When I found I was going to be in Canterbury on 11/11, I knew straightaway where I wanted to spend 11am on that morning. There’s a garden just the other side of the cloisters of the abbey, where we spent a memorable late-afternoon-into-evening watching bees in the lavender and a very self-possessed cat laboriously grooming herself on a stone pillar earlier this year. This was to the accompaniment of pupils from the neighbouring school delivering Shakespeare sonnets to a tiny audience in the round (a fortunate coincidence that only added to the evening ambience), though we were there on a more passing errand…an exploration of a cathedral I had only ever been to twice before, and never inside (I still haven’t managed that; the cloisters and garden always seem to distract me). A hallowed hour or so passed in that gentle sanctuary in July and I loved it so much that it was, without hesitation, where I thought I wanted to be for my 11/11/11 moment, at the hub of a ley convergence that has delivered pilgrims to its portal for hundreds if not thousands of years. I had to smile as the GPS showed exactly 111 miles to destination when we set off early that morning. Everything felt perfectly aligned.
But then I wasn’t banking on a head-on collision with the church establishment barring our access to “the garden within” because, it turned out, it was a ticket-only entry to the cathedral complex during the day. On both of my previous visits (come to think of it) I had always gone there towards the end of the day, when the portcullis-type archway to the cathedral stood open and unmanned. This time I was told, at the red barriered sentry point, that yes we could come in; yes, even with our dog…but at the cost of £24, the ticket price for two of us to gain entry to the cathedral. “But I only want to go straight to the little garden…for just ten minutes, maybe twenty in time for 11 o’clock” I told him. It mattered not; there was a ticket to be bought or the garden wasn’t mine to sit in…and so we turned away disappointed. We could have paid, of course, but apart from feeling like this was such an inflated amount for what we intended to do, the venue just didn’t feel right anymore. My sacred sanctum had almost been “sold” to me and that really wasn’t what I was here for today.
It took just a moment to recover because our next intended step, anyway, had been to go for a coffee at the Vegetable Box vegetarian cafe, with its cheery lime-green outdoor seating and its gluten free carrot cake. Directly opposite that, almost touching the adjacent whole-food shop that sells “our kind of food”, stands a solitary tower, once part of a church that was demolished almost 150 years ago, its stone plundered to embellish the nearby Saint George’s church (good old George does so love to “pop the balloon” of the feminine dragon energy) though, ironically, that church was badly bomb damaged during the Blitz. The tower I refer to here once belonged to the church of Mary Magdalene; the spot where the church once stood now opened-up to become a tiny postage-stamp of green with wooden benches to pass the quiet time. I knew I had found my spot for 11/11/11.
The few minutes we spent in silent reverie on our bench in the garden of Mary Magdalene as the clocks of the city struck 11 put on a fascinating pantomime of almost cliché feminine followed by masculine qualities (as we have come to know them…). A bell near the Magdalene struck first; quiet and unassuming…and in the next few moments an array of colourfully dressed women passed up and down the street that we overlooked; no males except for the following two. The first was an example of the (thankfully, ever more commonplace) type of man prepared to take his small children out without his partner, pushing a baby and a toddler in a double pram, chatting merrily to them as they progressed along the street. The second was a homeless man, one of life’s misfits, dressed in a feathered Native American headdress and colourful shirt who, chattering away to himself, came to stand next to his makeshift cardboard bed right behind where we were sitting in the garden. I had to smil as I noticed, from the gaggle of female shoppers coming out of it, that the name of the shop opposite was “Fired Earth”; such a potent reminder of Gaia, our Earth mother. Then the sonorous bells of the cathedral rang out and suddenly the street was completely empty and quiet, apart from a youth with his hood pulled almost over his eyes, headphones clamped on, and after a while a couple of hard-faced older males, both deeply preoccupied and looking fixedly ahead. The moment passed; the spell was broken and we were back on a bench in an unassuming city-garden, our coffees still warm and our backsides just a little damp from the wooden bench…so we reclaimed our table at the cafe opposite and continued to pass the morning.
It wasn’t the first time that this particular street had felt like my own, personal “quarter” of Canterbury; my kind of eating venue, my kind of shop and a far slower pace compared to the rest of the city with its endless tidal wave of shoppers and tourists. The girl with the bright pink hair serving in the cafe told me that she thought there was another way to slip into the cathedral garden if we followed the walls around to the back but we never found it; maybe we weren’t meant to on this occasion. At least I know that it exists in there…the soft feminine heart within the hard forbidding walls of the masculine. Having experienced it before, I find I can quickly drop into my remembrance of it whenever I want to, a tender memory from that hallowed evening we spent in there during the summer. Perhaps the appropriate counter-poise to the heavy, masculine, war-associated flavour we have given to “remembrance day” was to sit in a goddess garden that is no longer held-in or made exclusive by surrounding it with bricks and mortar; an open-access sacred spot that spills its heart open for all to come into. Our day had only just started…and continued to be littered with signs of the feminine rising and overspilling her bonds, wherever we went. As ever, the elements of unexpectedness and synchronicity only added to the perfection of our day and had their own important messages to convey, of which I was the truly grateful recipient.
Christianity was brought to England via Canterbury and the cathedral at Canterbury still holds a formidable energy; it truly dominates the city and yet there are clues to another layer of deeper, more feminine, history asserting beneath the surface. Mary Magdalene church (she is so often the mascot of the hidden feminine) was built in the twelfth century yet there is a good chance a previous church existed on the site in Burgate, which is one of the two most ancient parts of the city. A sacred spring or well is adjacent to it; a pilgrim stop-off associated with a “cult” of Saint Thomas and now built over as Saint Thomas’s Roman Catholic church, completed after the Magdalene church was demolished, which is so close to the garden of the Magdalene tower that its walls mark its perimeter. However, the association with Thomas presumably came along much later than when the spring was first revered since Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury and previous chancellor to the king, was martyred when he was cut down by four of the king’s knights at the altar of Canterbury Cathedral (it was a typical 6th wave political move…a power game) on 29 December 1170. In other words, a sacred spring may well have meant a sacred feminine site of significance in this place long, long before the Cathedral walls rose up to utterly dominate the city and as a potent symbol of all those things (money, religion, power) that the church became synonymous with as the centre of the Church of England. As the church grew, the masculine and feminine aspects parted ways and went in ever more contrary directions and its as though the geophysical landmarks of Canterbury tell that story. I suspect the presence of a dragon leyline with a female branch feeding the Magdalene site with its broken church and little garden…and a male energy branch flowing at the cathedral. Perhaps they cross over and collaborate at that other tranquil garden beyond the cloisters with its broken pillars, its cats, bees and lavander.
On our walk along the river Stour, we stepped over markers for Watlington Street, the Roman road that once ran from the English Channel through London to the Irish Sea and with a northern branch to Chester and on to Scotland. Really, this route is far more ancient than its Roman claimants; considered to be thousands of years old as a “broad grassy trackway”(Wiki) and main route across country joining people with a very different agenda to that of the Roman invaders. Queen Boudicca and the Britons are said to have been defeated by the invading Romans at Watlington Street, though the exact location is vague. Boudicca’s army consisted of female as well as male warriors in equal part, shoulder to shoulder, so you can sense how a whole way of life ended with her defeat and females forces to play to very different expectations. “We British are used to women commanders in war; I am descended from mighty men! But I am not fighting for my kingdom and my wealth now. I am fighting as an ordinary citizen for my lost freedom, my bruised body and my outraged daughters…Consider how many of you are fighting and why! Then you will win this battle or perish. That is what I, a woman, plan to do, let the men live in slavery if they will.” (Boudicca according to Roman historian Tacitus). Her “fight” continues unabated where lost freedoms, bruised bodies and outraged daughters continue to exist and feel this imbalance keenly through all their experiences.
You can feel as though you are standing on the very cusp of a meeting place between impulses that have tugged and pulled at one another for thousands of years of human history when you go to this Canterbury (which played out through many themes observed throughout our day; one of which mightily outraged my daughter!) Potentially, this means there is even more opportunity for feelings of gender and priority conflict to be softened, resolved and then rolled-out to the world at large, there, than in most, especially as such a power-node in the energetic grid of the world. Perhaps its time to see beyond the cathedral walls and feel deeper into Canterbury the place; which is how I tend to approach every place I go to – and perhaps why I have yet to visit those “must sees” dictated by its guidebooks, though I feel I have come to know it pretty well all the same. Rather, by letting the place itself guide my feet, I have been taken on a very different tour; you could say, a tour of the heart.
A lovely post Helen. I was totally with you, aghast when I read what you had to pay for a few minutes of solitude in the cathedral garden, but delighted when you found an even more apposite location. I was very interested to read of the feminine and masculine aspects of Christianity and your view on them. As a man, I often feel ashamed when I attend my (Anglican) church, so male-dominated is it. On a lighter note though, it does make me smile (unfortunately rather cynically) when I see the male church hierarchy walking up the aisle in their (rather feminine-looking) “dresses”! I will be reading other posts of yours on this topic as I am sure you have a lot of insight in these matters. Best wishes.
I really appreciate your comment Denzil…and I also smile at all the dressing up that goes on in a church 🙂 There’s a sense of usurping the feminine…rather than including her, shoulder to shoulder (not just in church but in life) and, as you guessed, writing about the relationship between (sacred) masculine and (sacred) feminine is a core passion of mine since I truly believe the reconciliation of these will bring our world fully back into balance, including at the ecological level, with very profound consequences. I also delve into the masculine-feminine “split” within all of us; played out in all our contrary impulses and our health…so you will find MUCH on this topic if you explore it here and in my other blog living-whole.org. Thank you for reading and commenting…I’ve already taken a dip into your blog and found it very relatable, for all I consider myself “spiritual” and not “religious”. I take this as such a positive sign that, as a world, we can overcome these subtle differences and find sufficient in common to make the world a very different place, going forwards.
It’s interesting and timely that you describe yourself as spiritual and not religious, Helen, because I have been thinking about this recently in relation to my own journey. I think I would say that in my late teens I seemed to have a natural (and nature-based) spirituality, that over the years as I sought to put this into practice, evolved into something more religious and structured (i.e. church-based), although I never felt totally at ease in that environment. Disillusionment and renewed seeking are turning me away from that and back towards my spiritual roots. Funnily enough, I’ve just been asked to read and review a new book called … The Christian Fallacy!
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I think a lot of people, perhaps especially men that are awakening to a broader picture of things, are coming to this place. There’s some excellent material out there in terms of reading material. I’d certainly recommend Eckhart Tolle (which is where I started several years ago), also a book called Faithfully Religionless by Timber Hawkeye which I only just started reading but my husband declared it is the one book he would probably give to all his friends if he had to choose a one-size-fits-all book that everyone should read. Timber H is a Buddhist but, contrary to popular opinion, Buddhism isn’t a religion and offers up many pearls from the mud. I have nothing against Christianisty per se (I do believe in Christ…and his feminine aspect, Mary Magdalene, who was written out of the story), I just tend to consider religion to be a distortion with other agendas. Good luck with your spiritual seeking.
Thanks for the recommendations which I appreciate. Will keep in touch📬
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