I write this aboard an Air Canada flight from London to Toronto, racing at 848 km per hour, 11 kilometers above sea level, with nothing particularly concentrating my mind.
While I listen to Gabriela Montero’s gorgeous performance of Sergei Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor, Op. 18, I marvel at the genius of the great inventors of a century ago.
The Wright Brothers, who showed that humans could fly like birds, and Thomas Edison who reproduced sound, made it possible for me to cross the Atlantic in just over 6 hours and do so while enjoying great inflight music as though in a concert hall.
I don’t know which of the two was the greater invention, for both have had an incalculable impact on the human story. I suppose if I had to choose one or the other, my answer would be “both.”
Besides its enormous effects on commerce, knowledge and information transfer, migration, international relations and the conduct of wars, air travel has enabled us to see places we would not have easily reached.
One such place is England, very familiar, yet always with new offerings. The highlight of our 2-week visit was a tour of Lincoln Cathedral, one of the largest Gothic buildings in the United Kingdom.
When Peace Matsiko, a dear Ugandan friend who lives in the neighbourhood, suggested a visit to the cathedral, one thought that it would be the usual beautiful church building, perhaps three hundred years old, not much different from the other great cathedrals of the world.
What we discovered, instead, was a 924-year-old building, with beautiful ornaments, grand arches, vaults, stained glass windows, intricate designs on the woodwork and exceptionally beautiful stonework that told the story of human power and opulence.
The great organ, its pipes pointing to the heavens, was as one expected. The organist teased us with a few chords, just enough to whet our appetites. Incidentally, there is a complete list of the names of all organists at Lincoln Cathedral since 1439.
I imagined what a performance of Camille Saint-Saens’ Symphony No.3, op.78 (Organ Symphony) would sound like in this cathedral.
It remains a recurring thought even now as I listen to a marvelous rendition of this symphony by organist Oliver Latry and the Orchestre Symphonique de Montreal conducted by Kent Nagano.
The sight of many indoor burial crypts and graves of those who toiled in the Lincoln Cathedral over the centuries moderated my delight at the magnificence before me.
The silence emanating from the graves was a quiet reminder of what King Solomon so beautifully expressed in his Book of Ecclesiastes.
The grandeur that we beheld was great nourishment for the eye, of course, but it was ultimately meaningless. Here today, gone tomorrow. Unlimited power over humans today, eternally silent ashes and bones tomorrow.
This point was driven home the next day when our dear friend Shekaniya Matsiko, Peace’s husband, took us on a tour of the nearby Newark Castle, built about 883 years ago by Bishop Alexander The Magnificent.
Sitting on the banks of the River Trent, the castle is now in ruins, only a few walls, gardens and walkways remaining. What a powerful reminder of the evanescent nature of human power and graven images!
Among the remnants of the Castle is a Debtors’ Dungeon, where the good Bishop imprisoned members of his flock who owed him money. Many were left there to die.
I could not but imagine Alexander The Magnificent, preaching tear-inducing sermons in the Lincoln Cathedral, exhorting his flock to love one another, to care about the poor and the hungry, and to emulate Jesus Christ’s relationship with the down and out.
I imagined the good bishop holding court at The Castle, dressed in the finest robes and golden ornaments, enjoying the choicest wines, serenaded by court musicians, and waited upon by dozens of servants, well aware that some poor indebted souls froze and wept in the dark dungeon beneath His Grace’s throne.
Clearly today’s wealthy merchants of the prosperity gospel are not pioneers in the monetization of Jesus Christ, He who “humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross” so that humanity would be saved from the consequences of greed.
Peace and her daughter Judith capped our visit with a tour of part of Oxford University, where a humbler man who lived more than five centuries after Alexander the Magnificent, left us a great lesson and legacy of giving and service to others.
The beautiful Radcliffe Camera, built 270 years ago as a library using a £40,000 bequest by Dr. John Radcliffe, has served to advance scientific inquiry and human progress.
Besides its circular architectural beauty and well-deserved place in the story of Oxford, the Radcliffe Camera’s history challenges us to do things that will serve others long after we are gone.
As impressive as the building itself was the record of it history, down to the names of those who laid the stones, installed the doors, served as librarians and every other imaginable detail.
This tradition of detailed record keeping is one that makes visits to countries like Britain extremely rewarding. Tourism is more than a visual feast. It should offer intellectual nourishment.