Westmont Magazine Two Trips to St. Paul's
by Laura Joy Phillips ’21
We stepped off the bus and onto the wet streets. Though the rain had abated, the sky still hung dark with rain, and the wind blundered coldly through the crowd. Like the slightly-ruffled pigeons that wandered at our feet, we wended our way toward the John Donne memorial on the grounds of St. Paul’s Cathedral. As the group assembled, I took in the sights: the leafy bushes draping their golden-green locks over the fence, the large lime tree standing in its splendor of orange and yellow against the sandy-hued sides of St. Paul’s, the cathedral’s blue dome bending palely into the sky, the ghosts of the passersby appearing and disappearing in the thin sheets of puddle that spanned the pavement.
At length, we all reached the presentation site, where stood the pillar of John Donne’s bust, rising alone from the center of a puddle. Recalling Donne’s declaration in “Meditation 17” that “No man is an island,” I found myself amused by the irony of the islanded memorial. Beneath the bust, the pillar was engraved with his name, his years of life, and the words “poet and divine.” Not only was John Donne defined by these two roles, but he was often divided by them.
Both the Broadview biography we read and the student presentation we heard at the memorial discussed the common categorization of Donne’s works as either secular love poetry or religious writings. Both argued that Donne integrated “multiple facets of knowledge.” Donne’s own complicated experience with Christianity (which shaped his family, upbringing, education, and eventually vocation) perhaps allowed him to bring such complexity into his writing. In their presentation, Paul and Nick championed Donne for representing “the interconnectedness of both us as a people and also [the variety of things] that make us who we are.” The statue itself (erected only six years ago) could mark a shift in how Donne is remembered— acknowledging both parts of his legacy together in the cathedral where he served as dean.
We returned to the cathedral the following evening for Evensong. Our experience of the site combined the two great themes of John Donne’s life: his legacy as both “poet and divine.” Even while I enjoyed the devotional time of Evensong, I encountered another idea of interconnectedness. The order of service included “A Guide to Evensong” that described the service as “a tiny fragment of something else: part of the worship which is offered to God by Christian people every hour of the day and night in every part of the world.” Our individual experiences, it said, were part of a larger whole, as though we were “dropping in on a conversation” or stepping into the “continual stream of worship.”
When I first read Donne’s “Meditation 17,” I was struck by the beautiful language and grand ideas. I certainly caught the theme of interconnection as I highlighted such passages as “The Church is catholic, universal, so are all her actions; all that she does belongs to all” and (of course) “No man is an island... every man is a piece of the continent... If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less.” After the presentation and service, I saw how the beautiful language and grand ideas represented the academic, literary abilities of Donne working in tandem with his devotional prowess.
Having seen the way St. Paul’s Cathedral remembers Donne, I began to think about the work involved in maintaining such connections and integrity. Both Donne’s life and our own experience this semester show the need to participate to benefit from the full connection. We had to make the pilgrimage to St. Paul’s twice to experience both academically (in the presentation) and devotionally (in Evensong).
These trips formed connections not just between facets of life but between us as people. The long bus ride and the chilly weather were well worth the opportunity to be a part of the group. Standing there in the grey afternoon, learning about and seeing our connection as a group, I was glad I had come. I began to understand a little better the line “If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less.” Our group lacked its full number, which made me feel distinctly sad. Luckily, our participation in Evensong connected us to the rest of humanity and allowed us to re-center ourselves in “God, who is our only security” (Donne). As God forms the conclusion of Donne’s poem, the time of worship completed my experience.
Together, the two visits to St. Paul’s helped me experience the kinds of connections John Donne explores in his works and strengthened my ties to his literature, to the England Semester cohort, to the catholic church, and to God.