The 2017 Canterbury Pilgrimage

March 31, 2017

In March, seventeen of us Berkeley students traveled to Canterbury Cathedral for the senior trip, shepherded by Dean Andrew McGowan and guided along the way by figures ancient and modern. It was a very full week, packed with tours and ordered by the services of the Cathedral community. We attended Matins at 7:30 a.m. in the choir where the monks had prayed; Holy Eucharist at 8 a.m. in the Chapel of Our Lady in the Crypt, where Becket’s body was laid after he was killed; and Evensong at 5:30 p.m. back in the choir, led by the Cathedral boys or girls in their purple robes and white neck ruffs.

We left New Haven on the verge of a snow day, but Kent seemed already on the edge of spring. The grass was impossibly green, rows of hop poles were standing tall in the fields, and every bird except the blackbirds had begun to sing. Our days in this landscape were overseen by three great saints whose lives are uniquely inscribed there—Queen Bertha, Archbishop Thomas Becket, and Martin of Tours.

On our first full day, we strolled up to the ruins of St. Augustine’s Abbey. Augustine of Canterbury was a monk sent by Pope Gregory the Great to help evangelize the Anglo-Saxon invaders. Queen Bertha was a Frankish princess and practicing Christian who married the Kentish prince Ethelbert; it was her faithfulness and position of influence which made space for Augustine and his monks, and her husband who granted the land for the abbey and what became the cathedral. We wandered over the hilly remains of the abbey, stepping into where chapels and naves had been. Dean McGowan described Queen Bertha as a figure on a par with Margaret of Scotland, one of the holy queens with a foundational role in our tradition—“she’s the reason we’re all here.”

It was Thomas Becket—archbishop, martyr, enshrined saint—who haunted us in the following days. We were privileged to have an evening candlelight tour of the Cathedral led by Dean Robert Willis. In his low patrician voice, by the wavering light of our candles, he told us the story of how for centuries pilgrims have come into this place—from the nave, marked by the compass rose, down to the site where Becket was killed and the soldier’s sword shattered, and up to the far east end, the Trinity Chapel where the bejeweled shrine of Becket once stood. Today there’s only a candle to mark the spot, and the bold stained glass of the “miracle windows” adorns the space. Standing there in prayer, Dean Willis reminded us that we, as pilgrims, come to be close to Thomas because Thomas points us to Christ. The careful stewardship of the cathedral, he said, is not an end in itself, but part of an offering it makes to the Church for all of our relationships with God.

Finally, St. Martin helped bring us out of the past and into our own time. On our last full day in England, we walked in the early afternoon to the Church dedicated to him, its walls studded with local flint and its graveyard mossy and green. This was where Queen Bertha worshipped, and is the oldest parish church in continuous use. Standing in the afternoon sun, Dean McGowan gave us each a medal of St. Martin, and blessed them. He told us how he understands Martin’s example for us today—standing against those in power who would use Christianity as a weapon, and working for Christ at the end of Christendom.

It was these saints who watched over our travels and studies, but our days were filled too with thoughtful, passionate people: Léonie Seliger, head of stained glass conservation at the Cathedral who exclaimed over the beauty of scaffolding and the “eminently sensible and just right” engineering solutions of the middle ages; Heather Newton, stonemason and head of conservation who greeted us with a gentle voice and kind words, her charcoal curls tucked into her orange hard-hat, before sending us on a tour of the renovations in progress, walking up stone steps from Lanfranc’s time; Fawn Walters in the Archives who quietly enthused over one of the printed copies of Richard Hooker’s Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity and the 1552 Prayer Book while we all tried to remember what we learned from Professors Beeley and Spinks; and Christopher de Hamel of Cambridge, who, in the course of a lecture on what may or may not be Becket’s psalter, said of the saint, “Now here was a man with style!”

And shepherded from one of these encounters to the next were we seventeen students, a motley community who have had our ups and downs and intrigues and delights over the last few years. We were together again as we hadn’t been since the first semester: here again cheek-by-jowl and napping on each other’s shoulders, getting on each other’s nerves, laughing and telling stories, praying and murmuring and really living again as a true community.

On one of our tours, Dr. Seliger told us of how the outer stone sarcophagus of the shrine had holes cut in it, so that pilgrims could put their arms in to be as close to the inner coffin as possible, to be healed, to be close to what God had touched. It struck me that this is what Christian community is too: being close to each other—our frailties, our brokenness, our best and worst selves—because in these strange and intimate encounters we come to know God.

—Emily J. García ’17