Sacred Places Journal
13 October, 2001: London to Canterbury: The Pilgrim Way
"Right. Now it's just you and me, God." With a hug and final instructions from Elizabeth, I set out - alone for the first time on my pilgrimage. Pilgrims always travelled in groups - for convenience, for safety, for companionship, even for entertainment in Chaucer's case. I think about the delightful companions of friends and family I've had and feel as I did when Elizabeth, our last, left for college and our son worried about my husband's and my being "out without adult supervision."
But Margery Kempe was forced to make part of her pilgrimage - the bit over the Alps- in a blizzard, alone. Well, almost alone - she did get an elderly priest to accompany her. She was forced to do so by the party of pilgrims who objected to her fits of holy weeping when overtaken with a mystical vision. (She got her own back, though. Years later when her home town was about to burn down, people implored her to "Cry. Cry louder. Implore God to save us." She did. And He did. A miraculous blizzard saved the town.)
The first time I went to Canterbury, and another, our then-four-year-old daughter and our then-eleven-year-old son were with me. I drove through rain so heavy we couldn't see any of the lush green countryside. Kent is called the Garden of England, but all of England seems a garden to me. Our daughter's one memory of the day is of my stepping on a loose paving stone and getting soaked to the knees in Canterbury's yellow mud. My next time at Canterbury I was meeting our then-college-age sons as they came across from the continent. Today I'm to meet the Rev. Dr. Michael Chandler, Canon Treasurer of Canterbury Cathedral (take a virtual tour), to learn about the place of this grand cathedral in today's world.
Dr. Chandler explains that he is one of four or five senior clergy who, with the Dean, make up the governing body of the cathedral. I ask him how a great cathedral like Canterbury functions to bring people to God.
"If all the language we use falls short of what God is like, and ultimately, it must," he says, "then ultimately we must find God in space. I think churches must reflect that. What sort of God are we going to proclaim in a place like this? We can be more flexible if we let the space itself do some of the proclaiming."
Cathedrals proclaim the transcendence of God. "Cathedrals will always be places that are slightly aloof - we'll never be warm and cuddly, but we can be friendly. There is theology behind the Gothic architecture that was designed to let Light in: to show people different aspects of God. We can do a certain amount of taking people by the hand, but we must trust God to do the showing in the end."
The story of how it all started has been told so many times: How Henry II made Thomas Becket, his best friend and companion in drinking and wenching, Archbishop of Canterbury. "Do not do this, Henry," Thomas pleaded, but Henry would have his way. He wanted an archbishop who wouldn't work against him.
Thomas turned out to be a very fine archbishop, true to his job to defend the church - even against the king. In a fit of pique Henry cried out, "Will someone not rid me of this troublesome priest?" Four of his knights took this as orders to commit murder. They rode straight to Canterbury and murdered Thomas in his cathedral - as the monks were singing vespers.
Two years later Becket was made a saint, and the pilgrimages began.
Of course, no one has told the story of pilgrimage better than Geoffrey Chaucer, the Father of English Literature, who himself made pilgrimage from Southwark, along the Pilgrim Way to Canterbury. In Canterbury today one can sample much of the flavor of Chaucer's experience in the Canterbury Tales Visitor Attraction which recreates the journey, complete with pilgrim tale-telling.
Then I go onward to the Eastbridge Hospital, established in the 12th century to provide food and shelter for poor pilgrims, infirm persons, and lying-in women. Eight elderly people still live here today, and services are still held in both of the chapels.
From this taste of the medieval world I step out into the marketplace during the Canterbury Festival - entertainers, sellers of tokens - nothing has changed but the peoples' clothing-and the smell.
Stunningly, my room at Cathedral Gate Hotel overlooks the cathedral. The hotel was built as a hostel for pilgrims in 1438, so I hardly need the Canterbury Tales Attraction to get the real pilgrim experience - except that my room has a real bed - no straw, no fleas, and there is a toilet across the hall.
Canon Richard Marsh of Canterbury Cathedral spoke of people finding wombs in the cathedral-special places that enfold them and speak to them of God. In spite of the hubbub in the sanctuary overhead where a rehearsal is underway for a Paul Robeson memorial concert (with his son in attendance) as part of the festival tonight, I find such a womb in the Chapel of Our Lady Undercroft in the crypt. A lovely, quiet statue of Mary in the reredos behind the altar creates a perfect place to pray for my daughters. Several others pause to kneel and pray while I do the same.
Shrine of Becket's martyrdom in Canterbury Cathedral
Just at the top of the stairs I pause at the small shrine marking the place of Becket's martyrdom with a powerful sculpture of jagged, broken swords forming a cross.
In the end, if course, the only way to get really acquainted with a cathedral is to worship in it. Evensong is well attended, with almost all the quire seats filled. The row in front of me is occupied by a Sunday School class from nearby Chatham. They can't be more than six years old, and they're very good. I think of Canon Marsh's saying that when one is the duty canon and obliged to attend every cathedral service, that means thirty sung Evensongs straight, and one begins to long for a simple spoken prayer service. I suppose it could become like too much chocolate-covered marzipan, but it's hard to imagine.
After Evensong I make the obligatory pilgrim's walk up behind the chancel, up into the apse past the tomb of the Black Prince, to the vast open space, filled only with a lighted candle to mark the spot where Thomas Becket's golden, jewel-encrusted shrine stood for four centuries until another Henry - the eighth of that name - ordered it destroyed.
In the glowing dusk I go back to my amazing, tiny eyrie of a room, and from my crooked bed - or is it just that the floor is crooked? - I look out over the red-tiled rooftops as the lights come on, flooding the golden cathedral (see photo).