1 February 2015

Homesick for pilgrimage

I've often wondered whether it was possible to be truly homesick for a place that isn't really home. Last night, I got my answer: absolutely.

Part of our trip to the UK was a pilgrimage. We visited three cathedrals and several holy sites while we were over there. We started our pilgrimage on Christmas Day in NZ's northernmost Cathedral, Holy Trinity Auckland, which was pretty special as it was 200 years to the day since the preaching of the first Christian sermon in this land. We continued it with English cathedrals and holy places.

York Minister is jaw-droppingly beautiful. The feral GPS took us right into the centre of the old city within the walls - to the point that we nearly ran into the pedestrian-only zone through the Shambles (oops); but as a way to see the Cathedral, driving up Museum Street to the York Information Centre pretty much can't be beaten. The Minster just loomed up out of the frost, with the morning light behind it, shimmering on the golden stone, and the Heart of Yorkshire tracery in the Great Window catching the sun. Inside, it's even better. I literally had to scrape my jaw off the floor when we walked into the nave and looked up. I have never seen anything so lovely as those pillars of stone reaching for the sky, and the gilded bosses and ribbed ceiling. We did one of the guided tours, which was very interesting but quite long. I loved the crypt, with the tomb of St William of York (very simple, a single block of stone with a candle burning on it), and the ancient paintings. We went back later on that day for evensong in the quire. Candles, choir (a visiting choir - the Minster's one was on holiday but they were very good), and that thunderously gorgeous organ. Worship was a whole body experience: the feel of the organ, the smell of wax and candles, the music, the silence. Prayers offered for the prayer intentions left in the Minster. Very down to earth and grounded in reality, even in the midst of the glorious music.

Sheffield Cathedral on New Year's Day: very quiet and peaceful. Reminded me a lot of the feel of Wellington Cathedral of St Paul although it's much much older and looks nothing like Wellington's "big pink sarcophagus"! It's not one of the "famous" ones but it was very lovely. We liked the fact you could see the Norman, Gothic, and later additions very clearly, and it had a gorgeous chapel to the Holy Spirit that I particularly liked. It also had the coolest of all the nativities we saw: made of Sheffield steel, about 1.5m high, and somehow the makers had made that steel very winsome and gentle.

Grace Dieu Priory was not on our original itinerary: my sister-in-law suggested it as it was just up the road from their place near Loughborough. We got there by a very cold walk through English woods in the snow, which was interesting in itself: I was quite surprised by the lack of undergrowth, bushes etc - just trees, and they seemed fairly widely spaced. I don't think it was deliberately planted but it had a "managed" feel. The priory itself is a ruin, but it was beautiful. The stonework was all iced with thick snow, and the walls rose out of snowy fields. The late afternoon light was very kind to the stonework, and the whole place had a kind of breathless hush, almost as though it was waiting for something. It had the feel of a "thin place": it knew it had once been holy ground, and the sense of consecration was still there. It was very cold! Having the deep snow helped the sense of hush too. The pond beneath the priory was frozen solid (small daughter threw a good-sized rock just to make sure and it skidded for several metres!).

Most people wouldn't consider Stonehenge a holy place, but I do. Most modern scholarship seems to think that it, and the landscape around it, was holy to the prehistoric peoples, and that Stonehenge was a place of worship. I certainly sensed that when I was there: It is so old, so unbelievably old, and it was in use for over 1000 years for whatever the ancients did there. It has left a mark on both the physical landscape and the landscape of Spirit. I spent some time trying to listen to the place (rather difficult when it's swarming with tourists!). I got the sense that Stonehenge isn't quite sure what it is anymore, but that when it's quiet, after dark or at the turnings of the year, it would go back in time a long long way. It would be a place of awe, and to me, that's what worship is: finding the awe, the marks of our recognition of the numinous, in places, times, music, art, and people - the places where God has touched us and we have touched God.

I suspect the National Gallery isn't on a list of holy places for many people either, but there were so many wonderful works of art, many of them altarpieces or great artist's explorations of religious themes that it was definitely part of our pilgrimage. So many artists, so many places to go in the world through the art, so many themes of love and beauty, power and betrayal, peace and war and everything in between. Highlights too numerous to mention, but seeing Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael in the same building was pretty amazing, not to mention Holbein, Constable, Turner, Degas, and a whole lot more.

Westminster Abbey was a different kind of holy: the holiness of the ordinary, the holiness that we find through living our lives and contributing to society. It also turned into a very personal moment, when I found a shrine to one of my ancestors, and the tomb of another (a Dean of Westminster). Did not expect that at all! Partly because of the number of people there, it was hard to get a sense of the Abbey as a working church, except at the prayers on the hour (when one of the Canons requested everyone to be still for a few moments while they offered prayer). We didn't go to the prayers at St Edward the Confessor's tomb, although I did spend a few moments reflecting there. I found it hard to get a sense of the architecture too, because there were so many monuments and grave markers - I found some old friends, like CV Stanford, Howells, Dryden, Keats, Shakespeare, and rather endearingly, CS Lewis (no Tolkien though). Also Queens Elizabeth and Mary (in a shared grave, rather beautifully). Henry V, and Henry IV.

The jewel in the crown, and the finale of our pilgrimage, was Canterbury Cathedral itself. We were staying in the beautiful, peaceful Cathedral Lodge within the precincts of the Cathedral - it was tasteful, comfortable, and luxuriously beautiful in a very understated way. What was amazing was how the noise of the city just disappeared when you went through the walls into the precinct. The old city walls are stone and incredibly thick: the grounds are almost silent. The Cathedral opened on us like a revelation as we came through the gates from Quenensgate. After a very late lunch we went in. The sense of prayer and Presence hits you the moment you walk through the doors - there is a holy hush in the building not of any person's making. It just is. We were blessed enough to arrive about 15mins after Saturday evensong had begun (we got there about 3.30pm), so there was a tide of glorious music and resonant organ everywhere. We went to explore the crypt, beginning with praying at the Martyrdom of St Thomas Becket, and then visiting the various chapels in the crypt - all with evensong washing over us, even through the thick stone of the ancient Norman crypt. There are some very ancient wall paintings in one of the chapels that gave us a tiny sense of the riot of colour the Cathedral would have once been, but it was the atmosphere of the place that kept stilling us. The place where St Thomas' body lay, in the Chapel of St Mary of the Undercroft; the place where his tomb was before they built the shrine (that Henry VIII pulled down). The single candle that burns where the shrine once was. And of course the tomb of Edward the Black Prince. Over 1500 years of continuous prayer has marked this place. The very stones pray and praise.

The next day we went to choral eucharist there, in the quire, with the light blue and gold and red through the stained glass. Incense. Singing. Organ. Psalms sung to chant like I've never heard them before. Processions of readers, the Gospels, holy gifts. Receiving communion at the High Altar of Canterbury Cathedral. The taste of port on my lips, the holy body and blood. More singing, and hearing the purity of those boys' voices soaring in the Anthem.... Prayers, very down to earth, for ordinary blessings, ordinary pains, ordinary joys. Being encouraged to pray the Lord's Prayer in our own language - I started in Maori but got lost amongst all the English! Blessing the water for the holy water font. Finishing with Psalm 150 for the Recessional, soaking the stones in praise and prayer yet again.

And at the end of the service, gathering with Canon Nick in the Chapel of Our Lady of the Undercroft for our pilgrim blessing, giving thanks for the journey we had made and the one we were to make home. Holding Canterbury specially in my heart, trying not to cry as we left. None of us wanted to leave. Trying to carry Canterbury with me, St Thomas, the Martyrdom, the crypt, and the praise soaked into the stones.

Can I be homesick for a place I don't belong to? Yes, I can. I'm homesick for Canterbury. I am homesick for the Presence of that place, for the stillness, the silence, the beauty of the worship, the smell of incense, the thunder of the organ and boys' voices soaring in praise. Beautiful stone and light and glass. The warmth and kindness of the welcome we received from everyone. The place of martyrdom, destination of millions of pilgrims like us through the centuries. The place marked by God's presence and our recognition of God's presence.

Now I need to find those places here, find a way to bring it home to smalltown New Zealand, land of sheep, green fields and bright sunshine. It's going to be a long job.

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