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Thursday, 9 April 2015

Candlelit Pilgrimage in Canterbury Cathedral

So this week I am away for a week studying, as it’s our annual residential week, which, to be honest, is always slightly daunting. This year it has come right after Easter – I got home from church on Easter Sunday, grabbed some lunch and then was off. So, not only are we away for a week but most of us are exhausted before we start! My plan for self-preservation was to do only what was absolutely essential.

However a few nights ago I was persuaded to join friends at a candlelit pilgrimage of Canterbury Cathedral and boy am I glad I went.  It was just stunning...

After hours, at 8.30pm, we were let into a very dark and empty cathedral. The bustle of the endless tourists and backpacks was gone and in it’s place was a holiness reflected in the silence and dusty air. The lights were off with just the odd candle or spotlight to light our path around this great building. The orange glow from the floodlights outside dappled through the leaded lights onto those majestic giant legs of pillars. I didn’t even want to breathe…

One of the first things we were encouraged to do was to touch the building, to be in contact with it. I lay on the floor (how great is that in itself – when would you get to lie on the floor of a cathedral, and no chairs out either, and to marvel at its majesty, in utter silence?) I was almost overcome with the size of the building. It made me think of the tower of Babel where people wanted to reach to heaven by their own handiwork, but here was a building so majestic, yet built for the glory of God. My smallness against these huge pillars stretching heavenward was so apparent, I felt in awe and wonder of God’s majesty.


As we moved on we lit candles to carry with us and my eyes were drawn up to the bell tower where the white light of the floodlights outside, strained through the windows, falling like gigantic angel wings gracing the tower, protecting it, and joining with us in our pilgrimage giving glory to the Father. 

It was mesmerising.

I stood with my eyes drawn heavenward, only being drawn back to earthly joys by the voice of our guide moving us on.


As we moved through the tunnel thousands of pilgrims have walked before, we joined with the songs of ghosts past, simple taize chants, enlivened by the harmonies of a few of our number, our voices rising and resonating as if joined by the tower angels. I held my breath savouring the moment, not wanting it to end.

But all too quickly we arrived at the altar of Thomas a Becket and were hit by the stark reality that a life that unwaveringly followed Jesus, was before us. Becket reportedly refused to lock the cathedral doors, despite knowing his pursuers had murder in their hearts, believing the church should be open to all.
(just, wow)

The modern sculpture that graces the place of his death is hideous. But only because you cannot look at it without being aware of the violence that took place here. In a funny way it is also beautiful and lit by one spotlight and our candles, we saw it as many don’t, the jagged edges of swords highlighted in the shadows cast on the pale stone behind, evoking thoughts of anger. and blood. and viciousness. and power. and hate.

As I gazed on this monstrosity and embraced the thoughts it evoked, I looked down to see my candle casting the sign of the cross across the floor.

No words…


Later we stood and pondered the words, ‘be still and know that I am God’. If ever there were a place that exuded that verse it was here, and now. We were still. We were quiet. We prayed. We thought. We marveled. How could I not know that he is truly God…?


Even as I type I feel tears pricking my eyes. It’s been a full on week and perhaps the tiredness and emotions were running high but there is something about this place. I have visited several times before and each time been hit with another spirit-filled moment. Even for a raving charismatic like me, this place: celebrated in, worshipped in, site of pilgrimage, prayer enabler, mirror of majesty, inviter of wonder; is simply, like no other…

Our guide reminded us that pilgrims came, come still, as this is the ‘Mother Church’. 
Of course! It all makes sense, this is the spiritual home, on this earth anyway, of so many, for thousands, if not millions of Anglicans around the world. And come they do, in their thousands each year, and I know why. It feels like walking into an architectural womb (ok sorry if I’m going off on one here…) and yet at the same time invites you to fall to your knees and marvel in the glory of God. 

To just be still and know that he, HE, above all else, IS GOD…


Keith Hopkins said...

Beautiful writing. I have never been to Canterbury but I have been to many other cathedrals and churches and can relate to your emotion.
Church is of course about more than a building, it is about the people and what they do and pray and believe. Take away our architectural wonders and our faith still exists. Nevertheless there is something in the stones of our ancient or even our more modern places of worship that hold a sacred and holy and breathtaking wonder, something that allows us to feel the history of the faith of those before us.
Happy Easter.

Red said...

Thanks Keith. yes exactly that, the buildings aren't the main thing, but wow, do they add to it!

Blessings :)

UKViewer said...

I have spent numerous occasions in the Cathedral, particularly being confirmed there, along with 80 other candidates from across the diocese.

One man of over 80 was baptized and confirmed - what a powerful witness to God's action in lives, for that to happen so late in his particular situation.

I've also attended several Ordination Services there, numerous Evensong's and quite a few Eucharists -all have been wonderful experiences.

My SD is a former Canon of the Cathedral and one day, he took me on a tour of the innermost parts of the Cathedral, normally only seen by the Clergy and Vergers - another powerful experience as you look down through portcullis type windows from a gallery into the knave and choir.

You are right that it's a holy place, but it also reflects the life and diversity of the people who come and go, and it's faithful, loyal congregation who are there, year in and year out.

A special place, equal to any other Holy place, anywhere in the world.