Canterbury Trials #10 To Be a Pilgrim

Today, we met with Archbishop Rowan again–when he saw us in the Cathedral this afternoon, he came over, winked and said, “We’ve got to stop meeting like this.” Sadly, we will. This was our last time with him. Amazing man. I think he should make a Canadian lecture tour once he’s nicely settled in Cambridge. What do you think?

Anyway, I’ve been thinking about pilgrimages. For two reasons.

First, that’s what this conference is, if not for all of us, certainly for the majority and certainly for me. I wasn’t joking a couple of posts back when I said this was my ad limina. It really was. It was a pilgrimage to the mother church, to the throne of St. Augustine, to cement in my own mind and heart, the vows I took before God, vows taken for the welfare of this global community as one of its priests, vows lived out in a community that gathers for worship at the Church of the Epiphany in Sudbury.

Second, the conference has been surrounded by pilgrimages. We watched The Way about Thomas Avery’s pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago de Compostella; we walked 10km of the ancient Pilgrims’ Way from Chilham to Canterbury; we celebrated the millennial anniversary of the translation of St. Alphage to his current resting place at the north end of the high altar–a translation that was a penitential pilgrimage for King Canut; we met this afternoon with Kurt Cardinal Koch and talked about the ongoing pilgrimage that is the ecumenical dialogue between Anglicans and Roman Catholics.

The conclusion I’ve come to–whether it’s earth-shattering or not, I’ll leave to you to decide–is that I much prefer the metaphor of pilgrimage to journey for the Christian life. I was never comfortable with the latter, which has become a trope in Christian (and other) spirituality. I used to think the discomfort was simply a result of the ubiquitous nature of the metaphor. We share our journeys. We are all at different stages on our journeys. We may have to journey apart even if we would prefer to journey together. We, it seems, can’t ever stop talking about our journeys long enough to just, well, walk somewhere.  If I might paraphrase a bricklayer from Texas, “blah blah blah, journey, blah blah blah.”

But over the week, my discomfort has become more specific. I don’t like journey because journey can, and often does, leave me in charge. I can journey to Toronto; you can journey to Iqaluit; we may for a time journey together, but in the end, we’re headed to different directions. I can journey alone or I can journey with a group. Journey is all too often all about me on my great voyage of self discovery.

Not so the pilgrim. The pilgrim has a definite destination, whether to the gate of heaven that is (or at least was) the Shrine of St. Thomas Beckett at Canterbury Cathedral where the knees of millions of pilgrims have worn a grooves in the marble, or Santiago de Compostella where pilgrims’ hands have worn a pillar at the entry. As a pilgrim, I am going somewhere. And specifically, I’m going to heaven.  And on this very specific journey, I am not in charge.  I have, like another Pilgrim, entered at the narrow gate.

The pilgrim never journeys alone. Medieval pilgrims travelled in groups for the very practical need of safety. But even today, pilgrimage–the real thing–is not a solitary undertaking. It is an even undertaken by a community, and that community is constituted by the common destination. Thomas Avery would never have befriended Joost, Sarah, or Jack from Ireland based on common interests or likeability or anything else. What brought them together was the Camino. I am not alone on my pilgrimage; I am part of a community. I am part of a community constituted by our common Lord and our common destination. Left to my own devices, I may not have chosen this community as my travelling companions. But like I said, I’m not in charge.

Third, the language of pilgrimage helps challenge the narcissism that drives so much of the spirtuality of our age. Self-discovery certainly happens on the pilgrimage–you’ve read about a fair bit of mine. But at the end of the day, self-discovery isn’t the point of a pilgrimage. God-discovery is. And God and I have connected. No, no Damascus-road or otherwise charistmatic (small “c”) connections. But a quite, growing sense of confidence that I am where God has called me and, whatever discomforts lie ahead, I will face them with God’s blessing and presence.

A couple of days back, we sang Percy Dearmer’s adaptation of John Bunyan’s hymn, “To Be a Pilgrim.” I’ll end this post with his words:

He who would valiant be ’gainst all disaster, Let him in constancy follow the Master. There’s no discouragement shall make him once relent His first avowed intent to be a pilgrim.

Who so beset him round with dismal stories Do but themselves confound—his strength the more is. No foes shall stay his might; though he with giants fight, He will make good his right to be a pilgrim.

Since, Lord, Thou dost defend us with Thy Spirit, We know we at the end, shall life inherit. Then fancies flee away! I’ll fear not what men say, I’ll labor night and day to be a pilgrim.


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