Entering Westminster Abbey on vacation with my 10-year-old son, I overheard a man with an American accent ask, “Can we take photos?”
“No, sorry, sir,” the docent apologized.
I remembered being disappointed my last visit when I realized no photos were allowed.
The man wore an Ohio State T-shirt and khaki shorts. With sunglasses perched on top of his head, he looked like someone I knew. He looked so dejected, I felt the need to say something as I passed by.
“They have postcards in the gift shop,” I said, smiling as if that solved everything. “They were better than any shots I could get.” Sometimes we just want to say something, even if we know it won’t really help.
“Oh, I know,” he replied, looking as if he were going to cry. “I just don’t want to forget it.”
There is a sacredness at Westminster Abbey that I didn’t expect the first time I visited on a solo trip, two years ago. I thought of it as a tourist stop, not the place of worship that it is.
“You won’t forget it,” I told Ohio State. “You’ll be more present since you aren’t behind your camera.”
He nodded in agreement, but I didn’t think he believed me. With his emotion so much on the surface, I felt there was more to this than just a casual interaction.
I’d returned to Westminster Abbey to share this sacred place with my son. Last time I visited, it wasn’t until I prayed with a priest there that I realized it had been a pilgrimage. I wanted my son to experience the place where I had felt so close to God.
I ran into Ohio State again near the shrine of St. Edward the Confessor, where I had prayed with a small group of believers from all over the world. The shrine is located behind the altar where each monarch since 1066 has been coronated. After a coronation, the monarch slips behind the altar through a secret door for private prayers for wisdom and guidance.
I asked Ohio State if he was religious.
“Well, not really. I mean I don’t not believe. I’m just not certain what I believe,” he said.
“I understand,” I said and told him about the noon prayers. “I think if you had an experience like I did, you wouldn’t forget it.”
“My mother just died three months ago.” The tears from earlier were now clear. “Towards the end, she’d forgotten so much.” I wanted to grab onto him for a moment, in gratitude for confiding in me, a stranger.
“I am so sorry.” I wanted to say more, but what, I didn’t know. I felt God’s presence there, and I knew I was supposed to have said the things I did to this fellow traveler. He nodded. Embarrassed, he looked to rejoin his family.
Sharing noon prayers with my son, I said a prayer for Ohio State, for his grief, for his healing, for his family.
Three hours later, two miles away, in a city of eight million, I held a door open for my son when Ohio State walked through. “I just talked to you this morning. At Westminster Abbey,” he said, looking at me as though he’d seen a ghost.
I don’t know why God brought us together for a moment, but I know God did.