Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 6th October 2013
6 October 2013 at 10:00 am
The Venerable Dr Jane Hedges, Canon in Residence
I wonder what has brought you here this morning. For a small number of you, this is your regular place of worship; however most of the people we welcome to Westminster Abbey come here as visitors and they come for a variety of reasons.
Many people are drawn here by the magnificent architecture, or by the rich history of the place taking us back through the last thousand years; some come to hear the choir and to be caught up in the beauty of the liturgy; while others come at a particularly significant moment in their lives ~ perhaps celebrating a special occasion or seeking guidance from God.
Just the other day I received a letter from a visitor who’d come with a personal issue and joined in with prayers being offered at the Shrine of St Edward the Confessor, up here behind the High Altar. She described the outcome of her time in the Abbey as “almost miraculous”.
The Dean and Chapter here at Westminster have a vision for turning our visitors into pilgrims and during this month of October in my sermons at Matins I want to explore in a little more depth what it means to be a pilgrim.
Today we’ll look briefly at the history of pilgrimage and what it is that draws people to “Holy Places”.
Next Week on the Feast Day of St Edward the Confessor himself we’ll look at the significance of his life and witness to Christ and why his Shrine plays such an important part in our day to day lives here at the Abbey.
Then on the final Sunday of the month as we draw towards All Saints Day we’ll take a look at some of the other major pilgrimage sites in Britain, at the saints associated with them and the inspiration they can offer to us in the twenty first century.
Over the last twenty to thirty years making a pilgrimage has become increasingly popular and in this century in particular the numbers of people of all faiths doing so has continued to rise, with the most popular sites receiving an estimated 200 million visitors between them every year.
So there are now many travel companies who specialise in Pilgrim Tours to sites all over the world ~ transporting people by air, rail, road and sea to explore new places, to experience different cultures, to encourage personal spiritual growth and to realise their dreams. But for people in the past going on a pilgrimage would have been a rather different experience.
Within the Christian tradition down through the centuries millions have journeyed to the Holy Land to walk in the footsteps of Jesus himself, and many will have made much of that journey on foot and across the seas, facing the dangers of storms and shipwrecks, of bandits and pirates, of disease and injury.
During the periods of history when the Holy Land became inaccessible, or simply too dangerous to visit, other sites grew in importance ~ St Peter’s in Rome housing the tomb of the saint, being regarded as the most sacred in Europe, and Santiago de Compostela in Spain also drawing many people to walk long distances across the Pyrenees and Pecos Mountains to worship at the traditional resting place of St James the Great.
For those in Britain who couldn’t travel to foreign lands, sites closer to home became popular such as the Shrine of Thomas a Becket in Canterbury. Geoffrey Chaucer, buried just over there in Poet’s Corner immortalised the journey made by a group of those pilgrims when he wrote the Canterbury Tales in the late fourteenth century.
But what drew people in the past to make a pilgrimage and why do so many people today embark on such journeys?
The answer to these questions is a huge variety of reasons. Often pilgrimages were made as a penance ~ seeking forgiveness and reconciliation with God and their fellows; sometimes people made these journeys to sites which had become associated with healing miracles ~ places such as Lourdes in France and our own Shrine here in the Abbey, where the blind in particular believed their prayers to St Edward helped to restore their sight.
Others embarked on challenging journeys in order to fulfil a vow or promise, and many pilgrims set out to reach a holy site in order to receive assurance of a place in heaven.
Being a pilgrim for many meant engaging with a struggle ~ against the elements, against inner fears and temptation and even against what they saw as the outer forces of evil. This is certainly expressed powerfully by John Bunyan in his seventeenth-century hymn, “To be a Pilgrim” where he speaks of fighting with giants, having to labour night and day in order to follow the Master.
It’s important to note as we look at the history of pilgrimage that it was not only reaching the goal itself which mattered to people; their experiences on the journey and their fellowship with other pilgrims was of equal importance.
And I believe that people making pilgrimages today experience this very powerfully too. My colleague, Father Michael and I led a large group a few months ago to the sites of the seven churches of Asia, of which we hear in the book of Revelation.
Visiting the places and reflecting on the messages to the people who’d lived there back in biblical times was an important aspect of the pilgrimage. However, I suspect that the thing that people remember most about a pilgrimage such as that, is the relationships they developed with their fellow pilgrims:
The conversations, new things learned, the corporate worship and perhaps most important of all, the care people gave to each other ~ the group looking out in particular for the less able and more vulnerable people in the party.
But place is undoubtedly important, as well as the people.
In a recently published book, The Extra Mile ~ a Twenty-First-Century Pilgrimage; Peter Stanford, a Roman Catholic writer and broadcaster describes his journeys to eight holy sites in Britain ~ Stonehenge, Bardsey Island, the Wells of Derbyshire, Walsingham, Holywell, Iona, Lindisfarne and Glastonbury. So most of them associated with the Christian faith but some pre-Christian.
In his book he tried to analyse what exactly it is about a place which draws people back again and again. He came up with three particular factors.
The first for him is the opportunity in many of these places to be silent and still. The second is the mystery which surrounds them, encouraging the use of ones imagination to think about what might have happened there in the past.
The third he describes as being aware of an unformed presence, hovering at the edge of his senses. He writes:
“It is nothing as crass as ghosts or unquiet spirits … but just as illogical in our sceptical, scientific and secular age. The complete disconnection with the modern world gives me a sense of walking in the footsteps of people of faith in ages past; of joining a human chain that draws me towards … well, towards their faith. It is I accept a hard one to put into words without sounding pious”.
He goes on to talk about how he believes that people today often yearn for something other, something beyond the narrow confines of the here and now, of this life, of the consumerism, and of the relativist values of this world.
He also said this of the eight pilgrim sites he visited ~ “What they all have in common, I discovered as I worked my way round them, is that something is stirring there”.
What we all might like to ask ourselves this morning is what stirs us? Are we open to embarking on a journey which will take us out of ourselves and draw us closer to the mystery of God?