As I recently watched the latest Sherlock Holmes movie, the opening scene unlocked my treasure chest of memories as I saw in the background St. Paul’s Cathedral set against a London night sky.
I last saw that magnificently imposing structure while walking with a dear friend to see A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the Globe Theatre, and I remember then recalling the very first time I had seen it while walking with a different dear friend on our first Saturday in London. I passed it many times in between, more or less aware of its grandeur depending on what occupied my mind at the time.
Naturally, at the commencement of my stay in London, St. Paul’s stamped fresh impressions on me that colored my reflections with dazzling ideas of great fires, divisive reformations, cobbled streets, dusty pubs, and Dickensian delights. All at once it whispered to me a hidden history, buried somewhere with the ancient Roman ruins below the city streets, and yet breathed a reminder of its thriving present surroundings. I had yet to know London at any significant level at that point, but, like the beginning of any new friendship, I very eagerly began my semester-long encounter.
St. Paul’s served as a trustworthy beacon during my wandering runs through the sprawling city. As my wise running companion once joked (with truthfulness), “You’ll be fine so long as you see St. Paul’s. Once you lose sight of God, you’re lost.” We learned this on our second night in London as we went for a run that took us through the City, the business district in London. What started as a 35 minute run turned into an hour-long one because of the meandering layout of the city that befuddled us. Even so, being lost in London enchanted me, revealing to me just how much there was to explore.
I learned that I should always look out for St. Paul’s in the distance. Standing right in front of it, however, taught me a different lesson: It costs £20 to get to the “glorious gates of Heaven” through that church. I still haven’t figured out who thought of listing admission fees just below a sign that offers you access to heaven.
This circumstance only increased my appreciation for the two Catholic churches I regularly entered without paying a fee: St. Etheldreda’s and the Church of the Immaculate Conception, commonly known as Farm Street Church. St. Etheldreda’s became like a parish to me; its incredible history, simple beauty, and wise old age compelled me to open my heart evermore to the only Love that could effect the sacrifice that occurs there. I could see St. Paul’s as I walked home each Sunday, and I often thought that the huge dome must feel so empty, compared to the fullness I felt. St. Paul’s could barely hold my attention those days.
And so I came to know London better. I liked to walk a different way to class than everyone else. I took long, solitary walks, and longer runs, as I tried to get to know the character and feel of the place, but I also used it as a fertile ground to cultivate unbelievably strong friendships as we explored together the treasures of the city, and felt the comfort of coming back to it after a weekend away.
London fed my appreciation for the peaceful waves of rolling countryside as I left the clustered city on trains through pastures and alongside the sea. It made my life read like a storybook, with escapades like attending a Cambridge garden party, stumbling across Drury Lane, trying to keep up with the Thames as I raced it toward friendly Big Ben, and talking to an old vendor with a cockney accent at Portobello Market about the state of the antique business.
These, along with my daily routine, bound me to London in ways I did not expect, for, even while securing its own place in my heart, it revealed to me the depth of my love for my own home in North Carolina. For all of London’s excellence, I could not verily call it my own. I owe gratitude to London, and to the other places I traveled, for poignantly demonstrating to me that strong ties to a place do not arise in a mere grazing of the pleasant greenery on the surface, but in a more intimate knowledge of, and enduring relationship with, the roots that extend far below where eyes can penetrate.
I loved London for leading me in this direction and appreciated the adventuresome path it took me on to get there. It was for this reason that as my eyes settled on that lofty dome for the last time, a flood of thoughts and feelings came cascading down over me. I was contentedly walking next to a very good friend, to whom London had introduced me and with whom it had subsequently facilitated a rich, lasting friendship. I was only days away from my last goodbye to the city, a magnificent farewell that began with a trip to the Globe. And there stood St. Paul’s in the backdrop, watching me as I walked away from it with a calm and peaceful heart: At that moment, my appreciation of the city had beautifully and mysteriously harmonized with the joyful awareness that I would soon be going home.