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 ...

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