Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Pilgrimage ... Part II

Well, it's "Back to School" time this week. Our girls are back in school - one in 4th grade and one in 7th. Hard to believe it's only been 2 weeks since we were in England.

I confess I do miss the worship in England. I guess partly because I could sit back and enjoy it instead of having to do it all myself. But partly because I do like traditional worship and my environment right now is anything but traditional. I miss the music most of all. Me and my guitar just don't hold a candle to the men and boys choir of St. Thomas the Apostle in Leicester!

Which reminds me of the "thinnest" place on our trip. We spent the last 3 days in England up in York. The spirituality of York is more Celtic than Roman (even though the Roman Basilica's northwest corner is under the York Minster's tower!). Roman ruins are everywhere, but the ecclesiology of this part of England was shaped by the Celtic spirituality of people like St. Cuthbert, St. William, James the Deacon and Hilda of Whitby (the last of whom is depicted on the covering to the font at York Minster carrying a crozier!). Anyway, there's a more mystical spirit in York than I found anywhere else.

The night before we left England, we went to Evensong at York Minster. The choir of St. Thomas the Apostle were singing the service and it was August 15 - the Feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary ... so it was "smells and bells" all the way! The procession entered the quire where we were seated and the choir was vested in classic Anglican style - ruffled collars, red cassocks and white cottas. When the cantor intoned, "O LORD, open thou our lips," the choir responded in exquisite harmony "And our mouth shall shew forth thy praise!" Our youngest daughter's eyes were like saucers. She poked me in the side and whispered, "Whoa!" Whoa is right!

The service was gorgeous and our girls were caught up in it. Our 12 year old was blase (but that's all part of the "being 12" thing), but our 8 year old said afterwards, "I so TOTALLY felt God there!" That's the point ... worship is supposed to transport you outside yourself and connect you with the divine.

I guess that's why I can't really be a full-throttle Protestant. Of course, a true Protestant would point to my need for this kind of worship as proof of my weak faith - after all, such "popish" things are only spiritual crutches. Perhaps that's true, but my experience of Protestant worship is that it spends more time intellectualizing about God than experiencing God. Now that's just one woman's opinion, but that's how I feel. There's a heavy emphasis on Scripture and preaching, but the sacraments and liturgy are more spartan. In fairness, my Protestant brothers and sisters do have some great preaching ... but after the sermon, then what? Don't get me wrong, preaching is important, but it cannot stand alone for me.

The whole of the liturgy stands outside time and space in a way that preaching alone doesn't. It transcends me and my milieu. It connects me with those who have gone before ... and those who will come after I'm long gone. It shapes me, even if I'm not aware of it.

Someone once said of the Anglican liturgy, "You work the words and the words work you." It's an experiential spirituality rather than a dogmatic one. It's a thin place for me ... and my family too.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Pilgrimage ... Part 1

I've been offline for a couple of weeks now as beloved husband and I took our two daughters to England for a long overdue vacation. Of course, to go to England as an Episcopalian is more than a vacation ... it's a pilgrimage of sorts back to your Anglican roots.

As for me, I would have been in every cathedral and church I could find. Of course, that wasn't going to fly with our 12 and 8 year old daughters. So we negotiated ... some cathedrals ... some "fun stuff" ... and I think we found a balance. Even in going to the cathedrals, we found the tours to be pretty "kid friendly" overall. Of course, the cathedrals and abbeys with Roman connections or ties to Harry Potter in any way made these buildings more "cool" to our kids than we had anticipated. So places like Lacock Abbey (below) where the classroom scenes from Hogwarts were filmed suddenly became interesting!

I'm really not an "ecclesiastical geek" per se, but I have found through my travels that if you want to know a people, go to where they feed their spiritual lives. Going to historic sites grounded in nationalistic history (castles, manor houses, monuments and the like) are all well and fine and will teach you much about the people. But to really know them, visit their worship sites. Granted, I've only really tested this theory of mine in churches; however, I suspect if I visit a place where another faith is in the majority, I would find a similar phenomenon. I sense this is because where people worship speaks to the deeper needs and desires of the people, needs which transcend familial or nationalistic ties. It doesn't mean the familial and nationalistic bonds aren't in churches (just look at family names on stained glass windows or memorial plaques honoring war dead), but there's more going on in churches beyond those ties.

The architecture and decor of worship sites encompass a greater scope of the human experience. It feels like the whole of humanity laid before God ... the famous and the heroic, the unknown and the anonymous. I think the writer of Sirach (44.3 - 9) sums it up well:
There were those who ruled in their kingdoms, and made a name for themselves by their valor; those who gave counsel because they were intelligent; those who spoke in prophetic oracles; those who led the people by their counsels and by their knowledge of the people's lore; they were wise in their words of instruction; those who composed musical tunes, or put verses in writing; rich men endowed with resources, living peacefully in their homes-- all these were honored in their generations, and were the pride of their times. Some of them have left behind a name, so that others declare their praise. But of others there is no memory; they have perished as though they had never existed; they have become as though they had never been born, they and their children after them.
These places I've found are what the Celtic people describe as "thin places," places where God's presence is palpable. Sometimes a "thin place" is an internal experience based on a person's spiritual state ... sometimes it's a physical location like the ford of the Jabbok when Jacob wrestles with the angel in Genesis 32.

I found several "thin places" for me on this trip and often in unexpected places. And places which had felt "thin" on my last trip 20 years ago, really didn't feel that way this time. Westminster Abbey was one of those places where I had felt much awe and beauty 20 years ago, but this time it felt more like a museum than a spiritual space. St. Paul's was another story. More on that later ...