There’s a particular sadness that comes on the last day of a journey. On this last morning I stopped in at St. Stephen’s, a church I happened upon while searching for a post office. It was just another building I might have walked past without a second thought but for a red and gold sign calling out what felt like an order: “If you are a member of the Church of England or one of the Anglican/Episcopal family of churches, this is your parish church.” In case anyone wondered; still, it’s nice to be welcomed. I stepped through a creaking door into the kind of shadow that is created by a century of stone, stained glass and a rainy English morning. A clergyman went about the morning task of lighting candles before saintly icons. Not wanting to be drawn into conversation, I sat down in a pew, the wooden floor squeaking beneath my feet. A large black Labrador retriever ambled over to inspect me, tail wagging; for a moment it was like walking into an episode of Grantchester. The dog’s tongue on my palm was probably the most sincere blessing I’d had all week. In another time, the flickering candles and gold leafed icons would have made this one of my favorite London churches. But yesterday at St. Magnus, where the priests wore birettas and incense choked the air like a smoggy Los Angeles day, made me realize how boringly Protestant I have become.
The curate disappeared into the back of the church, the dog trotting after him. I wandered up to the altar rail, wondering if God listens more closely in the dark. The Almighty, if there was one, was probably fed up with my entreaties after hearing them endlessly over the course of ten days, prayed in every house of worship from Whitechapel to Richmond Hill. I started to turn away when a plaque on the south wall caught my eye.
Of your charity
Pray for the repose of the soul of
Thomas Stearns Eliot, OM
Born St. Louis Missouri
Died London 4 January 1965
A churchwarden of this parish for 25 years
He worshipped here until his death.
“Oh Tom,” I said aloud, “you’re here.” Anyone would have thought that I had run into a long lost friend in the least expected of places, and for a moment I felt as if I had. There’s a large memorial stone set in the floor of Poet’s Corner, but I hadn’t bothered with the Abbey this year. This was what was important: his church home, where this complicated, difficult man must have felt some degree of peace. How pleased Dr. Kennedy, my Modern English Literature professor, would have been. “The Waste Land,” he said, waving a paperback at us, “was not written by T.S. Eliot, the famous poet. Remember that! It was written by a man named Tom Eliot, an American who got stuck in Britain during World War I, who hated his job at Lloyd’s Bank, and who went home every night to an unhappy marriage. That is the man who wrote The Waste Land.” It was nice to be reminded that even Old Possum had a day job, and certainly made me feel better about my own writing life. I can still quote parts of it: “My feet are at Moorgate, and my heart under my feet.” When I was first here forever ago, passing through on a summer abroad program, Moorgate was the nearest Underground station to our student housing at City University. A strange neighborhood and one that still endeared itself to me- the parish of St. Luke’s, wedged between the money temples of the City and the working class district of Clerkenwell, a place where tourists never went. A few streets away from our 1960’s concrete and glass dormitory was the Peabody Estate, a Victorian-era slum where there were no trees, only sooty brick tenements that reached five stories high. It was a street out of Dickens- or a street out of Eliot. Given its austerity, a more perfect setting for The Waste Land could never be found. Perhaps Eliot, wrestling with the words that were seeking a way into the world, had walked past those buildings and wondered, as I had, how anyone kept a soul in the face of such bleakness.
I went back to St. Luke’s a few days ago. Outwardly, the neighborhood hasn’t changed all that much. The Peabody Estate continues to stand, though the buildings have been sandblasted and the center square dressed up with boxwood shrubs. In Dufferin Street, where the buildings closed in on both sides, my footsteps echoed in the narrow, empty lane as they did all those years ago. Northampton Hall, where I slept in a room small enough to be a monk’s cell, had been wiped off the earth as irretrievably as Mr. Eliot himself, but City University was still there, guiding another generation of international students and their youthful dreams. Across the street in the old burial ground of Bunhill Fields, an elderly lady dropped scraps of bread to a scurry of squirrels who blocked the footpath like gang members demanding payoff. I walked through the cemetery, past John Wesley resting in peace and into his chapel, a gesture of forgiveness toward the Methodists who came into my life and broke my heart; I’m on number three now. A few streets away was Moorgate station, where I stood alone on a deserted Tube platform all those years ago, knowing that I would never have a life here, no matter how much I wanted one. “My feet are at Moorgate, and my heart under my feet.” It’s that which has stayed with me, not Murder in the Cathedral or the cat poems. The Waste Land is famous for its incomprehensibility; I don’t understand it all, but hearing that one line read aloud in a Pasadena classroom wiped the years away and brought the memory of the musty air as it was pushed forward by an oncoming train back to me so vividly it might have been yesterday.
A woman came into the church and knelt at a shrine to St. Thomas Becket her hands fumbling a string of rosary beads. My turn at reflection was over. Except for a visit to St. Paul’s Cathedral, this would be the last church for me. The rest of the day would be eaten up with errands for people at home. Home, an idea I have always wrestled with. My job, my family and friends are half a world away in an arid land where it almost never rains, but after thirty years my heart is still in this city and in these quiet spaces. I walked silently to the massive wooden door and took a last look at the sanctuary. I have searched for so many things in this city- hope, my ancestors, God… What I felt now was the presence of a sympathetic ghost at the back of the church, a stooped, gangly man who spoke with an American accent, who would have batted away any questions about the art of writing or the Nobel Prize, but who would have handed me a hymnal with a half-smile and a courteous nod of the head. Was it too much to hope that he might have understood another complicated fellow-traveler? We had plenty in common, after all, both solitary souls who started out in America and through some accident of fate ended up in the Church of England, seeking the same thing: shanti, as he wrote, the peace that passes all understanding. What I felt here, what I had been searching for, and of my charity, what I wished for his soul- shanti. Goodbye, Tom, I thought, we’ll meet again. Goodbye London, my last true love. Until next time, goodbye, goodbye to everything.
Linda Critchfield a Civil servant. In Southern California. Critchfield writes, in between the fires.