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Luncheon at Westminster Abbey

Today I was served a large and sumptuous meal by two professors, one a professor of philosophy, the other of Latin, to be eaten in total silence. Seated for the meal on three sides of a massive rectangular table were 28 people. With the exception of two resident lecturers and their guests of whom I was one the entire company was of Benedictine monks in their black habits. Throughout this otherwise silent meal, one additional and ancient-looking monk sat perched in a crow's nest high on a wall and read aloud to the assembled company selected passage from a work chosen, presumably, for silent reflection during the meal. How I came to be included in such august and majestic company is worth relating, for it does fall to every antitheist's lot to break bread with the considerate Benedictine monks of Westminster Abbey.

I'd been Invited to attend the address of a guest lecturer on Marlowe's 'Faustus and Christian Humanism'. My daughter Sarah drove me from Cloverdale on the lower mainland to Abbotsford via the Trans-Canada Highway. From Abbotsford we travelled north on Highway 22 to Mission, a community of about 6,000 on the north bank of the Fraser River, five miles from Abbotsford.

And so it was on that crisp, fresh and cold November morning deep in the Fraser Valley with snow-capped mountains looming an arm's length from the car, we arrived at the entrance to Westminster Abbey. A notice alongside the gate bore a stern proclamation, PRIVATE ROAD ('This gate closed at dusk nightly). Sarah drove up the steeply inclined and twisting road that wound through heavy timber cloaking the mountainside. There was snow on the ground. The road was unpaved. I could have sworn that we'd slip and slide and get stuck, but didn't. We emerged from the timber on to a paved car park at the crest from which there was a magnificent view of the surrounding mountains, the green forests all around, and the colourful buildings of the town below. A group of modern buildings on the property of the Abbey was interconnected by enclosed walks and passageways.

Miraculously – we were in the right place for miracles – the professor emeritus I'd come to hear, Dr. Stephen Brodsky, had arrived moments before and was at that moment emerging from his Volvo, being welcomed by my contact, Dr. Morgan. With him was another civilian who turned out to be one Dr. John Charles, a Gaelic scholar and, like Dr. Morgan, a resident lecturer at the college. Leaving me in the hands of this reception committee, my daughter turned the car around and sped down the hill. She was very well aware that she was in an all-male enclave and was content to let me fend for myself. So there we were, a company of four, three scholars and myself cast into one another's company for the next few hours.

The one thing we four shared in common as it turned out was our service record and, my three companions, lecturing at Royal Roads, the Canadian training college on the west coast for military cadets destined for commissions in the Canadian Armed Forces. They lost their positions when the DND closed its doors and directed all candidates to the RMC, Kingston, Ontario. Of the three, Dr. Gerald Morgan was a wartime master mariner in the merchant marine, who still had his ticket. He was a Chaucerian scholar and taught Latin as one of the two 'civilian' lecturers at the college, civilians in the sense that they were not of the Benedictine Order. He had room and board at the college during the week and put up with his daughter at the weekends, though he was too gentle a man to express himself that way. I knew of his darkest domestica from other sources. His fellow scholar was Dr. John Charles, an ex-soldier of the Canadian Seaforth Highlanders. He commanded a company in the Canadian 2nd Corps during the Italian campaign. The Corps later fought in North West Europe. Charles still wore his regimental Glengarry. He wrote a book published under the title Over My Shoulder in which he discussed Trinity College, Dublin, and the Book of Kells. The book was, apparently, well reviewed. He also wrote a column regularly for a BC newspaper (could be The Sun) under the same title.

After morning coffee during which I got to know something of my fellows, we wended our way through a maze of upstairs and downstairs corridors and along passageways with photographs of long dead abbots lining the walls until we reached a small class room. In this tiny lecture room were seated 16 students and five monks awaiting enlightenment from Dr. Brodsky. Accommodating we four newcomers made for a snug fit. Brodsky, I neglected to mention, was an ex-major of the Princess Patricia Light Infantry and the Royal Canadian Regiment. Hence, all four of us had military experience. I would count the merchant marine in WWII as military experience no less than they army. What is more, it was probably a more horrific than anything most other people went through.

Brodsky's subject was classical history. He spoke for an hour on Marlowe's 'Faustus and Christian humanism', discussing 15th and 16th humanism heavily supported with a plethora of literary allusion. His lecture was rich with meaning, for he compressed a hundred years of Renaissance thought into a one-hour lecture, which I further condensed in my shorthand notes. He read his paper unfortunately, word for word it seemed, which struck me as odd for a lecturer with years of experience. He came alive whenever he departed from his text and spoke off the cuff. That's when he came to life and injected vigour and humour into his address.

The lecture over, we four waited five minutes before the closed baronnial doors of the main dining room of Westminster Abbey. Not a moment before nor a moment after twelve noon did a monk open the doors from the inside and invite us to enter the hall. He led us to where we were to be seated, then joined his companions who had been let in by a second monk at the far side through doors identical to those through which had entered. The approached the tables in a block and seated themselves in silence. Dr. Morgan and warned us that no one spoke at meals.

The dining room was a cavernous space with arches of laminated, urethane-finished Douglas fir soared from the floor to the lofty cathedral-like apex. Grey stucco walls bare of decoration of any kind filled the space between the arches formed by the massive columns that rose and arched to join the beam reaching from the opposite side of the hall. The magnificent architectural design gave one the impression of being in unlimited space. The one feature that interrupted the barren beauty of the stately grey walls was a crow's nest perched high above the floor set some distance away from the double doorway to the kitchen. Had the lookout or pulpit an identical grey finish to the walls it would have been hard to detect. The polished wooden rail around the lookout balcony made the feature stand out clearly like a crow's nest on the mast of a man o' war. Access to this pulpit was a small door that barely showed above the rail and must have taken considerable maneuvering and squeezing for a grown man to pass through. It was like a priest's hole in an Elizabethan manor. While the company was getting seating around the formation of tables, an elderly, grey-haired monk squeezed through the pulpit door and prepared to read.

The spotless, polished dark-wood tables had places set for about seventy diners with room enough remaining in the baronial hall to seat a further two hundred with comfort. We followed the lead of our hosts by standing behind our chairs. After a pause, the double doors to the kitchen opened and two monks entered, each one pushing a laden stainless steel trolley draped in white protective covers. Stopping just inside the open doorway, they ceremoniously donned white aprons that fell full length to their feet. When their preparations were complete, and at an unseen signal, a voice from a source I couldn't place chanted a plain song in Latin. The assembly responded in Latin, most melodiously and impressively.

There followed a short prayer in English, presumably for ignoramuses such as me, after which we visitors again followed the lead given by the monks and seated ourselves for the meal. At the same time, the servers wheeled their trolleys into the vacant inner space and removed the white covers to reveal tourines and dishes filled with steaming food. While this operation was underway, a grizzled monk seated opposite took an apple from a bowl on the table and tore into it unceremoniously. Although we were seated a good forty feet away, the sound of the initial chomp as like a horse demolishing a Granny Smith, clearly carried to our side of the hall.

On the inner edge of the table, and between each pair of diners, stood a bowl of apples together with a jug of water, another of milk, empty bowls, plates, serving cutlery, condiments, and a platter of bread-like maple syrup pudding with raisins. The condiments did not include bottles sauce, tomato ketchup and mustard seen on the table of every North American greasy spoon. The spread here was laid out with style.

The waiters set a steaming pot of tea before each pair of diners followed by platters of baked Pacific salmon topped with garnished stuffing, bowls of roast potatoes and florets of cauliflower. The florets of one half of the cauliflower bowl were covered by cheese sauce from which one must deduce that some might be allergic to cheese. The serving monks distributed the food with the utmost efficiency, then circulated with baskets of hot, fresh bread rolls offering a choice of three types. All this, as I earlier noted, was in an atmosphere of total silence.

From the moment of the meal began with that first chomp, the elderly fellow who had squeezed himself through the pulpit door began reading not from the Scriptures as one might have supposed, but from the Abbey's rules of conduct for monks. (I learned later that the reading of one lengthy rule of behaviour was a daily ritual. The rule delivered during our visit dealt with punctuality for meals, behaviour during meals, reflections on conduct and behaviour). For the balance of our monkish feast, the monk in the pulpit read from a work dealing with the Irish revolution – which I'd always known as a rebellion – and severe condemnation of English overlordship from the time of QE I and Cromwellian subjugation. Trinity College (Dublin), we were told, was the last monument to the "Elizabethan invasion". It was built from the plunder taken from the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII (built in his reign as I understood history and, therefore, not under the first QE, but I may be misinformed),and established for Protestant study and eradication of R. Catholicism in Ireland. It was fantastic.

I listened with astonishment and growing amazement to this vitriolic attack on the English. Was it possible that after this many years since Irish independence there were still embers of resentment burning? Apparently there are. Listening and reflecting, which was the purpose of the reading, led to considerable speculation, to my mind at least. I concluded that the monks of Westminster Abbey were without doubt well enough marinated to be in no need of such preaching. Still, it was a fascinating experience to be able to listen to the ranting at this outpost of Irish Catholic hegemony.

On reflection, which my companions would understand, there was, among this monastic assembly a strong parallel to order and protocol in an officers' mess. This was the monks' mess, in which order and discipline was strongly maintained. I wondered if, equally, the senior monks lorded it over the junior monks. I'd not be surprised. Empty plates moved towards the front of the table were a signal to the monks-in-waiting to remove them and the cutlery to the trolleys. Empty plates remaining immediately in front of you were a signal you desired more food. This was duly offered until all appetites were satiated. With plates removed, the dishes of roast potatoes, fish and cauliflower remaining were gathered and taken to those still eating. We served ourselves tea, milk, water, fruit, pudding. The same form for removing plates and cutlery was observed for pudding and fruit dishes as for the main course.

Our monks of philosophy and Latin, I was not aware of their credentials until later, made no eye contact while serving, nor signaled messages by gesture of limbs or facial expression. They limited themselves to supplying and removing dishes, cleaning and stacking dishes, plates, bowls, cutlery and condiments on to the trolleys as wants were satisfied. Not until the last one had had his fill and his utensils had been removed were the trolleys wheeled into the kitchen. Before leaving the hall, the professorial monks removed their aprons, folded them neatly, and joined in singing the closing prayers.

The strictest attention was paid to protocol. Experiencing this sliver of monastic life, it is easy to understand what a bastion is there maintained against female intrusion and influence. It is no wonder to me why women in the Church of Rome have such a fight for recognition on their hands, however that recognition is defined. They are up against an impregnable fortress of male domination.

Having been fed and watered in most Catholic majesty, we four went to the comfortable, well-furnished apartment of John Charters. The suite included a bedroom, a bathroom, clothes closet and spacious living room to seat five people in comfort, six at the most. Here, in this lavish apartment, we discussed literature, writing and publishing. I must admit to feeling of awe in the company of these learned sailor-soldier scholars. I also had a mental picture of my firmest critic frowning censoriously at any deception she might think I would practice in that scholarly company.

Stephen Brodsky invited me to comment on his lecture, so I said what I thought in spite of what my critic might think, that it was densely packed, stimulating, and filled to the brim with literary allusion. It was rich fare. I also thought it was untrue to portray the Ptolemy's geocentric universe without recognizing Ptolemy's Almagest. Not mentioning this gave the impression Ptolemy conceived his geocentric universe on a whim, which led to an interesting argument, two for and two against. The discussion veered on to a book of mine Sons of the Brave, which was, I gathered, one reason for inviting me to hear the lecture. Would-be writers all, they seemed more in awe of me than I of them. On the other hand, with my critic perched firmly on my shoulder all this time, I made the point that anything I had published was more luck than talent, which they dismissed, which I thought was generous of them. They, for their part, were primed to write their memoirs for publication and so ends my account of lunch at Westminster Abbey, which I wouldn't have missed for a king's ransom.

Journal Entry for 22 November 1986


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