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Oodles of Gratitude

Updated: Nov 29, 2022

Let’s get the important stuff handled first: I hope my American friends had a lovely Thanksgiving!

A meme is going around which states:

I think that’s hilarious.

The sole tradition I always try to maintain around Thanksgiving is to make sure I put a bit of turkey in my mouth on this hallowed day (with pumpkin pie as a bonus). In Australia and in Paris—neither of whom celebrate an American Thanksgiving (duh!)—I managed to scare up a turkey sandwich for lunch on the day, and that matched my criteria!

It was likewise challenging in the UK this year. Robin bought me a turkey drumstick, which he planned to throw into the crockpot and serve with a bunch of the usual trimmings, but then he learned from a local group on social media that the Bunbury Arms serves turkey at lunchtime on their carvery board. (It had to be lunch because I’m taking a class in the evening on European time—again, these trainers don’t celebrate American Thanksgiving.)

We were served a lovely bit of turkey… and ham…. and Yorkshire pudding (not very American), plus brussels sprouts, broccoli, two kinds of roasted potatoes, roasted parsnips, and mashed pumpkin (in lieu of mashed potatoes). Robin was so sweet: he brought along a tiny container with California black olives in it (he knows that’s my favorite Thanksgiving treat).

Frankly, Robin’s cooking is better (and so is Charles’)—but it fulfilled the turkey requirement! And we won’t be stuck eating leftovers for the next two weeks.

That thing in my hand is a Yorkshire pudding—not a typical item for a Thanksgiving meal.

We missed having family around, and we toasted heartily to them, but we watched a movie and ate popcorn later in the evening, so it felt like a holiday. Plus we’ve both got so much to do that it was only a momentary twinge.

Besides, we have the cats, who love to cuddle with us and make us feel like we’re family. (Robin’s cell phone is full of cat pictures!) All in all, our Thanksgiving experience wasn’t super satisfying—but it was satisfying enough.

During the past week we visited the legendary Ely Cathedral—twice!

We arrived in the afternoon, but we first caught sight of it from a distance, towering high in the glimmering mist—it was a magical sight!

I enjoy zooming down into various rabbit holes to learn all about the people and places I've encountered, although admittedly it runs against my normal type preferences to dredge up so much history—but I think because I’ve been there for real the research helps me to feel connected with the reality of it, with the complexity of what I experienced, and to expand my associations with it.

Ely (eee-lee) Cathedral's origins date to 672 AD when St. Etheldreda (ethel-dredduh) built a small abbey church. The present building you see here dates back to 1083, and it was granted cathedral status in 1109. I’ve seen every spelling of her name that’s possible, from Æthelthryth to Audrey. In Old English, “Etheldreda” would have originally been written Ethelþreþa and pronounced “ethel-threth-ah.”

According to our dear friend Bede, Æthelthryth (the name Bede dubbed her with) founded her abbey at Ely in a landscape “surrounded on all sides by sea and fen.” This was known as the “Anglo-Saxon Fenland” (no, not that Finland).

Up until the Reformation it was named the Church of St. Etheldreda and St. Peter, and then re-founded as the Cathedral Church of the Holy and Undivided Trinity of Ely (to satisfy King Henry). Prior to this “update,” reformers looted Ely Cathedral’s treasures and jewels. The shrines to the Anglo-Saxon saints were destroyed, and then, as iconoclasm increased, nearly all of the stained glass and much of the sculpture in the cathedral was destroyed or defaced in the 1540s. In the Lady Chapel, all of the free-standing statues were destroyed, and all 147 carved figures in the frieze of St Mary were decapitated, as were numerous sculptures on West's chapel. The fruit of this destruction is heartbreaking to witness.

Architecturally, the cathedral is outstanding. First built in a monumental Romanesque style, the galilee porch, lady chapel, and choir were later rebuilt in an exuberant Decorated Gothic style. At 537 feet in length, it is one of the longest English cathedrals. It was famously painted by J.M.W. Turner in 1796.

Its most notable feature is a central octagonal tower, with a “lantern” above, which provides a unique internal space and, along with the West Tower, dominates the surrounding landscape. Overall, its scale and stylistic details are phenomenal. Turner’s painting demonstrates beautifully how much it dominates the landscape.

Ely Cathedral is a major tourist destination, receiving around 250,000 visitors per year (just look at that painted ceiling!).

Æthelthryth (St. Etheldreda), to whom the cathedral was originally dedicated, was the daughter of King Anna (or Onna) of East Anglia (d. 654), who fathered several saintly daughters, one of whom was Etheldreda. The young princess was said to have begun dreaming about life as a nun relatively early on in her childhood. As she grew older, she devoted her energies to the service of Christ and communicated often with clergy, inviting the most learned and godly priests and bishops to the court. Among them were St. Cuthbert of Lindisfarne, “the Wonderworker of all England.” She was a generous benefactor to the monastery governed by St. Cuthbert; she also embroidered a stole and liturgical cuffs for Cuthbert with great craftsmanship. She even visited the monastery of Whitby, ruled by her illustrious relative, St. Hilda. (This is like a list of everywhere I’ve been in the past couple of months!)

Even though she was not allowed to join a religious order, she reportedly still tried to live with extreme virtue. Most importantly, she vowed to live in chastity and remain a virgin. After some wild shenanigans (see cheesy video via the link provided later in this page), she was allowed to take her vows, and in 672 AD she founded a double monastery known as Ely Abbey, with communities for both monks and nuns who lived separately but prayed together in the common church.

In later centuries, the depredations of Viking raids (those darn Vikings!) may have resulted in the Abbey’s destruction—or at least the loss of all its records.

The precise site of Etheldreda’s original monastery is unknown. The presence of her relics, bolstered by a growing body of literature on her life and miracles, was a major driving force, however, in the success of the re-founded abbey.

A number of accounts of Etheldreda’s life are extant in Latin, Old English, Old French, and Middle English, including our friend Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People. According to one expert, Etheldreda has been written about by medieval authors more than any other English female saint.

The development of Etheldreda’s legend after her death is an excellent example of the way in which cults grow over a period of time, and how whatever is known about the saint's actual life is later re-interpreted by analogy with other hagiographical works.

She must have really been something though, because she managed to be married twice and still be considered a “virgin” by the church. It’s too complex to tell that story, but it’s explained in this admittedly corny 9:01 YouTube cartoon “biography” about her that connects most of the dots:

From a historian’s work, we learn about the ways in which aristocratic women were able to use the Church as a means of gaining control over their own lives, enhancing our understanding of why so many Anglo-Saxon women of royal descent became involved in the development of monastic communities. It should be noted that the female saints of conventional virgin-martyr legends are almost invariably aristocratic to the point where there appears to be an implicit link in such hagiographical works between social and spiritual status, which is mirrored in the early medieval Church. Royalty on earth remained royal in heaven.

Etheldreda was regarded as especially important because her life mirrored the legends of the martyrs in certain respects—especially with respect to her virginity, which she performed the rather unusual feat of preserving through two marriages. As Skeat remarked:

We now intend to write, even though it is amazing, about the holy saint Athelthryth, the English maiden who was married to two men and nevertheless remained a virgin, as the miracles which she often worked clearly show.

According to Bede, Æthelthryth lived a life of extreme asceticism, wearing only woolen garments (instead of finer textiles). She scorned the luxury of hot water for bathing, and only allowed her baths to be heated on the eves of important religious festivals. As for her diet, she was said to eat only one meal per day, yet she did sometimes allow herself to indulge during holidays. She was also said to have been blessed with the gift of prophecy; however, this meant she had the unfortunate ability to anticipate her own impending death.

This royal woman engaged in the most menial tasks, and models for this sort of behavior can be found in conventional Latin hagiography, and indeed legends abound of aristocratic virgins who, having entered a monastery in disguise, set about performing all the most unpleasant chores. The contrast between high status and humble behavior in saints' lives functions in the same way as the contrast between the weakness of women and the strength they achieve through their devotion to God. Female saints are considered good models for Christians because they illustrate the power which can be attained through faith the most clearly. (Surely this is the original back-handed compliment!)

So great is the generosity of our redeemer that he wins mighty victories through the female sex and, despite their frail physique, he renders women glorious through strength of mind. Those who are born weak Christ makes strong through faith, so that, when those who are seen as fools are crowned with their merits by him who made them, they gather up praise for their creator who hides the treasures of heaven in earthen vessels.

Etheldreda’s hagiographers dwell on her physical suffering and her acceptance of it. Bede writes that she died of a plague which also afflicted other members of the community, but he tells later of a tumor, which grew under her chin (perhaps a plague boil, or she may have suffered from quinsy, an infection of the tonsils).

Bede emphasizes her suffering and attributes to her a typically saintly reaction to this affliction:

Then in the eighth year after she became abbess, she became seriously afflicted, just as previously she had foretold, for a big tumor developed on her neck under her chin, and she gave many thanks to God that she suffered this particular affliction on her neck. She said, "I know indeed that I deserve to be afflicted on my neck with such a disease, since in my youth I adorned my neck with very many necklaces. It seems to me that God's justice may cleanse the guilt as this swelling shines on me instead of gold and this hot burning instead of sparkling gemstones."

Like martyrs undergoing torture, Etheldreda welcomed pain. Rather than a terrible punishment, the ugly abscess is interpreted as a sign of God's love for the queen, as through her pain she is able to reach a higher level of spiritual insight. (Is this the medieval version of Nietzsche’s “That which does not kill me makes me stronger”?)

When Etheldreda died, she was buried in the monastery’s cemetery in a simple wooden coffin… and 16 years later her biological sister (now in charge of the Abbey) decided to have her remains “translated” (remember I explained “translating?”) into a nearby church. This move was essential in order to have Etheldreda recognized as a saint, and it also presented the opportunity for the remains of her body to be examined, which, yes, was incorrupt.

Bede is careful to stress repeatedly how the miracle of Etheldreda’s incorruptible body—the earliest known instance in England of the claim that someone’s entire body had not decayed—was due to the fact that she was not corrupted by having sex with a man in her lifetime. (He seemed a bit obsessed with that idea, actually. Is anyone else picking up the misogynistic vibe running through his narrative? Menial humility, suffering, marred appearance, and precious virginity, oh my!)

As I’ve explained previously, “incorrupt” remains were considered a sign of sanctity and Etheldreda’s body was found to be undecayed and—more miraculously still—the wound on her throat was healed.

Etheldreda’s sister was clearly anticipating this turn of events, as she had the foresight to have the surgeon who lanced her sister's tumor attend the elevation.

As further evidence of Etheldreda’s sanctity, Bede adds that the sick were healed by touching the cloth which covered her body or the coffin she had lain in. Again, this is a conventional feature of medieval hagiography as miracles became more important as a sign of sanctity in an age that’s free of martyrdom.

The story goes that when the coffin was opened, all the onlookers were astonished—Etheldreda’s body was perfectly preserved. The burial sheets and her clothing seemed as fresh as they had on the day she was entombed. These old sheets and garments were taken away and the saint was outfitted with new burial clothes before being sealed up in a specially designed marble sarcophagus. The textiles taken from her tomb were said to have the power to exorcise demons. Even more miraculous, people who suffered from blindness or eye pain could be cured by running their hands along Etheldreda’s tomb, especially if they could manage to touch the wood of her coffin.

Today, Etheldreda is considered a saint predating modern Catholic canonization processes, and is regarded as a patron for widows and sufferers of neck ailments. As Bede declared, “Indeed an extraordinary virgin has blessed our age also, our amazing Æthelthryth also shines.”

Her cult remained a focal point of worship in England throughout the Middle Ages. And right from her cult’s inception she was elevated to a status beyond that of a normal saint, and she came to be regarded almost as an English equivalent of the Virgin Mary herself.

Because miracles were so important for the development of a cult, the belief that they could occur at Ely after Etheldreda’s death must have brought visitors and money to the monastery.

The original church building of 970 was either within or nearby the nave of the present building, and was progressively demolished from 1102 alongside the construction of the Norman church.

It was one of the largest buildings under construction north of the Alps at the time. Locally, the cathedral is known as "the ship of the Fens" due to its prominent position above the surrounding landscape. (Many cathedrals were likened to ships for this same reason.)

In 1071, Ely became a focus of English resistance during the anti-Norman insurrection through such people as Hereward the Wake, culminating in the Siege of Ely, for which the Abbey suffered substantial fines.

Hereward (pronounced “hair-rah-ward”) is another fascinating character, often likened to Robin Hood (one of my husband Robin’s favorite legendary characters), and he engaged in similar exploits. Robin Hood made his home in Sherwood Forest, and Hereward was a denizen of the Ely Fens. An Anglo-Saxon nobleman, he was also known as Hereward the Outlaw or Hereward the Exile. Hereward the Wake, considered etymologically, might translate into: “army guard the watchful."

A popular novel claimed Hereward acquired the tag of being “the watchful” when he foiled an assassination attempt by a group of knights that were jealous of his popularity. He may (or may not) have lived for some time as an outlaw in the Fens.

Hereward is always motivated by honest emotions and displays chivalric values in his warfare—unlike his enemies. His supreme, manly prowess is repeatedly emphasized. Potentially discreditable episodes (such as the looting of Peterborough Abbey) are excused, and even wiped out by competing stories, such as a vision of St. Peter that led him to return the loot. He was definitely portrayed as the heroic “good guy,” just as Robin Hood was. In fact, it’s possible that some of the stories about Hereward mutated into tales about Robin Hood or influenced them.

Charles Kingsley’s 1865 novel, Hereward the Wake: the Last of the English, elevated Hereward to the position of national hero and popularized an image of a romantic Anglo-Saxon England violated by Norman tyranny. (I'm adding it to my reading list.)

Our first visit to Ely Cathedral was simply to take it in…. I’ve been hearing about this cathedral for years now, and, because we’re going to be in the area for a while, my plan is to return and visit it several more times before we depart, so this first visit was intended to simply break the ice, familiarize ourselves with the venue, and experience its ambiance.

We were impressed by the Jubilee black oak table we came across in the Cathedral. Look how long it is!

This was made from wood that is 5,000 years old.

The story goes that thousands of years ago the Fens were densely forested by large oak trees. Due to rising sea levels, they fell into the silt of the flooded forest floor and were preserved in the peat. In 2012, a farmer came across a giant sub-fossilized bog oak tree around 45 feet long. (It is thought this might be only one-quarter of the original tree.)

Over a period of ten years, the tree was lifted out, cut into planks, and dried. It took 9 months to remove 400 gallons of water from the wood. The planks were then moved to a college where students worked to build this 43-foot-long table. Given what a “tree-hugger” Robin is, he was really taken with this beautiful item.

Departing the cathedral, you can see even more of its magnificence from the rear, and enjoy the mist that enwrapped the building and created a magical ambience.

Our second trip to Ely Cathedral later in the week was a somewhat misbegotten goat rodeo, and we both feel some regrets. Robin came across the news that they were holding a “Christmas Fair” and fell in love with the idea of going. Distracted by other projects and addle-brained, I complacently went along instead of resisting.

The outing started going downhill by first encountering a crowded, full parking lot, followed by large crowds everywhere (causing us to quickly pull on our face masks), a gauntlet of shopping booths outside the cathedral trying to sell us food and shiny distractions, a huge line at the cathedral door to get in (never mind that we had pre-purchased our tickets online), and another enormous crowd milling around inside, jostling for position at all of the rows of boutique shopping booths displaying high-priced merchandise. Riiiiight!

Not that I’m likely to spend my money on handmade soap, fancy baubles, and knick-knacks anyway, but we have to be ever-mindful of not accumulating more stuff, for the simple reason that it won’t fit in the car! Given what our lifestyle is right now, we are forced to live in a minimalist mode like snails, and this cathedral “fair” contradicted our determined effort. As I already noted, it was a misbegotten outing.

Moreover, I found myself wanting Jesus to burst through the door with a whip to cast out all the “money-changers”—the Fair was an egregious monument to profane economic exploitation. But that may just be my little introverted soul expressing resistance against extraverted excesses. (Note that the picture I’m showing was taken after the Fair closed for the day, and all the stifling crowds had departed.)

Having griped about all of that, but in the spirit of transparency—because of extra space needed to populate all of the shopping stalls, we had the delight of. entering a couple of areas that were off limits to us previously. One new feature we encountered was this Norman tympanum carved in 1135 above the “Prior’s Door” in an anteroom showing Christ in Majesty surrounded by creatures and plants of nature:

That discovery certainly made our experience worthwhile. (And yes, I bought a couple of things from the Fair booths. So sue me.)

Outside, a variety of beckoning food stalls were arranged just beyond the front porch. As disappointed as Robin was with hullabaloo inside, he lit up (as he always does) upon seeing the delicacies outdoors. He likes flavors! (I call him a "flavor whore.") We walked around and sampled all kinds of things, from curry sauce to vegan brownies.

He offered to buy me a “luxury hot chocolate,” and I said “yes!” Just look at all these fancy choices!

Except they were out of nearly every flavor… so I was robbed. (Robin promised to make it up to me at home sometime.)

Speaking of home, our “mouse count” increased by two. Ozzie likes to demonstrate his affection for Robin.

I had to view Stutz since we had access to Netflix. I know Phil Stutz in real life because I attended a few of the workshops they held in Barry Michel’s home about 10 years ago when The Tools was first published.

The academic in me was a little irritated because I felt as though Phil didn’t give enough credit to Jung while relying on many of his ideas (“shadow,” “higher power”), but at the same time I agreed with his philosophy about therapists needing to make active interventions (the way coaches do). I thought the documentary did a great job of portraying him “for real.” If you get a chance and you’re interested in psychology, I recommend you check it out!

Now, I had better wrap and get on the stick! I’m scheduled to present a paper at the upcoming IAJS virtual conference, titled: “The Trimorphic Ethoi of Psychological Types.” This will be a variation on the presentation I made about a month ago for the Australia APTi conference on psychological types, but it will be more academic and lacking all the fun interactivity. I’m scheduled to present on Saturday, December 3rd, at 12:30pm Eastern time; 9:30am Pacific time; 5:30pm UK time. You can view the full program by clicking here.

If you’d like to attend, you can sign up at Eventbrite. It should probably go without saying (but I'll say it anyway) that I would love to see you there!

warmly, -Dr. Vicky Jo

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