I was in Exeter, UK. I had jumped at the chance to join a summer program, partly because it was a course on Arthurian legend and partly because of the exhilaration I felt when I realized that, for the first time, I was considering a study abroad program without having to worry about shabbos and kosher food.
The program took us on multiple day trips to Stonehenge, Bath, St. Ives… Our class also went to Glastonbury, an important site in Arthurian studies. We lobbied for Tintagel, the site of Arthur’s conception, but the administration said it would be too difficult to arrange.
The Exeter Cathedral houses many manuscripts, and for one shorter field trip, one afternoon we walked from the university into town to visit the cathedral archives.
It was amazing. We entered the cathedral through a back entrance leading directly to the library. We saw the actual Exeter Book under glass and flipped through the pages of a facsimile. (I use the photos I took then when I teach the Exeter riddles and the poem The Wanderer.)
We saw original prints of Shakespeare’s plays, some medieval and Early Modern bibles, a few pamphlets… For a medievalist, it was book heaven.
After the archive visit, the professor led us on a guided tour of the cathedral. The first time I entered the main room of a cathedral was through a library filled with old books…
I was overawed and a little overwhelmed. The whole class was awed by the beauty, the hugeness of the cathedral, the weirdness of the details we looked at. I experienced all of that, along with a feeling of “omigod I’m in a church.”
After our tour / lesson was over, the professor left us to wander. We wandered as a group through the main sanctuary, the smaller chapel, and into the gift shop.
On our way out, through the tremendous heavy front doors this time, we passed by a stand where dozens of burned-out tealights were stacked in a structure that looked like candle-bleachers. The docent explained that we could drop a few coins in the attached collection box (which looked remarkably like a tzedaka box) and light a candle.
I knew about lighting candles in church. I remembered how the wife of an Irish sailor in Captains Courageous lights a candle in church for his safety.
We decided to do it – why not. One by one, we picked up the long matches, lit them from an already-burning candle, and lit an unused tealight.
I was the last to go. I could barely breathe as I held the candle to the flame. The action was so reminiscent of lighting shabbos licht, something I had only done a few times when I was away from home or when my mother couldn’t light, something I had grown up expecting to eventually do as a wife and mother but never would, by my own choice.
I was overcome by a feeling of solemnity similar to the feeling of Kol Nidrei. I felt like there should be some intention to the action – like I should think of someone or something while I did it – a prayer, a wish – because after all, what’s an action worth without kavanah?
I blocked out the hushed chattering of my classmates behind me and lit the candle. My wish, my prayer, was an expression of wordless gratitude and amazement that here I was, in the UK and in a cathedral; a desperate hope that the bitter email exchange with my mother I was currently having would resolve soon one way or the other; and a mind-image of “the future” projected at whatever forces could make it reality.
“Everyone’s done? Let’s go into town!” I wasn’t ready for the intrusion of my classmates’ voices. I realized I was crying. Standing behind me, my classmates couldn’t see my tears. I stood with my back to them and blinked away the tears, swiped a hand across my eyes to get rid of the evidence, and joined them on the way to the shops.