Saturday, April 11, 2009

Easter Bells

Knowing that Bekah and a friend plan to experience Easter morning at the Washington National Cathedral, I find myself remembering bits and pieces of my own experiences living in the literal shadow of the cathedral from October 1981 to June 1982, when I was a seminarian intern at near-by St. Alban's Episcopal Church. 

For a month, before arriving on the cathedral close, I shared, with numerous crickets, a tiny one-room basement apartment in the suburban Maryland home of Francie and "Jerry" Bremer, that is, L. Paul Bremer, later to become the first US Administrator of Iraq (and now, I learn from Google, an oil painter of landscapes! Finally, he and I have something in common!! He was a solid Reagan Republican, as I recall.).

Thanks to some fortuitous connections, I moved to roomier quarters when I became the sole resident of a large, stucco home on the cathedral close, the house being temporarily vacant while the College of Preachers sought a new Warden. I inhabited only the downstairs of the house with borrowed furniture (the Bremers' outdoor patio table was my dining/writing table) and the barest of kitchen equipment.

And though I found doing laundry alone at night in that huge, dark basement truly creepy, I loved, loved, loved living in that house on those grounds. From my bedroom windows I looked across the driveway and up the grassy slope toward the apse end of the cathedral with its fascinating flying buttresses. When viewed from standing close to them, looking up, they seemed to be toppling toward you if clouds were moving behind them across the sky. 

During those months I got to know favorite parts of the Cathedral at odd hours and considered some of them to be my very own personal sanctuaries. I often walked around the grounds in the evening and got sprayed by the wind-blown water of the garth fountain. I enjoyed evensongs and organ recitals--endless free concerts!

And perhaps best of all were the bells! Once a week--was it Wednesday evenings?--the change ringers would rehearse on the peal bells, the immense cast bells swung with ropes from the floor below them in the Cathedral's tower (it's way too loud and probably too dangerous to be on the same level as the bells themselves, and besides, you need some purchase on the ropes to swing the heavy bells). During rehearsals, the bells were usually muted. But on Sundays and other  special occasions, they let loose their magic. (Try this link, for a taste of peal bells.)

I remember my wild delight when I discovered that in winter, when all the doors and windows of the house were shut tight, the music of the bells came down the chimney! I could stand in my living room bathed in this audible grace pouring down my chimney through the winter air!

All this has come back to me as I hear from Bekah about her own visits to the Cathedral now. When I remembered the bells, I called to let her know to be sure to stay long enough after church to listen.

In celebration of the bells, I can't resist adding one of my favorite lines (and a half) from a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins. The whole poem, "As kingfishers catch fire," is a favorite, but I always especially savor with tongue and ear the rich and playful music of Hopkins' language in these lines:

. . . like each tucked string tells, each hung bell's
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name." 

OK, I guess it's really best to give you the whole of it!

AS kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies dráw fláme;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same: 
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I do is me: for that I came.

Í say móre: the just man justices;
Kéeps gráce: thát keeps all his goings graces; 
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is—
Chríst—for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

Happy Easter!


Bekah said...


This is a lovely post... I want to see the house you lived in... Teena and I walked around the Bishop's Garden and it was so nice. The Cathedral grounds are definitely one of my favorite little nooks in Washington.

Love you

Sukie Curtis said...

The garden is definitely a great spot. There will be roses blooming there soon! And unlike Dumbarton Oaks (coming into spring bloom for sure!!), it's free.

As to the house...I think it's address was 3606 Woodley Rd...anyway, going in the gate to the lower driveway off of Woodley Rd (assuming the driveways are still configured the same...maybe not), it was the second house on the left. There were two alike, then a third one set farther back. I was in the middle--I think I had a Cathedral canon on either side, but as I only remember the name of one of them, maybe I'm remembering wrong!!