The Minster Church of St. Andrew in Plymouth, England, is a witness to an astonishing array of history. The congregation formed around the year 800 AD, and the first stone building of the church was erected in 1170. It has since been favored by kings, queens, saints, fishermen, explorers, farmers, and warriors, all coming to rejoice, to mourn, to praise, and to seek and worship God. To be in a structure that saw Sir Francis Drake, Queen Elizabeth I, pilgrims who came to worship, and those who left those shores to worship in freedom…that all of these believers and countless others were at one time inside St Andrew’s walls is an astonishing feeling, but instead of feeling like a museum, if you visit today there is a feel of life. St Andrews has an active youth group, streaming web channels and podcasts of recent sermons, a choir, various social outreach programs, and a group dedicated to preserving St. Andrew’s story. The stained glass windows are my favorite part of this hallowed place.
Plymouth is a port city, and a major shipyard for the Royal Navy was here during World War II. As such it was a premium bomb target of the Luftwaffe and the city sustained great damage during The Blitz. On the 20th and 21st of March, 1941, St. Andrews sustained direct hits and the roof collapsed; those stone walls—over a millennium old!—did not fall. After the smoke cleared, a wooden sign was erected over the north doorway that read, RESURGAM: “I will rise again.” Resurgam was the message not only of one congregation but that of a nation, but it echoed the resurrection story that as Christ rose again, then so would this church. In 1943 as the war raged on, the rubble was cleared away and St Andrews became a garden church as thousands gathered together in open air services to worship, and went away to serve the Lord. In 1957 a restoration was completed and the windows that were blown out in violence were put back in. Designed by John Piper, these windows were not like the ones they replaced in subject, but they are as beautiful in glory. On a day of brilliant sun one can see modern images startling in their difference from the ancient architecture, a beautiful lesson on the way the church marks time, an awesome binding together of a family of believers across nations and languages, time and space.
This information was taught to me in a lecture at the church, and the story goes that the pieces of glass from the shattered windows was swept up and kept, and used to make the new images. Static portraits of saints and familiar images of scripture were replaced by images of rebirth and rejoicing, of music and light. The broken shards were not discarded, nor were the destroyed images simply replicated. Those same sharp pieces of broken glass were put back together, just in a different design; something beautiful from the brokenness.
This season of our lives is not marked by bombs or destruction of our homeland, but many of our memories of these times will be sharp and angry, jagged with the senseless loss of life, or even the simple loss of a baseball season, or graduation, or the joy of attending the Mass. We can learn a lesson from the faithful of St Andrews, not to throw away these memories, pretending we are not sad or angry or lonely, nor should we build our future back exactly as it was. What we can do is piece our experiences together into something new, using pieces of the old, mindful of the sharp edges of memories not yet healed, looking for the beauty, and finding it in the inspiring stories of courage from among our own.
There is a difference in seeing the church from the inside, on a bright day, and the sense of radiance and joy that seems to flow down; and seeing the church from the outside, in a bleak and dark night, when the church is lit from within. So it is with each of us. It is easy to be a beacon in easy times, when all seems to be running smoothly. However, during this strange season, we are called to be lit from within. We are called to lead others who are with us, but who are stumbling with sorrow or frustration or despair. We are called to reflect the love of God, and to be their light. We are called to be lit from within.