St. Mary’s Church is only a short stroll away from our flat and I believe it was the first real “Ooh, what’s that?!” moment I had upon arrival in Mildenhall. Something about the structure just drew me in immediately and begged to be explored. Look at that architecture! Things just aren’t built like that anymore.
It was my first day out wandering around on my own, trying not to get horrifically lost–which I’m famous for–and St. Mary’s called to me. It’s strange how even walking around on the grounds makes you feel different, because as soon as I stepped on the the verdant lawn, it’s as if there were a hush in the air. You could still easily hear cars and people on cell phones going by, but all of that is somehow dwarfed by the immensity of this church.
I spent quite a while treading lightly through the graveyard. I wanted to be respectful of the medieval human remains there, but I was also very curious to read all the tombstones. Most were so old they were hardly legible, and the “new ones” still dated back to the mid-1800’s. My favorite was dedicated to John Sterling who died in 1857 at the age of 57. (To put this into American perspective, he was born in 1800 and died around the Civil War period). His tombstone added that five of his children lay nearby, having died in their infancy and also offered:
“Weep not for me, my wife and children dear,
I am not dead, but sleeping here.
My debt is paid, my grave you see,
Prepare yourselves to follow me.”
Huh. Hopefully not anytime soon, Mr. Sterling…
The grounds were alive with wildflowers and bees. Daisies, poppies, dandelions, and beautiful purple flowers that I have no name for. (For those of you that aren’t aware, I’ve been a beekeeper since January and *sniff* had to leave my queen and her daughters in the care of my friends until I return. So, seeing a bee this far from home automatically warms me to the area.)
I will confess that I was a bit nervous about entering the church because I didn’t know what I would find in there. Not to mention, I was wearing shorts and Converse and I’ve been raised Catholic enough to know that it isn’t appropriate church attire–especially in a church that was built in part from the 1100’s to the 1800’s. Sheesh. No need for gnarly medieval plagues or curses to befall my unwary American head!
To get in, I had to push open a door that had to be 15ft high and looked as though it hadn’t been replaced…ever. It was so cool. I felt like I was entering a dungeon in a video game. This is the first view through that door.
But the BEST part was that the whole thing smelled like one giant old book. You know, that musky-yet-sweet smell you can only find whilst burying your nose in the crease of a long-forgotten novel. Yum. This place was like where books go to perfume themselves after a long life.
The stained glass was by far the biggest and most ornate that I’ve ever seen. There were a handful of them scattered throughout. They were glorious, especially with the afternoon light filtering through. It felt almost divine. Especially when the three other people who were in there left via colossal door, and I was all alone in this standing piece of history, religion, and art. I’m not, nor ever have been, a very religious person, but this place made me instinctively breathe quietly or step lightly. I can’t claim to have felt some sort of presence there, but I’d say it was more like the church itself was the presence.
The ceiling was my other favorite. It was covered in angels. I can’t begin to estimate how tall it was, but it was tall enough to crane your neck to the very limits of its hinge. The angels were so amazing, with gargantuan wingspans that would probably be life-sized were they on the floor. What totally boggled my mind was that this church is so incredibly old, yet so incredibly well-crafted–not just for functionality–but also for aesthetic purposes.
I was actually inspired to sit for a few moments and thank God, Jesus, the Powers That Be, whichever–for the charmed life I have led thus far. I’ve been SO lucky with the direction my life has gone and is still going… Perpetual forward motion. The strength and courage of conviction that I never knew I had. To change my life in an instant and not look back. That’s what I’m thankful for.
When people pray, it seems as though it’s always asking for something and not thanking the Divinity for what has been already offered to them. I didn’t ask for anything for my own behalf, only the happiness and health of my family and friends. I did get a little misty-eyed, I will admit.
I can’t describe the feeling I had inside St. Mary’s other than to note that it is one of those rare places were time stands still. It’s hard to believe that just outside these ancient walls cars speed by, digital cameras click, and text messages ping through the air. To stop and think about how much life and death, love and grief, happiness and anguish that has passed through this place is unfathomable. What has been before us, will be there long after us.
On my way out of the church and off the grounds, I was stepping through the graves and directly in front of me, a pure white feather was spiralling to the ground. For once, there wasn’t a bird in sight.
So I kept it.