The Pilgrim's Way 2017 pilgrimage to Canterbury

Each year I lead a parish pilgrimage along a path that has drawn other seekers over the centuries. It's one way I promote and continue to learn a pattern of life that I see as crucial to human spiritual flourishing: living life as pilgrimage, a progress toward deeper awareness of union with God, on the move yet rooted with each step, on a path that is not a dead-ended maze but a sure-ended labyrinth, always moving toward the center, both a solitary journey and best done in the company of others.

This year I joined with fellow priest Matthew Corkern and his group gathered through the Friends of Canterbury in the United States, traveling along the medieval route known as the Pilgrims Way, which begins in the old English capital city of Winchester, and ends in Canterbury. Along with the Camino to Santiago, Canterbury was one of the four major medieval pilgrimages in Europe, with pilgrims flocking to Thomas Becket's tomb after he was cut down in his cathedral by Henry II's men.

Modern pilgrims may not travel for the same reasons that Chaucer's pilgrims did, and certainly do not experience the extreme challenges they faced. Yet the journey can still be transformative, perhaps even more so as we discover that the holy is everywhere we go, not exclusively at the shrine of the saint. The journey itself becomes the destination. The dislocation of being out of our comfort zone on the road, and the clear intention to discover the Holy along the way, can trigger a surprising awareness of God's presence, often in the lives of those who travel with us. If we learn to find God in the "thin," liminal, luminous places of the road, we have new awareness to take back to the "thick" or murky places in our daily lives.

So: here are some snapshots of our journey, which can in no way communicate the fullness of our encounters. For that you'll just have to set out yourself. Walk on pilgrim!

Before the trip: a personal pilgrimage

I arrived in Britain a week early to spend time walking parts of this prehistoric trade route, before it became the Pilgrims Way. I visited Glastonbury, Wells, Sarum, Avebury and Stonehenge,
The group gathered from many distant corners - several of us came a few days early for reasons of family, business, sabbatical, or pleasure. We gathered in the serenely spare modern cathedral of Guildford (one of only two cathedrals built since the Reformation). It's on the Pilgrim's Way, and the dean commissioned us here for our journey ahead.

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.

We settle in at the Winchester bishop's medieval castle/palace at Farnham, now turned into a retreat center!

Evening reflection in the Norman chapel. This daily meeting is our anchor. Taking time to notice more carefully the day's experience and to listen to the experience and epiphanies of our fellow pilgrims - this changes the way we travel together. We begin to notice more fully that cascade of holiness in the daily moments (even through the jet lag and the current swelter of the 90-degree English heatwave!)

Day 2: setting out

June 20

Winchester is the old Anglo-Saxon capital of England, and was the principal starting point of the Pilgrims Way to Canterbury (it is based on a much older trail that follows a chalk ridge across lower England). It is still the place from which many walking pilgrimages set out.

We start just outside Winchester at St. Cross Hospital, the oldest charity in England, which was founded as a medieval "safety net" for those who had fallen on hard times - and it was a major collecting point for pilgrims from the west and south who were bound for Canterbury.

We join the brothers of St. Cross for Matins in their luminous chapel.
It has witnessed nine centuries of pilgrims and prayer, as the graffiti in the stalls attests!
They still observe the 800-year-old custom of the "pilgrims dole" of (Wonder) Bread and beer to us before we hike along the River Itchen into the city and cathedral.
Setting out...

It's hard to comprehend what the scale of the Winchester cathedral felt like to medieval country folk. It still overwhelms.

Winchester as Saxon/Norman England's capitol cathedral is littered with the tombs of powerful people who shaped the medieval pilgrimage to Canterbury. Modern pilgrims' favorite though remains Jane Austen, celebrating her 200th this year!

Day 3: into the flow

June 21

Today marks another beginning: we begin to walk miles and hours at a stretch, which breaks open the imagination and participation in this centuries-old path.

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!

The features are gone, but the glass color bears witness to a fascinating lineage of Black Madonnas throughout Europe
the chapel also holds the oldest decorative wood in England - the rail of the chantry has almost petrified by now!
The slit in the anchorite's cell facing toward the altar
I might have been a monk once, but I don't think I could last long in a cell too small to lie down in!
The boards of the prayer ledge literally worn away by prayer.

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.

Loseley House in the distance
The "thru-hiker" crew

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.

The ruins of St. Catherine's Chapel
Five counties visible from St. Martha's-On-the-Hill!

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!

Daily evening reflection
Followed by hearty pub fare!
Happy feet, tired feet

Day 4: Midpoint - Between Two Visions of the World

June 22

On a pilgrimage this brief, almost as soon as we have begun we are already at the midpoint! Today marks the halfway mark both in distance and days.

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.

The treasures of the Pilgrims Way are all these little country churches - the fresco inside survived because it had already been whitewashed over, and thus preserved from demolition, by the time of the Reformation, then rediscovered by the Victorians.

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).

The sparky parish priest explained the detail of the fresco, a vision which he said he appreciated but basically preached against every Sunday!

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.

More than a few trees are five people around!

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.

It's Midsummer in England, so the Morris Men are out in force at the pub where we have dinner - Javier and Kudzai even get into the mix!

Day 5: Companions on the Way

June 23

Today marks for us a more contemplative day, for us; as we come closer to Canterbury we cross paths and spend time in two great abbeys that were major centers on the pilgrimage route in its medieval heyday.

St. Mary's Abbey, West Malling

(This, incidentally, is the abbey where the knights who killed Becket tried to shelter once they left Canterbury)

Arriving at West Malling Abbey, now a community of cloistered Benedictine Anglican sisters.
We were given use of the chapel that has welcomed pilgrims since Becket's time.
Tea through the morning with the Abbess and Guest-sisters. Their hospitality was incredibly warm and engaging. This community has been known in the past as a powerhouse of liturgy and chant in the monastic world. Meeting the sisters, though now few in number, we saw an optimistic and charismatic energy. Our group commented on this morning for the rest of the trip.
We pray with them in their modern church that works really successfully with the medieval architecture surrounding it.
- being helped through the pages of some really poetic liturgy.
Crossing the Medway bridge into Aylesford - another great marker on the pilgrims way that puts medieval travelers just a stage away from canterbury!

Aylesford Priory

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.

A Carmelite friar welcomes us and blesses dinner.
The Priory close
Planning the final day after dinner
A night's rest in the pilgrims' rooms and the pack is loaded to continue onward!

Day 6: Arrival!

June 24

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!)

An old Roman fort lies beneath us, we read on a board.
Old - and new - apple orchards along the way
George always goes on pilgrimage!
Like walking through the Shire!
My favorite pilgrim!

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).

The central tower of the cathedral
St. Dunstan's outside the walls
The chapel where More's head is interred and where King Henry began his pilgrimage to Becket's shrine

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 clean up well!

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.

Day 7: Pilgrims Rest

June 25

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!

Day 8: Reflection and return

June 26

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.

Looking up into the Bell Harry tower
St. Gabriel's chapel in the crypt, where the Norman period architecture and frescos show what the whole cathedral once looked like.
The candle that holds the space where the Becket's shrine stood until Henry VIII demolished it and forbade pilgrimages to the shrine.
(Waking each morning to this view from our cathedral lodge rooms has been startling and delightful!)

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.

On the lawn of the deanery
In the drawing room learning more about Canterbury through the story of the building that has housed every dean in Canterbury's history.

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!

In the cloisters outside the chapter room.
At the martyrdom of Thomas Becket
Through the many rooms of the crypt
And finally to the chair of St. Augustine, the seat of the archbishop since the 13th century.
Going on pilgrimage is always like drinking from a fire hose - it's too much to take in all at once, especially these pinnacle moments. It's later, and more subtly, that the significance of these moments may begin to reveal their meaning...
The real purpose of traveling is to return. The true destination of every journey is home... -G.K.Chesterton

The next day this good company breaks up and begins that modern whiplash of planes, trains, and automobiles that brings us back home to our daily lives in a fraction of the time it took us to get here.

Pilgrimage is a sign of contradiction, and of resistance to our prevailing value system, that of the market. Pilgrimage, after all, has no function other than itself; its means is as important as its end, its process as its product. Its utility value is small, and its benefits cannot be quantified or costed. Its value is intrinsic. It is something that is good to do because it is good to do. It states clearly that the extravagant gesture (because it is extravagant in terms of time and commitment) is an irrepressible part of what it means to be human and to walk on the earth. And whether the context for pilgrimage is solitude or community, we will be drawn deeper into the mystery of God and the care of creation. —Kathy Galloway (past warden of the Iona community)
the pilgrimage ends; the journey continues! Click below for more on our last pilgrimage, Iona, and the next one, Ethiopia!

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