I decided to seek Jerusalem here in London. Not everyone has the opportunity to travel and certainly not to Jerusalem. That has always been true. For those who have travelled to that holy city there is something of a desire to build the memory back home. So I decided to make a mini-pilgrimage to four significant places that have associations with Jerusalem but back here in London.
I decided to begin in a very special room. Sadly, though understandably, it isn’t open to the public as in fact it is a room in the Deanery at Westminster Abbey but the Dean, John Hall, kindly let me go into the room to begin my journey today.
The room is called the ‘Jerusalem Chamber’. It’s one of a series of rooms called after places in the Holy Land – Jericho, Samaria also get a mention. It was a tradition, and still is in some convents and retreat houses, to name rooms after places or saints. The rooms in St George’s College were named in that way.
This room was built in the latter part of the 14th century by Abbot Nicholas Litlyngton. The walls are covered in 16th century tapestries including some depicting episodes from the story of Abraham. The room is beautifully proportioned with a lovely ceiling bearing the monograms of Abbot Litlyngton under a mitre and Richard II (in whose reign the chamber was built) under a crown.
It was in this Chamber that Lancelot Andrewes, then Dean of Westminster, gathered the Committee tasked with translating the first five books of the Old Testament, the Pentateuch, into English as part of the process for the publication of the King Kames version of the Bible. It was here that the editors of the New English Bible met to do their work in the 20th century.
But it was in front of the fireplace in the chamber that the most famous event in the room’s history occurred, that being the death of King Henry IV. In 1413 the King was planning to go to the Holy Land, and when praying at St Edward’s Shrine in the Abbey he was taken ill, apparently with a stroke. He was brought to the Abbot’s house and laid by the fire where he recovered consciousness. King Henry asked where he was and was told ‘Jerusalem’. The chronicle relates that the King realized he was going to die because it had been prophesied that he would die in Jerusalem. In Henry IV, Part II, Shakespeare tells this story of the King’s death and also has Prince Henry trying on the crown while his father lay dying. Shakespeare relates part of the story like this
KING HENRY IV
Doth any name particular belong
Unto the lodging where I first did swoon?
‘Tis call’d Jerusalem, my noble lord.
KING HENRY IV
Laud be to God! even there my life must end.
It hath been prophesied to me many years,
I should not die but in Jerusalem;
Which vainly I supposed the Holy Land:
But bear me to that chamber; there I’ll lie;
In that Jerusalem shall Harry die.
(Henry IV, Part II, Scene V)
It was a great place to begin the journey in this place where prophecy was fulfilled.
One of the ways in which we have built Jerusalem around us is through the Stations of the Cross which we find in many of our churches and now is a tradition embraced by Christians of many traditions during Lent. It enabled people to follow the Via Dolorosa wherever they were. In a similar way the Knights Templar, the order of crusading monks founded to protect pilgrims on their way to and from Jerusalem, decided to recreate the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in London. That was my second destination on this pilgrimage.
The Temple Church stands at the heart of the Inns of Court, just north of the river Thames. The Church was built in the 12th century and the rotunda, so reminiscent of the rotunda in Jerusalem, was consecrated in 1185 by the Patriarch of Jerusalem. It was designed to recall the holiest place in the Crusaders’ world: the circular Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. To it was added a chancel. So this two part church is a real reminder of the church in which I stood just a few days ago.
But whereas under the rotunda in Jerusalem we find the empty tomb, here in London lie effigies of knights. They were members of this order of Crusaders. Yet another order founded the third place I was to visit.
The order was the Knights Hospitaller and they established the Priory of St John in Clerkenwell, which was then just outside the city wall as was the Holy Sepulchre. I visited the Church of St John, next to the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem where this order was established and from where they cared for pilgrims in the hospital they established. Only the archway and a few rooms and a church remain in London. But this was their headquarters in London and next door to it now are the offices of St John’s Ambulance, the modern inheritor of their ministry and the very particular and instantly recognisable cross that they wore.
Finally, I walked back from Clerkenwell, across the river and to a road near Waterloo, in the London Borough of Lambeth. In Hercules Road on the side of a block of Corporation of London flats is a plaque commemorating the fact that William Blake lived there during the 1790’s in a house on this site. It’s thought that his poem, which we know as ‘Jerusalem’, was not written whilst he was living here but just a few years afterwards. But perhaps some of the inspiration for looking to a new and better city for all people, a place of social justice, a new Jerusalem, came whilst living south of the river.
Peter Abelard wrote a poem in the 12th century entitled ‘O quanta qualia sunt illa Sabbata’. The priest John Manson Neale translated it in the 1854 and it became the hymn we know as ‘O what their joy and their glory must be.’ It contains the verse which provided the inspiration for this post-script pilgrimage today after my return from Jerusalem.
Now, in the meanwhile, with hearts raised on high,
We for that country must yearn and must sigh;
Seeking Jerusalem, dear native land,
Through our long exile on Babylon’s strand.
‘Seeking Jerusalem’ in the places where we live seems to have been something that generations have done, whether in naming rooms, in the moments of dying, in building a legacy, in continuing a ministry, in challenging injustice, in raising hearts and heads towards heaven. But the real legacy of every Jerusalem pilgrim, wherever the pilgrimage takes place, must be in building a city of peace.
Lord, may I seek Jerusalem
not just in stones
but in hearts turned to peace.