Friday, August 31, 2012

HAD I BEEN IN LONDON TODAY, I might have taken the Bakerloo Underground to St. Augustine’s, Kilburn, for Mass while Nancy slept in. In that church in 2007 I experienced a kind of reconversion, a renewal of deep faith and trust in a sacramental view of reality, in the left-handed ways of Anglican catholicity, in ways of speaking and praying that I have engaged in with more or less enthusiasm and more or less habitual discipline, since my hyper-religious teens.
But, because of the necessity of Nancy’s having gall bladder surgery, we are not in London, and there is no church like St. Augustine’s, Kilburn, within 400 miles. Instead, we are “Up North” in Michigan, staying in a bare-bones tourist cabin with fake log walls and furniture fashioned out of polyurethaned sticks. It is surrounded on three sides by thirsty Michigan woods with wide, sandy spaces between the trees. Half-dead ferns proliferate among the burned-over stumps, and the air swarms with tiny gnats.
Given such an unpromising environment, why do I feel very much as I did at St. Augustine’s in 2007? Why do I sense myself surrounded and pervaded by sacred enchantment?

Holy Island got started because the monks who first came there (Aiden and Cuthbert and Bede and others) because it seemed forlorn enough to discourage even marauding Vikings from wanting to stop and plunder it. Oh, they got around to plundering it soon enough, and the monks fled to Durham, taking the bones of their saints with them, but after the Norman conquest (and what are Normans if not Vikings who speak French), new monastic inhabitants arrived, drawn by the field of sacred energy that (it is said) lingers about the place. And even now, when all that remains of a monastery are ruins and parts of the Anglican parish church, there remains an allure, a left-handed invitation that apparently can assert itself anywhere, even here, especially here, especially now.
Someday a doctor will speak to me as Nancy’s doctor spoke to us last Thursday, except this time it will be to tell me that my days are numbered, that this time there is no chance of postponing my departure or making new reservations at a later time. On that day I will be stuck with whatever furniture is present in the room, and with whatever landscape is visible from whatever window. If God is merciful, no one will want to watch “The Biggest Loser” on TV, but if they do…?
On that day, whether I recognize it or not, I will be inhabiting an island, bounded on all sides by gray, seal-infested waters. Vikings will sail by and take no notice, their war-boats headed for more attractive shores. I will watch them pass, and wonder what they will find to conquer at York, or Durham, or London. I will watch them pass, and (if I have my wits) remember today, this furniture, this unpromising moment, and this love.


Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Pilgrimage Diverted

THE REASON FOR GOING ON PILGRIMAGE IS TO seek God, to place ourselves on a sacred trajectory and see what happens. Well, our pilgrimage to Holy Island and to other sacred sites in Britain has been diverted to a place much closer to home.
This morning Nancy’s doctor informed us that her gall bladder was inflamed and had to be surgically removed as soon as possible, and that it would be dangerous and irresponsible to make the trip we had planned at this time. The doctor knew how disappointing this information was to us, and this gave his professional opinion all the more weight in my eyes. There is no question in my mind that the pilgrimage had to be postponed. As my brother wrote to us, “having Nancy sick in the Outer Hebrides where emergency transport is a ride on a grumpy pony to the heliport doesn’t sound like a good bet."
 For my part, I cannot imagine God blessing my prayers as I hop from one sacred site to another while my dear wife is having surgery on another continent, or suffering in agony back in some English hotel room. That trajectory is not one that God has occupied in the past, nor would I trust any that did or had.
So our pilgrimage will be a home-bound one for now. Gall bladder surgery is considered routine, but no surgery is risk-free. It will be scheduled as soon as possible, and then we will proceed to reschedule our pilgrimage, most likely for next spring.
Your prayers are solicited, and much appreciated.

Monday, August 27, 2012

YORK MINSTER AND THE CITY OF YORK will, I suspect, provide a contrast to the exotic environment of Walsingham. The cathedral will be classic Anglicanism, in all its grandeur, and will serve to sober us up from any lingering effects of overindulgence in pre-Reformation piety. I understand that York is a pleasant city with shops and restaurants and pubs, which we will have time to explore.

I WANT TO VISIT EDINBURGH in order to attend church on Sunday morning at Old St. Paul’s Scottish Episcopal Church, located just off the “Royal Mile,” a building and congregation that has intrigued me since I visited briefly in 2007. At that time it reminded me of a cave-dwelling, built into the side of a volcanic slope, and evoked images of ancient hunters celebrating their version of the Eucharist with roasted mastodon-meat. Old St. Paul’s projects the image of a progressive, traditional, inclusive, activist parish community… and I want to see if their “reality matches their rap,” as we used to say. We hope also to visit with our son-in-law’s sisters, who live there. 

THE VILLAGE OF DUNS is home to our son-in-laws parents, and they have graciously invited us to stay at their house whilst they are in holiday in Spain. This will really bring us down to earth after a week of intensive church-going, and we intend to take advantage of this interlude of domesticity before crossing the Causeway to Holy Island, which is not far from Duns.   

Sunday, August 26, 2012

                                                       St. Augustine's, Kilburn, London

LONDON is the most secular of cities, yet haunted by the husks of neglected churches, historic buildings served by clergy whose efforts to attract worshippers can seem embarrassingly lame.  When these efforts are successful, they often include elaborate music of the highest quality, and, as I wrote in my journal in 2007, “it would be easy [for a person like me living in London] to become a “sampler of religious products, hopping from one splendid edifice to another in search of musical perfection and liturgical excellence.”
Such obstacles make “sacred enchantment” all the more credible when, as it did for me in 2007, it asserts itself, like the sudden appearance of an island in the fog.
In my experience, the antidote for ecclesiastical dilettantism is community, which can seem elusive in the London churches. For this pilgrimage, as for my life’s journey in general, my primary “community” will be Nancy and I. Anything else we discover along the way will be gravy.

THE SHRINE OF OUR LADY OF WALSINGHAM, in Norwich, is very much off the beaten path, and was “medieval England’s most significant pilgrimage site devoted to the Virgin Mary, [and] …was revived in the Twentieth Century, and in 2006 voted Britain’s favorite religious site.”(Google review of Walsingham and the English Imagination, by Gary Fredrick, Waller, 2011).
My own imagination has been tweeked by this place since I first heard of it in the 1950’s. The shrine is conducted under Anglican auspices, but just barely, as it has the reputation of being the most over-the-top example of ultra-catholicism to be found anywhere in the world, including the great majority of Roman Catholic churches.
So why go there? If I find myself badgered and scolded by opponents of women’s ordination, I will probably regret having done so, but I am not going to Walsingham to argue church politics. I am going there because I feel a call, familiar yet strange, emanating from that place, emanating from the pages of novels, poems, and autobiographies wherein it is mentioned, emanating from the illustrations in an Anglo-Catholic book of devotions that I was given as a teen-ager, pen-and-ink drawings of Mary as “Mother of God,” and “Our Lady of Sorrows,” devotions that appalled and fascinated me at the time, and apparently still do.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

                                                                         The Anglican Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham

Pilgrimage begins with a call, an allure, and intimation of bliss.
“Pilgrimage” is to “vacation” as “action” is to “motion;” as “word” is to “noise;” as “grace” is to “luck.”
Unlike Islam, Christianity does not require pilgrimage. For Christians, pilgrimage is more of devotional extra, like Stations of the Cross. The Reformation condemned it as a relic of superstition and worse. But the pilgrim’s call seems irrepressible, inevitable, regardless of theology.

In the end, of course, life itself is a pilgrimage, for “this world is not my home/ I’m only passing through.” Or, rather, it is either a pilgrimage toward some ultimate goal, or it is a vacation from oblivion; it is either an act of defiance and obedience, or it is a random motion taking place on a freak planet, a twitch unobserved on the lifeless skin of an unconscious cosmos. (Come to think of it, is not the cosmos itself a pilgrim, expanding toward ???)
Our life is either a word addressed in darkness to an unseen listener, or it is so much noise, percussion with no beat, dancing with no feet.
Is it grace or luck that I am here, writing these words? That you are there, reading them? Are you there?

It is the pilgrim’s task to discover.