London, I sought refuge in the nearby Caffe Nero across Russell Square. As I sat near the door with my apricot croissant and american, I could hear the family in the corner next to me speaking German. At the next table were two elegantly dressed women who I initially thought were Italian – no, after one of them spent most of her time on the phone, I could swear she was speaking Hebrew.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, a multitude of languages, every form of fashion, people from every tribe and nation rush along the streets here in London: people who stop to take photos of gray squirrels because they think they are exotic, people who seem just as strange and exotic to me.

London IS endlessly diverting. I find always one more street, even in this neighborhood that I think I know so well, that I’ve never been down. Yesterday’s walk took me to Tavistock Gardens, a square I’ve hurried by many times on the way to the British Library or Euston Station. Inside the square I find a monument to conscientious objectors in the world wars, a statue of Mahatma Ghandi, several trees dedicated to certain people, a memorial statue of Virginia Woolf who lived in a house facing this square.
Who knew that all this was in the square I’ve so often passed by?

On this trip we try to balance the busyness and entertainment of London and other cities with longer stays at retreat and conference centers. These places are often located far away from any town or village, in quiet, peaceful settings with public footpaths leading across the fields or into the forest, with nooks and crannies within the buildings where one can hole up quietly with a good book. Sometimes there are rooms dedicated as chapels or places of prayer. Stays in these places become mini-retreats.


Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote: “Let him who cannot be alone beware of community… Let him who is not in community beware of being alone… Each by itself has profound perils and pitfalls..” I have had the privilege over the past few months to experience a balance of community and solitude. Traveling with 18 students, visiting major cities in the U.K., Ireland and France provides lots of community — and busyness and entertainment! We’ve gone to theaters and concerts together, as well as worship. But staying in quiet places also gave me the gift of long walks, quiet reflection and beautiful spaces.

As we leave London tomorrow, I am grateful for the gift of this great city, as well as for the quiet beauty of retreats in the country. It’s been a wonderful balance!







“Church Going”

When we visited St. Julian’s Church, Norwich, the priest mentioned that Norwich had more medieval churches than it needed: “Feel free to take one home with you, if you like” was his humorous comment.

Although we are 12 miles from Norwich, this small area called Ditchingham also abounds in medieval churches. Within easy walking distance is the church of All Hallows’ Convent, St. Mary’s Ditchingham, and the church I walked to today, St. Michael’s of Broome.

I saw St. Michael’s peering over the horizon the other day when I walked down a very narrow lane (turns out it’s called “Rectory Road” but there’s no street sign). I decided if there were a day with more than one hour of sunshine before showers, I would walk all the way to the church. Today was the day.

Walking down lanes that are barely big enough for farm equipment is a bit unnerving. I’ve gotten better at jumping into the narrow verges, trying to avoid nettles, when cars or delivery vans (bringing someone an Amazon package no doubt) pass by!

I came to an even more narrow gravel lane that stated it was only for vehicles going to the church. I figured I qualified so I continued towards the church, now in plain view.

St. Michael’s Church, Broome, parish of Ditchingham

When I got up to the church, a sign plainly stated that the church was open today. There was no one in sight for miles in this open farmland.

I found the south door (always go in the south door…) and lifted the rusty latch to the porch. Crossing the enclosed porch, I managed to turn the knob, probably at least 500 years old, to the nave itself. As I pushed open the door, I held my breath as to what I would find — pigeons roosting? A homeless person camping out? Vermin scuttling across the floor?


But no, I found a little church, very much cared for, with all the signs of life that every church has: notices of baptisms, marriages, deaths, pleas to give money to keep up the church, and updates from the overseas missionary they support. I prayed in the quiet. As I was leaving, I saw a guestbook. Others had been in the church two days ago, visiting some of the recent graves outside and praying. I signed the guestbook, thanking them for keeping the church open.

Many would call Britain today “post-Christian.” Indeed, one of Britain’s most famous contemporary poets, Philip Larkin, wrote about stopping in one of these small, rural churches, “Church Going.” The poem is sad, cynical and yet ends by calling the church “a serious house on serious earth” and a place “which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in.” Compare this to T.S. Eliot’s homage to the church at Little Gidding: “…You are not here to verify, /Instruct yourself, or inform curiousity /Or carry report. You are here to kneel /Where prayer has been valid….”

Great Britain is dotted with churches like these which witness to God’s continuing love and faithfulness and the faithful remnant who kneel, pray and care for these old, old buildings.

“Only Connect”

“Only Connect” is the name of a notoriously difficult quiz show aired on BBC. Contestants have to find connections between all kinds of seemingly random people, events or pictures. I feel really dumb when I watch it. But the title got me thinking about how we connect to places and people.

This is our fifth England Term. I have spent more than 15 months, scattered over 26 years, traveling through the United Kingdom. Traveling so often to many of the same places creates a different dynamic than being a tourist passing through for the first time.

But yet I never really belong either. I don’t have a home or a job in these places. I’m just a’passin’ through.

So I treasure those connections we do make. When we stay again at the same guest houses we did in 2015 (and sometimes in 2009 or 2000), we love to talk over with our hosts what has changed since we were last together. In Lindisfarne, in Stratford, in Sligo, in Salisbury, we begin to get to know our hosts’ personalities and even families. We connect.

One of the guides we’ve connected with over the years — George who takes us out to see the Lake Isle of Innisfree in County Sligo, Ireland

One constant for us is our London hotel, owned by Mrs. Marazzi and family. When we first arrived at the hotel she owned in 1991, right off Russell Square, we had two little boys, ages 6 and 8, in tow and a baby in arms! She still remembers our children and asks about them. Her hotel is now in a slightly different location but still off of Russell Square. And our connection still remains. This year she was thrilled to see the photos of our grandchildren!

Last week when I was doing laundry in London at my local laundromat (see post “Of London and Laundry”) I had a chat with a woman about politics — and how it is always easier to look at another nation’s problems more dispassionately than at your own nation’s. The next day I was walking near High Holborn Street, doing a few errands, when I heard someone call after me. I was a bit afraid to turn around but there was the woman from the laundry! She just wanted to greet me, having recognized me as she was also out shopping. We talked just a bit but I left feeling something different — as if I had actually connected with someone in the great city of London!

We meet so many people who guide us, help us, serve us, host us, and drive us. Some we don’t remember and some stay in our memory forever. Perhaps part of being on pilgrimage is bringing home this same desire to connect — only connect — with those we can easily pass by every day.


Even More Monks and Hermits!

Today is All Saints’ Day — the day set aside in the Christian calendar to honor all those who loved and followed Jesus during their earthly life. This trip, this pilgrimage, has increased my gratitude for those who have faithfully gone before me.

I write this from Cappadocia, Turkey, the home of the Church Fathers, Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa (Basil’s brother), and Gregory of Nazianus. These three holy men lived devout lives and helped define some of the most important doctrines of the Christian Church — how we understand the mystery of Jesus being both fully God and fully human.

Dan and I have been touring the amazing churches carved into caves here. Inside the churches are the remains of brightly colored frescoes, painted mainly in the 10th and 11th centuries. Almost every church we have visited (they are now museums) have the three Cappadocian Fathers depicted near Jesus, Mary, and John the Baptist in the apse, where the altar stood. The photo below is of the other end of the church, where you enter, as most of the apses were too dark for photos.


View of the western entrance of one of the cave churches

Here in Cappadocia, as early as the 4th century, monks came to find solitude and refuge in this rugged landscape of cliffs and caves. They often lived as hermits. As time went by, monasteries were developed which attracted many visitors. All this was happening in Turkey at around the same time as the Celtic monasteries in Ireland and England. Even though separated by thousands of miles, these saints were influenced by the same Spirit and writings.


This trip has helped deepen my grasp of “how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ” (Ephesians 3.18). These words were written to a community of Christians here in Turkey by the Apostle Paul . On this All Saints’ Day may we all have a sharper vision of what it will be like to worship with that great multitude from every nation, tribe, people, language, and time, gathered around the throne and the Lamb (Revelation 7.9).


A Discursive Post on Parisian Sewers

Warning: This blog contains a 4-letter word beginning with P.

Sometimes when we’re faced with a panorama of a large city, perhaps on a bridge or at a high lookout, my husband will turn to me with wonder, “What does this city do with all these people’s poop?!”

Admit it – you’ve wondered that yourself….

We got a small glimpse into what Paris does with all the poop when we visited the Museum of the Sewers a few days ago.

Right near the Pont De L’Alma, a bridge over the Seine, is a small kiosk marked “Musee des Egouts de Paris.” We showed them our museum passes and proceeded down a winding flight of stairs at the side of the kiosk. Now we were actually under the street, beneath the Branly Quai and the Place de la Resistance, in the romantic sewers of Paris where the Phantom of the Opera took refuge and Jean Valjean carries Marius to safety (in Les Miserables).


In the dark underground, exhibits explained the history of the sewers. Of course, it all started with the Romans (see my post from 2015, “A Discursive Post on British Plumbing”). In medieval times, a channel was made for sewage down the center of the street. After a few bouts of plague, these channels were dug deeper and covered. Progress was now unstoppable until we reach the 21st century.

We walked along on grids of a catwalk with the water of the storm sewers rushing beneath our feet while we read the information. Above our heads, large black pipes dripped occasionally, smelling like they were the sanitary sewers. We took a few twists and turns, looking into  a smaller channel off to our left (entrance forbidden), when Dan spied them: “Rats. Those are rats. And not the Disney animatronic kind.”

Indeed. The little guys looked right at us (we were the visitors after all), switched their long tails and scuttled away from us down their tunnel.

This post follows my theme of water. Emerging again into the sunlight, I longed for the murky springs of Bath, England, or the holy wells of St. Winifried. No rats in sight there.

Since our foray into the sewers, I’ve been drinking only bottled water. Although I’m sure the stuff out of the taps here in Paris is just fine….


Big Piles of Rock

This morning, as I walked around the Cathedral Close here in Salisbury, I glimpsed an open gate that had been closed before. A truck was parked in the gate way. Behind that truck I could spy stones — piles of rough cut rocks obviously waiting to be used for the ongoing renovations of the Cathedral.



I thought of a question one of our students asked when we were on our way to yet another site of historical value, “Are we going to another big pile of rocks?”!!

In the last few blog posts my theme has been water. Lots of water. But here in the UK and Ireland there are also ROCKS. Lots of rocks….

Last week we visited Bru Na Bóinne in County Meath, Ireland, the site of megalithic (translate: BIG stones) passage graves. A UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the most important and extensive prehistoric sites, this area is home to over 90 monuments ranging from passage graves, burial mounds, standing stones, henges and other big piles of rock which no one is quite sure what the purpose was.

Over 5,000 years ago people figured out how to roll these huge stones on logs, or devised ways to float them downriver, often many miles from their origin. The white quartz which was laid carefully outside the tomb at Knowth and which lined the face of the immense tomb at Newgrange, is from County Wicklow, over 50 miles to the south. What immense engineering feats! What creative and energetic people designed these tombs and cut decorations into the rock!

No one knows for sure why these tombs were built. The entrances line up with sunrise and sunset at the equinox (in Knowth) and at the solstice (in Newgrange). Besides being tombs, were they places of worship? Were they community centers? Whatever the detailed purpose, surely the people were reaching beyond themselves, thinking of time beyond their time, linking themselves with ancestors who had died, with times yet to come, somehow with eternity.


“[God] has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end” (Ecclesiastes 3.11).

We also visited Avebury in England, near Stonehenge, which contains the largest Neolithic stone circle in the world (much larger than Stonehenge but not with standing stones and lintels).

Of course the other big piles of rocks here in the U.K. are the midieval cathedrals. Again, the engineering, design, creativity, and ingenuity shown in building these places of worship is mind-boggling! As I write this, I can see the spire of Salisbury Cathedral out my window — the tallest spire in England. Some of our students are taking the “Tower Tour” this afternoon where they can climb above the stone vaulting, see the wooden scaffolding that holds up the slate roof and actually climb up to the observation deck on the main tower. Completed in 1258, the Cathedral also stands as a monument to our ancestors’ search for eternity and desire to worship.

Rock has a permanence and endurability that makes it perfect for those who have eternity in their hearts. Scripture is filled with references to God as our ROCK and refuge. Jesus is “the stone that the builders rejected” which became the cornerstone. The Apostle Paul uses the image of building a temple of stone to remind us that believers are living stones, “being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.” Even more lasting than 5,000 year old stone structures, even more valuable than a World Heritage site, is each human soul!


Of London and Laundry

London has come and gone. We were there from September 29th to October 4th — I now write this from Sligo, Ireland.

I find London exhilarating, fascinating, and exhausting — in almost equal measure. The jumble of buildings from midieval churches and towers to 18th century Palladian homes, built in a crescent shape along the street (think Mary Poppins…), to new skyscrapers in daring form (the Gherkin and the Shard) — exhilarating! The multitude of languages spoken by passers by, overheard conversations from others who speak English with various accents, people in every form of fashion from burka to avant-garde style — fascinating! And being jostled from every angle, having to dart in and out of oncoming groups of people, enduring traffic very close at every corner, hoping that the car speeding towards you will stop at the Zebra crossing, walking  22,000 steps in one day — exhausting!

We have stayed in the same area of London at the same hotel every time we have visited. The Russell Square neighborhood is very familiar. If I have even 15 minutes to spare, I love to step out of our hotel and just start walking. It’s never boring, always interesting.

But walking through the streets of London is a solitary activity. In any city, for conversations with locals or other interesting people, I recommend taking some laundry to the local self-service launderette!


Over the years I have had many memorable conversations in many countries at the laundromat. There was the lavanderia in Florence, Italy, where it took at least five people speaking five different languages, and a lot of sign language, to help each other figure out how to use the complicated washing machines! I remember la laverie automatique in Lyons, France, where I heard all about a French gentleman’s travels through the USA over the last 20 years. The laundromat in Bath was presided over by a friendly proprietor who cheerfully removed clothing from dryers and washers, making way for the next person’s load, all the while keeping up a patter of conversation with many of the locals. In Stratford I met a couple who were living on a houseboat and came ashore to do laundry. In London, the kind proprietor lent one of our students 1£ for the dryer because she had run out of money.

You’ll notice that this topic is in keeping with my theme of “water” — cleansing, renewing, refreshing water. Ah, clean clothes! Some day I may write a book all about my adventures over the years doing laundry abroad. Not only do you emerge with enlarged wardrobe possibilities but you may just make a friend and experience a bit of community!