Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 27th October 2013
27 October 2013 at 10:00 am
The Venerable Dr Jane Hedges, Canon in Residence
“As hands are placed gently and encouragingly on the shoulders of those who come forward for the prayers, I feel on my own the hand of the past resting just as lightly but unmistakeably”.
Words of Peter Stanford, in his book “The Extra Mile” where he describes his experience while on pilgrimage to Iona.
During this month of October in my sermons at Matins I’ve been exploring what it means to be a pilgrim.
So far we’ve looked briefly at the history of pilgrimage and what it is that draws people to “Holy Places” and we’ve focussed more particularly on the Shrine of St Edward the Confessor and why it plays such an important part in our day to day lives here at Westminster Abbey.
Today as we approach All Saints tide I want us to think about some of the other major pilgrimage sites in Britain and the saints associated with them, asking what inspiration they can offer to us in the twenty first century.
There are many popular pilgrim routes in Britain and a huge number of sites. These include: Glastonbury, Walsingham, Holywell, Bardsey Island, St David’s, St Andrew’s and St Albans each with its own stories and rich traditions; today though I am going to focus on just three sites and the saints associated with them ~ Lindisfarne with St Cuthbert, Canterbury with St Thomas a Becket, and Iona with St Columba.
Lindisfarne, off the North East coast of England is often referred to simply as Holy Island and that very much captures its character. It can only be reached at low tide across a causeway by car or across the sands by foot and it is an Island which pilgrims have travelled to for centuries. But what does it offer to a pilgrim in the twenty-first century?
It is a place of natural beauty and tranquillity, things which in themselves can re-charge the spiritual batteries of people who lead pressured lives. However, it is its history and stories of people of the past which give it character and captivate the imagination of the modern pilgrim.
In 635 Saint Aidan came from Iona and founded a monastery on Lindisfarne. In that same year Cuthbert was born. At the age of seventeen, as he was gazing into the night sky, he saw a light come down to earth and then return to heaven. The date was 31st August 651, the night that Aidan died. Cuthbert at that moment committed himself to the Religious Life moving to Lindisfarne when he was around thirty, where he ran the monastery, became an active missionary and spiritual guide to many people.
He was regarded as cheerful, compassionate and out-going, so perhaps it’s surprising that after ten years he felt God calling him to be a hermit. He moved to the tiny island of Inner-Farne where he lived in a hut with just one window, coping with the forces of nature on that wild coast and keeping company with the sea birds and animals.
The Venerable Bede wrote of Cuthbert, “Such things as he taught other folk to do, he first in his own doing gave example of the same”.
As twenty-first-century pilgrims he’s an inspiration to us as we think about our need for solitude, our attitudes to other creatures and the natural environment around us and most important of all, whether the way we behave is in harmony with the things we say we believe.
Canterbury as a place of pilgrimage is a complete contrast to Holy Island. The Cathedral is a magnificent building set in a thriving city with many thousands of visitors coming each day. It developed as a place of pilgrimage though because of one man ~ Thomas a Becket; Archbishop of Canterbury and martyr of the twelfth century.
Becket was the son of a prosperous London merchant. He was well educated, and the king at the time, Henry II noticed Becket's talents and made him his chancellor, the two becoming close friends. When a vacancy occurred Henry made Becket archbishop of Canterbury.
Their friendship though was now put under strain, as it became clear that Becket would stand up for the church in its disagreements with the king. In 1164, realising the extent of Henry's displeasure, Becket fled into exile in France, and remained in exile until 1170.
On 29th December that year, four knights, believing the king wanted Becket out of the way, confronted and murdered him in his own Cathedral.
The king was devastated as he hadn’t meant his words, “Who will rid me of this turbulent priest” overheard by the knights; and so he did penance by crawling into Canterbury on his hands and knees.
Just as Canterbury is a complete contrast to Holy Island, so Becket was a very different character to Cuthbert. He was a statesmen and politically astute, but within that world he retained his integrity, and at great personal cost stood up for what he believed to be right. His courage in doing this cost him his life and as a martyr he has been a huge draw to pilgrims down through the centuries.
Whatever our role is in life we can be inspired by his example ~ by standing up for what we believe to be right even if it makes us unpopular with those around us. In doing this we not only follow in the footsteps of St Thomas, we follow the teaching and example of Jesus himself.
We travel in our thoughts now to another Island ~ this time off the west coast of Scotland, the Island of Iona.
This has become an incredibly popular destination for twenty-first-century pilgrims because it is not only steeped in history; it continues to be a lively community today which engages with issues facing our modern societies.
In the sixth century, Columba who had grown up in Ireland and become a priest there also quarrelled with his king. With twelve friends set off in a small boat and came to this small Island near Mull. “We shall stay here” he said, “here our roots shall go deep in the earth and remain for ever”.
So Columba founded a monastery and a community grew up spending its days in prayer, teaching, writing, cultivating the land and fishing. Like Cuthbert, Columba was also a missionary; a lover of people and of the natural world. His care for people, reverence for the whole of life and respect for the environment has been carried on by others in the modern world.
In the 1930s George Macleod founded an ecumenical lay community on Iona which became well known for its Celtic liturgies but also for campaigning for peace and for social justice. The work of that community continues today and has influence well beyond the shores of the island, especially in some of the inner city areas of mainland Scotland ~ inspiring others to make sure their love of God is reflected in their love for their neighbour.
Columba and those who have followed in his footsteps reminds us that the goal of our pilgrimage is not simply to deepen our personal experience of God.
It’s also about being changed by that experience enabling his love to flow out through us into action in his world.
I began with the quotation from Peter Stanford, who described a feeling of the hand of the past resting on him. We’ve seen as we’ve looked at some of the saints and their pilgrimage sites how we can be inspired and influenced by the past. However, as we approach All Saints tide we will be celebrating our belief that these great people have gone to glory.
On our pilgrimage we too are called to look to the future; we have the assurance in Christ that we are all welcome in his kingdom and that gives us a firm foundation from which to step out in faith towards a goal which is to some extent a mystery.
Stanford finishes his book with words from R S Thomas’s poem called Counterpoint ~ these might also strike a chord with you:
I think that maybe
I will be a little surer
Of being a little nearer.
That’s all. Eternity
Is in the understanding
That that little is more than enough.