I was just waiting for the ushers to recognize me and unceremoniously usher me out.
The last time I’d been at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, I’d collapsed on the marble floor and had to be carried out by portly docents in immaculate red vests who were starting to heartily regret St. Paul’s long tradition of hospitality to foreign visitors, maybe pondering whether flash photography might not be the worst thing they had to deal with.
Remember her? After she crashed and burned in front of 200 guests and wrecked a year’s worth of PR toward our £40 million renovation, we poured her into a taxi and left it to Bart (of St. Bart’s Hospital) to take care of her.
But then again, the ushers might’ve pondered that there were are a lot worse things than sudden and tragic death under the stained glass windows of one of the world’s great cathedrals, surely an expedited pass − if there ever was one − through the Pearly Gates.
But St. Paul’s has sustained far worse damage than I ever have, and over many more years. I’m inspecting some of the shrapnel holes, pits, and gashes that remain ‒ some left as a reminder of war for the ages, some repaired in an economical but inartistic patchwork of past and present.
Never forgetting the tremendous losses of American lives and the tremendous sacrifices of families, friends, and communities stateside, there’s one vivid difference reinforced by St. Paul’s: except for Pearl Harbor, the United States went away to World War II. The war didn’t come to us.
Being there again on a chilly night before Christmas, singing carols with a cast of thousands, descendants of those who perhaps sang carols here during the Blitz…ever so quietly, in the dark, because through all that time, St. Paul’s remained open and served as a place of worship and refuge for Londoners caught up in the fighting, who found themselves helpless and alone.
Hungry. Cold. Not sure whether they had a home anymore, or a family to go home to anymore, either.
In 1940, major cities all over the UK were subjected to the Luftwaffe’s (German Air Force) “Blitzkrieg,” but London most of all: it was bombed every night for 18 months.
In those dark times, St. Paul’s was the Londoners’ 2nd inspiration. Their 1st were King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, who even after Buckingham Palace was bombed refused to leave with their children for their own safety, endearing them forever to the British people. Because her bravery inspired bravery in others, Hitler had good reason to call the Queen of England “the most dangerous woman in Europe.”
Almost 30 bombs hit St. Paul’s directly, but while buildings on all sides were completely destroyed, St. Paul’s survived. Damaged by smoke and fire and shrapnel, but alive.
Christmas of 1940, war correspondent Ernie Pyle wrote that seeing St. Paul’s emerge from the cloud of smoke, an iconic image that became a wartime symbol of the unwavering British spirit, was “a picture of some miraculous figure that appears before peace-hungry soldiers on a battlefield” and “the most hateful, most beautiful single scene I have ever known.”
The St. Paul’s Watch is what kept the church alive. This was a group of 300 men and women who volunteered, along with their families and friends, to ensure St. Paul’s never burned down again. In nightly teams of 40, they patrolled for burnt embers, errant sparks…anything that could spell disaster for their beloved cathedral, which had been through the wars, literally, since opening its doors in 604 AD.
(The current iteration of the cathedral, the one we all recognize, was built by royal architect Sir Christopher Wren. The cathedral had burned to the ground in the Great London Fire in 1666 and the first service in this “resurrected” place of worship was in 1697, featuring the organ that Mendelssohn would one day play.)
However, the cathedral wasn’t done yet. Queen Victoria described its interior as “most dreary, dingy and undevotional,” not exactly the ringing endorsement you’re looking for from the reigning monarch. The mosaics for which St Paul’s is famous were among her feature requests.
St. Paul’s couldn’t be more different this crisp winter night, where the lights are almost too bright and the throngs almost too festive. “Dressed to the 9s,” one of the few British English expressions we can honestly say we know the meaning of.
Singing “All Is Calm, All Is Bright,” as if it had always been that way in London, one of the world’s great cities that, for all its hopeful singing, has been rocked in past decades by IRA bombings and again in recent years by Islamic jihadists for whom this is the nightmare of all nightmarish holidays seasons, in which the birth of the Christ is celebrated by a fair majority…and respected by respectful believers of other religions who realize that true inner conviction never justifies murder and that the war we read about in our respective Scriptures takes place within our own hearts and goes on the other 364 days of the year, too, if we’re doing it right.
It doesn’t escape my notice either that only a few short miles away from St. Paul’s lives Nadia Rockwood with her 2 children. Nadia, the former Alaskan ‒ but not former terrorist, since there’s no such thing ‒ and Islamic jihadist Paul Rockwood’s wife (and convicted felon herself), who epitomizes the word “denial”: Don’t Even Know I Am Lying.
We’re singing Away in a Manger now, with one crucial difference. Americans sing “…and TAKE us to Heaven to live with Thee there.” The British version says “FIT us for Heaven…” We’re not ready to be taken there yet. Prepare us. Work with us. Help us understand and do whatever it takes.
To fit in.
The title of this post is from another famous Christmas carol, O Little Town of Bethlehem, written by Episcopal priest Phillips Brooks of Church of the Holy Trinity in Philadelphia. He was inspired to write it after visiting Bethlehem in 1865 and asked his church organist Lewis Redner to set the words to music.