I have just returned from what turns out to have been the twelfth organized pilgrimage from Epiphany. Twelve of us walked the 75 km from Rochester Cathedral to Canterbury Cathedral. It took four days and we covered anywhere from 10 to 18 miles per day. As always, the camaraderie was thick amongst the pilgrims, as we found ourselves walking with different people along the way, talking, and sharing our stories. It was utterly delightful.
This year, we tried something new as well, spending an hour or two each day walking in silence. What struck me about these silent stretches was that we fell into line, almost like a peloton in a bike race. Occasionally the leader would dip out of first place and let someone else set the pace. In these silent, single-file sections of our journey, there was a unity that is hard to explain. While the pace was usually quicker, there was something rhythmic and unified about it; and, it seemed to me spiritually invigorating, which should come as no surprise. The soul soars best when the body falls into a monotonous pattern, and all the more so when that pattern is communal.
We stopped at ancient churches along the way, often met by the church wardens. To a person, they were hospitable and encouraging, serving tea and coffee, and telling us the history of their buildings and grounds (and pointing the way to the bathrooms). Many of these churches were over 800 years old and still worshiping God each week. They are inspirational and aspirational, and I am reminded that there is no reason that Epiphany shouldn’t be around in 800 years.
When we arrived in Canterbury, we were just in time for Evensong. They saved a place for us up in the front of the chancel, and after the service, their new Dean, The Very Revd Dr. David Monteith, came to greet and bless us. It is my sincere hope that we will be able to invite him to Epiphany one of these days to preach and teach us about our Anglican-anchor cathedral in Canterbury. It turns out that he and I are both presenting at a conference in Houston in March, so I will have a chance to see him again soon.
My personal pilgrimage was a little different this year as well. I chose to fast during the days we walked, which added for me a particular spiritual intensity around the demands and disciplines over my body. What I found to my surprise was that joy was closer to the surface and ready to find expression more quickly in the pilgrims’ conversations that took place along the way. At the end of the day, I would break the fast with the community over the evening meal, which made them even more enjoyable.
Pilgrimage number thirteen will probably be underway by the time you read this article. Ten people will be walking from Melrose to Lindisfarne, a longer walk than the Canterbury pilgrimage, ending on Holy Island in the North Sea. I’m proud of all the pilgrims that have stepped into these journeys over the years, whether studying in Cambridge, traveling into the Holy Land, or walking one of the English pilgrimages. They are important spiritual exercises, and we are always changed a little more into ourselves because of them, and more so, they are always refreshing for the soul.
For those of you who followed the pilgrims on social media as they walked, thank you. For those of you who prayed for us along the way, thank you.
Peace upon your souls.