Working our way toward our starting point of Winchester, we stop in at the parish church of St. Andrew, Farnham, which had been an actual pilgrims lodging for medieval pilgrims. With passion and depth, the lay-reader, Andrew, took us around the church on a mini-pilgrimage, and gave us more tools to "read" the country churches we will visit along our way to Canterbury.
Our journey starts at St. Nicholas, Compton, an extraordinary early-Norman country church built along the Pilgrim's Way, with an anchorite's cell and an upstairs chantry above the altar. Behind the altar is the oldest stained glass in England, depicting of all things a Black Madonna!
Anchoring this extraordinary church was some extraordinary hospitality as well. We joined them for Eucharist and some amazing flapjack. That kind of welcome carries powerful, sacramental depth when one is on the road.
Our walking takes us through forests and fields, past medieval manor houses and ruined churches - someone commented that so much of it looked like a set from Game of Thrones! We have drop off points so everyone who wants to walk the pilgrims way can choose the path that fits their interest. There are as many journeys here as there are pilgrims.
What is less visible to the camera is the bonds that are beginning to form within the group. In ones and twos on the road, and and in the group each evening when we reflect on the day, our perspectives weave together in an emerging tapestry of collective experience and growing care for one another.
Our sense of being in liminal space/time increases; we are in the in-between, transformational space somewhere between home and destination. Small gestures and moments become precious gifts and full of Presence. Time and place start to become generally "thinner," to use a Celtic reference - the connections between visible and invisible worlds become stronger, the boundaries become more ephemeral. And all this by just walking and talking together - and paying attention to the smallest of moments!
We began today at a medieval country church, Sts. Peter & Paul, Chaldon, which is exactly halfway on the 120-mile Pilgrims Way between Winchester and Canterbury.
Inside is an extraordinary fresco that fills the length of the back wall; it was a lesson for the pilgrims on their way to Canterbury. It's called the Ladder of Salvation, and depicts the soul's progress toward/away from God (through Hell and Purgatory).
From there we moved on to the manor house at Knole, next to which medieval pilgrims would have camped in the safety of the fields, and from where our walking group set out.
Part of our path was beatific, through the deer parks and forests of the manor, and the next part was a narrow strip on a busy side-road clogged with traffic, so different than it's medieval predecessor. It was a mix a lot like life.
Our whole group came together again mid-afternoon, when we arrived at another country church on the Pilgrims Way: All Saints, Tudeley.
Here we encountered another important piece of art covering the wall, this time the inspired work of Marc Chagall in stained glass. He was depicting a drowned girl (for whom the window was commissioned), surrounded by those who loved her. As in the fresco, Jacob's Ladder figures prominently, ready to carry her to a Christ whose hands are not nailed but held open in welcome. For Chagall blue is the color of Love, and yellow (the south windows) the color of resurrection. The two colors combine in a liminal glow, and it was impossible to miss his point!
Those two pieces of art that book-ended our mid-point day have quite a lot to say, separately and together. One of my mentors, Rick Fabian, says that "Worship begins in awe (the fear of God) and ends in affection." Another mentor, Richard Rohr, speaks to how early-stage religion tends to use fear of punishment as it's motivating principle, and as religion matures it moves toward friendship with God and a sense of innate union with the holy. All good raw material for reflection on our ongoing journey.
This is an extraordinary living relic of the medieval pilgrimage. Once again in the hands of the Cistercian Friars, it is a fully functioning pilgrims hospice, and we ate in the pilgrim's dining hall and slept in their 15-century bunk rooms. Just inhabiting the same space as 700 years of pilgrims before us makes our rooms resonant with a larger journey and company of saints. Time itself seems thin! It's primitive in one way and luxurious in so many others.
The Pilgrim's Way passes by the front door of the parish church of St. Mary's, Chilham - which contains the sarcophagus legend remembers to have sheltered Augustine's relics at the dissolution of the monasteries (now empty, but still contains great mystique!)
From there we set out on the final stage of the route, walking to Canterbury through a gentle unfolding of fields and woods (punctuated by a hearty pub lunch!)
The greenspace holds until we are just outside Canterbury and the bell tower rises up suddenly as we descend the last hill. The Pilgrim's Way becomes the old London Road as we arrive at St. Dunstan's, the church outside the walls where Henry II donned his hair shirt and walked barefoot to Becket's shrine after his murder. (The crypt also holds Thomas More's head, picked from the spike at London Bridge after his martyrdom by Henry VIII - it's a resonant place to reflect on the relationship of church and state, and the power of conscience).
A quick shower and a change of clothes, and we walk through the gate to the cathedral, just in time for Evensong (on the feast of John the Baptist - like Thomas Becket and Thomas More, another celebrated martyr in the conflict of Conscience and State!)
We have arrived, but that is at best a provisional and nuanced statement for the pilgrim. What achievement is there in this arrival? Is arrival static like parking a car in the garage? What about the return journey? How do we take stock of the soul's more subtle journey over the past week? As we settle in over the next couple of days and dig deeper into the history and meaning of Canterbury, these will be the quieter, interior questions circling around us.
Today is Sunday, and it naturally falls to us as a day of rest and reflection. After joining the cathedral congregation for worship, we walked a quarter mile up the hill, past the ruins of St. Augustine's Abbey, to St. Martin's, the church where it (Imperial Christianity in Britain) all started.
Queen Bertha was given this chapel by her husband, King Ethelbert, and she invited Pope Gregory to send more Roman missionaries to this Angle-Saxon corner of England. St. Augustine arrived in 597, and the chapel has never closed since, making it the oldest continuously used church in Britain.
In that humble little chapel made of reused Roman brick and crude Saxon stone we recited our baptismal promises and blessed ourselves with water from the Saxon font. It felt as "large" a space as the cathedral itself!
Today during the morning we explored the Cathedral deeply, learning its history more fully as well as absorbing the texture of this complex and resonant place. It is far more to us than a cathedral of stone and light, like other cathedrals. It's meaning is held in the way it gathers such a diverse and worldwide community together to call it home.
After an afternoon revisiting favorite places on our own, then choral Evensong and our final reflection gathering, we are graciously invited to the Dean's home for dinner.
After dinner, Dean Willis led us on a evening pilgrimage through the cathedral in candlelight, taking us yet deeper into the meaning of this place. I expect for most of us this cathedral pilgrimage instantly became an indelible memory!