Friday, July 8, 2011
stone saints and other men
the letters on the keypad rest under my fingers as i stop and think of the uk—of the gardens and woods of delight, of the ponies running wild and free in the new forest, of the inscrutable (and dare i say, even attractive after all these years) stone men in kent who watched me walk across the grass and under archways made of sandstone.
for the first few nights of the week we spent in england we unpacked very little each evening, only removing from our suitcases things like toiletries, pajamas and a change of clothes for the morning, since we would be moving on right after breakfast. in my mind i had envisioned lightening-fast stopovers due to our crazy schedule: madly driving through lovely english villages in a flash, jumping into bed, and then sadly leaving the villages behind and losing them forever as we drove away and they became smaller and smaller and disappeared in the rear view mirror.
as it turned out, though, our business itinerary left us with enough time to pull into town, check in to our hotel and still have part of the afternoon and all evening to poke around the countryside.
a castle we had wanted to see in the tunbridge wells area was closed the day we were there, so we looked at my map with historic sights marked on it and decided to drive (with ed behind the wheel on the uk's alarmingly wrong side of the road, and me pointing and oohing and aahing at the scenery) along the nail-bitingly narrow and winding, hemmed-in-and-almost-swallowed-by-hedges roads, toward the kent and sussex border.
we missed the turn to bayham abbey and bayham old abbey house the first time around—the sign was smallish and partially covered by, what else, england's ever-present hedges—but since we sailed right by it we ended up having the good fortune of discovering a cozy pub with outdoor seating adjacent to the lovely lamberhust vineyard where we would return at dinnertime.
the landscape in the area was one of the prettiest we have ever seen in the uk (hence the oohs and aahs), all woodsy thickets, green, green fields, rolling hills and streams which led us, on this perfect summer day in the midst of this idyllic nature-the-beautiful, to backtrack and finally find the road to the abbey.
above the dense hedges in the car park the abbey rose up and almost glowed in the strong sunlight. the silvery and occasionally golden ruins, some of which date back to the early13th century, consist of the fine and extremely durable local tunbridge wells sandstone, and are remarkably well-preserved.
i walked off to the right; ed went left. there was nobody else at bayham except the young man minding the tiny gift shop (a lovely one with nice books), and dozens of rabbits, if you want to count them as somebodies.
when i got near the north and south transepts of the abbey i looked up and, beneath the string course—a kind of projecting moulding running horizontally across the facade of a building—i was totally surprised to notice.....him. this huge, gorgeous, sandstone head of a man, maybe 600 or 700 years old. and then i saw another glorious man's head. i felt a little tingly all over. both were marvelously good-looking considering their age and the fact that they were stone heads, not full-bodied, flesh and blood, men. i don't know who they were supposed to be representing; the abbey guide doesn't say. saints, martyrs, monks, other holy men or maybe one of the family of sackville noblemen (who dominated the scene, perhaps around the late 13th century, in this part of kent; many sackville's were buried here), someone with an important religious connection, anyway. saint richard of chichester who once stayed at the abbey, perhaps?
i wondered, who were these anglo-saxon stone men resting high above my head? what did they believe? were they good men, benevolent and generous, or calculating and selfish?
seeing the stone carvings of the holy men made me think about another man, a muslim man, i saw at the airport in copenhagen. he was a bearded, middle-aged guy, well-dressed in western clothing, who was accompanied by two petite young women, presumably his daughters, who were dressed from head to toe in the black robes of their religion. they sat right across from us, the man sitting between the ladies. i tried not to stare, but when the women looked up i couldn't help glancing at their eyes, jet-colored eyes precisely framed like black and white photographs in the rectangular openings of their burqas; large, clear eyes with dark brows and lashes (the lashes enhanced by a bit of mascara? or not?). the women were busily texting, fingers flying over the keys, each with a large prada handbag on her lap and expensive shoes on her feet.
the man hovered protectively, tenderly, over the women, leaning in closely as he murmured his words and they murmured back. when one of them started to walk to a ben & jerry's vending machine in our gate area, he jumped up and stood beside her, pressing in as she made her selection. she demurely followed him back to their seats to wait for the flight to london.
was this father a holy muslim man? a devout man? did he read the holy word of his religion? was he a good man, a good father? was he like one of those stone men—whose faces stare down at me still, even though i am thousands of miles away—well-known in his community, respected, worthy enough, holy enough, to have a carving made of his likeness?
how do you become so worthy as to be chiseled out of stone? what does it take to have your face placed on a religious house high above the rest of humanity, to be left to stare out over the hills and valleys as if pondering the enormities of life and death while the centuries flow by underneath you?
i click away on my macbook. i am left to ponder these particular ancient stones and the meaning they might hold for us today. bayham displays all the basic design elements of henry III's time but it is the work of a master builder, a man whose awesome skill was such that it most certainly should have shown up elsewhere in the uk, but apparently does not. the hand of this man is found in the kent religious house alone, making him an enigma, a real mystery man.
and i do love mysteries.