Duane and I scurry out of our Covent Garden flat by nine o’clock. Westminster Abbey isn’t that far away, but walking there takes time. On a chilly November Sunday morning, we’re heading to the Matins, the 10 a.m. sung service.
We walk briskly past Trafalgar square. At this hour Sunday morning, London is empty, unless they’re hosting a marathon on a Bank Holiday Weekend.
We arrive at the gate outside Westminster Abbey by 9:30. No later, or we won’t get the seats I want. The one with the boys’ choir in the red robes with white ruffle collars. The parish gentleman in robes greets us and points the way to the massive open wooden door. Once inside, I want to take pictures. Sunlight glistens through stained glass windows onto brass chandeliers and rows of wooden chairs, statues, monuments and pale grey stone walls. A sign commands, “No photos.” Duane holds his iPhone close inside his jacket and pops a picture, but I’m a rule follower.
We read the tributes on graves and monuments as we amble along the aisle. A lay minister greets us at the end and directs us with a smile into the wooden seats where the choir sits. This is all free. If not attending a service, entry to the Abbey is 20 pounds. We slide into our individual thousand year old worn oak stall. Brightly colored embroidered prayer stools tuck under the shelf in front of us. The choir area fills with silent tourists. While we wait for the service to begin, I read the Bible on my phone and gaze at the light pouring into the Abbey through those beautiful windows. A row of lit brass lamps with red shades lines the choir stalls, transforming the space from cavernous to cozy.
The organist smashes the silence with the Introit. Now a layer of music piles onto the spectacular scene.
The choir of men and boys processes in and sits right in front of us.
The service begins.
God is here.
A few years ago, we found another treasure in The Queen’s Chapel, across the street from St. James Palace. It’s not always open for services. The elegance of gold painted carvings, velvet curtains and sung Psalms made me feel like Alice in Wonderland. The complete opposite of Westminster Abbey; an intimate space. The picture doesn’t capture the soft blue of the walls. Designed by Inigo Jones.
Outside the Queen’s Chapel hangs the posting for Chapel Royal, inside St. James Palace, across the street. This is England: someone penned a casual, hasty note in red ink on the formal notice. Breathless, I’d run all the way to arrive on time. I struggled to decipher the handwriting that explained where the service at Chapel Royal actually was. I never found it. Maybe I was too late. You can’t be late. Maybe next trip I’ll find it.
An ethereal beauty fills these abbeys, cathedrals and chapels. They’re places to wander. Places to sit down and pray. And find dead famous people. I discovered St. Giles near the Tower of London.
John Milton’s buried there. John Milton! The literary giant who wrote “Paradise Lost.”
But the services…. we get out the door early to attend a worship service. Just get out the door, every morning in London. One Sunday we rode the Tube to the Chapel of St. Peter and St. Paul at Old Royal Naval college in Greenwich.
The 19th century hymn writer Mrs. Cecil Frances Alexander wrote “All Things Bright and Beautiful,” a more well known Rutter choral piece.
I hear that music when I travel:
“All things bright and beautiful,
all creatures great and small,
all things wise and wonderful,
the Lord God made them all.”