Sermon given at Sung Eucharist for the National Pilgrimage to the Shrine of St Edward the Confessor 2011
15 October 2011 at 11:00 am
The Right Reverend Michael Langrish, Bishop of Exeter
For me, one of the ‘must see’ films of this year is 'The Way' starring Martin Sheen. Sheen plays Tom, an affluent, but emotionally withdrawn Californian eye doctor whose adult son, Daniel, goes off to walk the Camino de Santiago, the Spanish pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostella. Daniel is then killed in a freak accident. Tom flies to the French-Spanish border, has the body cremated and, wondering what do with his son’s kit, he puts it on and decides to walk the route himself, taking Daniel’s ashes with him. On the walk, a walk that truly becomes a pilgrimage, Tom places himself in his son’s shoes, and grudgingly starts to open up to other people, to God and, finally, to himself. The outer journey gradually leads to, and becomes, an inner journey too.
The whole idea of making a pilgrimage is very powerful and one that seems to have captured people's minds in so many different times and places. In Mediaeval times, the shrine of Edward the Confessor here, together with that of St Thomas a Becket in Canterbury, and the little house of Mary in Walsingham were the great pilgrimage destinations. Here in England it might have all seemed to die out after the Middle Ages, but the idea of the pilgrim journey continued to grip the imagination - as Pilgrim's Progress, one of great classics of English Puritan spirituality clearly shows. Nor is the idea confined to Christianity: Moslems have continued to aim at journeying to Mecca at least once in a life time. In India I saw plenty of evidence of Hindus making the long pilgrimage often on foot to Varanasi (Benares) and other holy places of the Indus and Ganges rivers. Nowadays pilgrimages to places like Iona, Walsingham, Holy Island, and Glastonbury once more are once again back in vogue.
But why? Let me suggest three reasons.
Firstly, people went on pilgrimage quite simply because there are such things as very special places. Read any biography of George McLeod, who restored the great Abbey church and founded a new community on Iona, and you find him constantly speaking of that island as just such a "thin place"; a place of tangible prayer and service, where the veil between time and eternity, between the physical and the spiritual, between this world and the Other, between humanity and God, is just that - very thin - almost transparent. It’s is a place where you just are very close to God. Many of the great places of pilgrimages are just like that, but so are many lesser known places as well, including a little country parish church in Warwickshire where I was once the parish priest, and where in that lovely, simple Norman building, I would see people stop and catch their breath and say "In this place people have prayed - you can feel it in the stones - truly God is in this place" So pilgrimages then are journeys to "thin places" - places of encounter with God.
But it’s not just the goal of the pilgrimage that is important, but the process - what actually happens on the way to these places matters as well.
The first thing that seems to happen is learning. To travel on with a wide variety of different people from different places, with different experiences and different stories, but really united in a common goal will, if you will allow it, always be (and it certainly is for Martin Sheen in ‘The Way’), an education and a transformation in itself. It becomes a way of opening windows of fresh understanding on to others, on to oneself, and on to God.
Spending time with the same people, really getting to know them, sharing their joys and sorrows, really entering into their lives, and letting them into yours, begins to produce that precious thing called fellowship, something which goes beyond mere friendship - valuable as that may be - but becomes a deep sense of belonging to one another, with a real sense of mutual responsibility for one another's lives, and produces community, common participation in the Holy Spirit of God.
Then, thirdly, one of the great merits of making a pilgrimage in the past was that they enabled you to travel steadily and slowly, without rushing; and when that happens it also allows you time to think, to develop, to meditate, and to pray. The Celtic church talked about Peregrini, pilgrims who travelled slowly quite content to "waste time with God." And that, I would suggest, is, especially in our contemporary culture, perhaps the most vital ingredient of all. We are so busy, so rushed, and even a pilgrimage like today’s can become a thing of tight schedules, catching trains, meeting up with buses, constantly chattering about all that we have left behind, and what will occupy us in the week ahead. Whereas what any pilgrimage needs is time; time to linger, time to listen, time to let go and let God. Stillness, prayer and simplicity – these constitute the deep bedrock along which any committed spiritual traveller dedicated to following in the way of Christ must go. Being Peregrini – pilgrims who have the time for real encounter - this is the starting point, the vital first steps of reconnection with self, with others and with God. As Tom, in the film, discovered, a true pilgrimage is never just an outer one, it takes us deep into an inner pilgrimage, an inner journey of discovery and transformation too. But that journey is always the most difficult one, which is why like so many of the pilgrims in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, it is so much easier to keep it all at a distance- out there - so that what we may call a ‘pilgrimage’ becomes, in reality, no different from any other journey that we have to make, to work, to family, to friends, day by day.
But when a journey is a true pilgrimage, a place of encounter with God, a place of encounter with others, a time of learning and change, it is not only the pilgrims themselves that are affected, but those whom they meet on the way as well.
I saw something of this in a modern 'pilgrimage' when a few years back I joined the "Walk of a Thousand Men" along Offa's dyke - the old dividing line between England and Wales. In my group a dozen men in walking boots and bright red sweaters, going into a small country pub for a drink - without anything being said, nevertheless produced a response. People wanted to know what we were doing, why we were there, and then the work of personal witness, the telling of the story of Jesus could begin. The mere discovery of an ex-Ulster terrorist and a current member of the RUC walking and praying side by side was enough to be a life changing experience for one girl who had thought that real forgiveness and reconciliation could never be something for her.
And just one last thing about the pilgrimage that has brought us all to this ancient place of pilgrimage today – if it is truly about an inward journey, into self, into relationships, into God, then the journey doesn’t stop with our departure from here or even our return to our homes. For the Christian, the one who is in Christ, the journey, the pilgrimage, cannot stop anywhere short of heaven. The Medieval pilgrims who came to kneel at Edward’s shrine here knew this full well. The destination of their earthly pilgrimage, they knew, was there most of all to offer them a glimpse of heaven, but the journey in Christ, to be with Christ in the heavenly banquet, went on; as ours does too.
We are called to be pilgrims, Peregrini, who travel and linger with Christ, in a way that enables us to go on learning, and to go on growing to more fully reflect the life of Christ in us as we continue to journey through all the vicissitudes of this world. And all the time remembering that we still press forward to our goal, which is that final place of true encounter with God, where we shall see him face to face, in his kingdom and his glory, his majesty and his might, for ever and ever. Amen.