A Pilgrimage

I recently returned from a trip to the British Isles – England, Scotland, and Ireland. It’s a journey I have long wanted to make, and seeing this desire fulfilled represented an important life goal achieved. Aside from a few pokes along the northern and southern U.S., I hadn’t really traveled outside the country.

The first week I spent in London. Each day was packed with a variety of destinations ranging from ancient churches and museums to the residence of fictional characters and pubs frequented by the Bard or mentioned in a Charles Dickens novel.

The experience was similar to when I visited the East Coast last year, exploring Civil War battlefields and the U.S. capitol.

For those of us who hail from the Pacific Northwest, the concept of heritage and tradition can be hard to grasp. When I was born, Washington hadn’t even been a state for a hundred years. A building that has stood for more than half a century is considered “old,” and structures even younger than that are being demolished and replaced with new ones.

In world history, we are hardly more than newborns.

Compare that to London, which has existed as a settlement since the Romans first invaded Britannia. A London Bridge of one kind or another has stood in the same place for more than a millennia, beginning when centurions built a wooden fixture spanning the Thames. There is little separation between old and new. Modern architecture is adjacent to edifices built when the Anglo-Saxons still sat on the throne of England.

The same can be said for the other parts of Great Britain. That history and continuity is woven into ordinary conversations in a way that you don’t find in my region.

By standing there myself, beholding effigies of Templars or the Forest Charter, a part of me finally accepted that what I read in a book and online, or watched in a film or video, actually happened and involved real people.

A Pilgrimage

Nowhere was this feeling more intense than at Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem, carved out of the sandstone rock and reputedly the oldest inn in England. It is difficult to describe what it was like to enjoy an English ale in the same place where, according to legend, Richard the Lionheart and his knights drank one final time before setting out on the Third Crusade.

Another thing that struck me through and through was not only how beautiful these churches were, but the incredibly meticulous nature of their design. Every exterior corner it seems is adorned by a statue of some saint or a carving of a biblical scene. Modern buildings exist to strictly serve a utilitarian purpose and look the part. Churches are no exception. However, designers in the past saw their work as achieving something greater than providing a space for people to congregate. There is a distinct character and, one could say, cultural values one can hew from subtleties on display.

Some photos below from London perhaps demonstrate my point.

After a brief stay in Scotland to view Edinburgh Castle and the William Wallace Monument, the rest of the trip was spent touring the southern half of the Irish Republic, where my family on my mother’s side originates. Although driving on the left side of the road was an eerie new skill I had to quickly learn (or didn’t), it took no time getting used to the weather. The rain and green topography was, in many aspects, uncannily similar to that of rural areas just outside Seattle.

A Pilgrimage

I’m well versed in Irish history, but even if I wasn’t, there’s something about the island’s stark beauty that conveys enough poetic tragedy so that one gets the gist of it. Driving along the coast near small towns like Skibbereen, one can sense the sorrows and miseries endured by those who had long gone, either dying from the Famine or fleeing in desperate hope to America.

However, these photos also offer why the people, despite hardship and poverty for centuries, could articulate humor and joy in their music and stories. The scenery is indescribably stunning.

In many ways, the trip was very much a pilgrimage. Not only did I visit ancient churches, but I had the unique opportunity to receive the Eucharist in Westminster Abbey and attend a worship service in the Temple Church, the Knights Templar’s English headquarters in London, celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.

A Pilgrimage

The service included Reformation hymns sung by the Temple Church Choir. Buried within its walls are men such as William Marshal first Earl of Pembroke and champion of the Magna Carta. I was so moved by what I saw that I made the tribute video below.

The Temple Church – Tribute Video

A video I made after attending a special worship service at the Temple Church in London, the former English headquarters for the Knights Templar. Buried there is an English hero and champion of liberty whose name should be better known among Westerners.

Posted by TJ Martinell on Friday, October 20, 2017

One part of the trip I found intriguing was the power of an author to create a character so real people treat him as thus. The Charles Dickens Museum in the writer’s former residence is only a walk way from the Sherlock Holmes Museum, also found in the detective’s old home.

Except he never lived there, because he wasn’t real. But you would never know that by the way the museum is arranged and how the museum’s staff speak of him. Touring both places in the same day, the rhetoric was indistinguishable. Both were treated like famous London residents. Holmes’ place at 221B Baker Street was chock-full of his “old” things just as Dickens’ was, and with the same attention to detail and accuracy.

A Pilgrimage
Sherlock Holmes’ parlor.

It was a testament to what a writer can accomplish, and the effect they can have over people, to the point where they are so immersed into the narrative they act, even if they don’t actually believe, like the character is flesh and blood as much as they are. It also demonstrates the power of the imagination for both Holmes’ creator, Arthur Conan Doyle, and the readers who embraced him so enthusiastically they brought him back to life from his literary death in “The Final Problem.”

Doubting Thomas With An iPhone

Back in October, I traveled to the East Coast to see relatives in the Washington D.C. area. While I was there, I also had the incredible opportunity to visit many significant historical sites, including Civil War battlefields that speckle the region. One of the first I went to was Gettysburg, location of the deadliest battle in American history.

At one point during my tour of the battlefield, I knelt beside a stone wall where young boys almost half my age fought and died one hundred and sixty years ago. Looking across the field, I could see the forest of trees where fifteen thousand Confederate soldiers had waited for the order to make their fateful charge that, as one Confederate officer later put it, “achieved nothing but glory.”

Two things struck me about the whole experience.

One, places such as Gettysburg have changed little since the day Lee’s army first marched into the town thinking the impending fight would end the war. Unlike other historical locations situated amid modern cities, Gettysburg has not lost the surrounding environment to urban planning and population growth.  You feel transported back in time and can almost sense the presence of the ghosts of fallen soldiers as you walk about.

Second, it struck me deeply that it was all real. Prior to that moment, Gettysburg had been a place I had heard about. I had read books about Gettysburg, viewed pictures of the battlefield, and watched movies filmed there. But I had never actually seen it myself, and it was only then that I fully accepted it as something other than a concept. It no longer required faith that what I had previously relied on was accurate.

A similar experience occurred when I viewed one of several original copies of the Magna Carta kept in the National Archives. I had long before read stories of cruel King John – courtesy of Robin Hood tales – and the English barons who forced him to sign a document that would inspire the signing of the Declaration of Independence centuries later. However, like with Gettysburg, it had only been an abstract idea or thought. No longer.

I don’t think people are fully aware of how much of our life consists of dealing in the abstract. Less and less we deal with others directly. We don’t literally see each other or speak to one another. What we deal with directly are intermediaries; phones, computers, laptops, newspapers, television, and radio. But for whatever reason, we do not accept them as truly genuine. We can watch a person on TV for years and develop a sense of familiarity, but there is a sense of awkwardness when meet them in the flesh. We speak words online we would probably never say to someone’s face (though there are exceptions) because for whatever reason it doesn’t “feel” the same.

It is why I am rather sympathetic to “Doubting” Thomas, the Apostle who infamously declared he needed to see Jesus and touch his wounds to believe he had resurrected from the dead. I doubt he would have said anything different if Skype had existed.

We are all have a Doubting Thomas within us, but with an iPhone. We can read about things, write about them, watch them, and view photos. Yet none of it has the same effect of seeing something with our own eyes. It is as though in the recesses of our minds, our subconscious retains a profound suspicion that what we see isn’t real until we actually see it and receive confirmation.  It is one thing to learn about the Magna Carta; it is another to stand inches away from the millennia-old document with the King’s seal still attached and know from direct witness that it existed.

Perhaps this explains the sense of isolation many people feel despite living in an era of instantaneous global communication. The entire world is within our grasp, yet no chat forum can satiate our natural desire for organic human interaction the way an in-person discussion does. And yet, we find ourselves increasingly addicted to these intermediaries. We are beginning to favor them over the people in front of us. Go to any public area and note how many people are on their phones as opposed to speaking to the person beside them (I am guilty of this as much as anyone). How many times have you seen a family with every child’s eyes transfixed on some sort of electronic device?

Despite our apparent preference for the digital, I believe deep down people realize there has been a price to pay for the conveniences our technology affords us. Our reality is shaped not by what our physical senses perceive, but what our intermediaries present to us, and one wonders if the benefits have outweighed the loss.

The craving for the real versus the artificial is something I explore in my novel The Stringers. The protagonist, Roy is a bit of a misfit because, like his father, he perceives the value of direct human relations in a society where the use of artificial intermediaries are practically mandated by law. One character experiences such deprivation of authentic human contact that, like Doubting Thomas, she insists on touching those with whom she speaks to prove that they exist.

Ideally, a healthy balance between digital and the real could resolve what we might refer to as a “First World problem.” However, as I depict in my book, mankind tends to deal with such issues in absolutes.