Entering Into the Presence of God Through Sight, Smell, and Sound: London

Inside Westminster Cathedral
Google “London” and the first thing that will pop up is most likely, “Visit London-Your Official London City Guide.” Well, should you let Google determine your official guide to the city? I love technology and all, but sometimes there is more excitement in walking the road less traveled, there is something to be said about being surprised along the way.

If you decide to go the Google route, which is not a bad path to take, just be aware of what the Internet may not tell you. When perusing tourists sites, I found a web-page for the “Top 10 London Attractions.” This page offered several intriguing options: London Eye, Tower of London, Westminster Abbey and Saint Paul’s Cathedral. As my own European adventure was around the corner, I was interested in finding historic sites where I could learn more about my Catholic faith.
Based on this desire, the Tower of London was a destination which I hoped to visit.

Upon browsing one tourist website with information on the Tower, it described the site as having an uninviting reputation. This is due to its history of being a place where torture and death took place. The website tried to paint a more sunny picture of the area by emphasizing the history of the royal palace and the Crown Jewels. They made light of the tortures and deaths by writing a colorful invitation to “join an iconic Beefeater on a tour and hear their bloody tales, stand where famous heads have rolled, learn the legend of the Tower’s ravens” and etc…

Is that where the explanation for the foundation of the church gets nestled between? The phrase “stand where famous heads have rolled” is merely a passing thought quickly followed up with legends of black birds?

Tertullian, a 2nd-century Church Father wrote that “the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church.” He emphasized this because martyrs willingly sacrifice their lives in order to help lead others to Christ. They lay their lives down in faithfulness, but also to mirror God’s love for the Church. For you.  
What I didn’t find on the web-page of the top tourist attractions in London, was information on two Englishmen named John Fisher and Sir Thomas More. Fisher was a Bishop and More was a Statesman. Both were martyred within two weeks of one another; beheaded at the command of King Henry VIII. Both are seeds of the Church and both are Saints.
The site of John Fisher and Sir Thomas More's Martyrdom
The stark contrast of Catholic history and modernity is commonplace as you walk through the streets of London. Take Westminster Cathedral for example. This Cathedral is often confused with the famous Westminster Abbey. The Abbey is an Anglican Church where the recent wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton took place. Westminster Cathedral is a Roman Catholic Church which is located just over 400 yards west of the Abbey and situated directly across from Cardinal Place, a structure of massive glass buildings that one may call “man’s cathedral.” Cardinal Place is a retail and office development; home to fancy shopping venues and trendy restaurants. It was built with ease of shopping in mind. It is beautiful in its own way, the 200 million pounds it cost to build it was not in vain. However, the vision of Cardinal Place did not give me the warmth of feeling “home.” Not like Westminster Cathedral did.

"Man's Cathedral"
Put my back to Cardinal Place, let me meander the few yards down Cathedral Walk, through Cathedral Piazza and place me, face to face with the Mother Church for the Roman Catholics in both England and in Wales. That is where I feel at home. Upon stepping into the Cathedral, I was pulled into the warm embrace of the Church with the presence of God apparent through my senses: ears, eyes and nose.

It was apparent through my sense of hearing because it is not often one finds a completely quiet moment in Westminster Cathedral. It is one of the busiest churches in the United Kingdom with people visiting from all over the world. Over the course of a typical day there are at least six Masses (with one in Latin), Morning Prayer and Vespers.

It was apparent through my sense of sight. One-hundred and twenty-six varieties of marble from twenty-four countries adorn the interior of Westminster Cathedral. Upon entering through the main entrance I stood in front of two red columns which were placed as a reminder that the Cathedral is dedicated to the Precious Blood. Not exactly the same vibe that Cardinal Place had in mind when they built their development with the goal of allowing their shoppers to have “minimal effort” when hopping from one store to the next.

Finally, the sense of smell. My favorite memory of walking into Westminster Cathedral is the scent. A scent so thick that required the Cathedral’s grand organ to undergo extensive cleaning after having been covered with dust and soot from so many candles and incense. The smoke rising from these candles and incense have rich meaning in our Catholic faith. It represents purification and sanctification. The smoke is a symbol of the prayers of the faithful going up to heaven, “Let my prayer be incense before you; my uplifted handmms an evening offering” (Psalm 141:2). Incense draws our heart and mind to heaven. “Another angel came and stood at the altar, holding a gold censer. He was given a great quantity of incense to offer, along with the prayers of all the holy ones, on the gold altar that was before the throne. The smoke of the incense along with the prayers of the holy ones went up before God from the hand of the angel” (Revelation 8:3-4). Both the image and the smell of smoke are reminders to us of the transcendence of the Mass where Heaven kisses earth, where we enter in more fully to the presence of God.