Ancient Cathedrals, Modem Pilgrims

The high school cap and gown of the first-born, the son, has been succeeded by a college fraternity sweatshirt. The white eyelet eighth-grade graduation dress of the second-born, a daughter, has given way to a Black Watch prep school skirt and crewneck sweater. The elementary school jumper of the third-born, another daughter, has vanished in favor of a junior high uniform skirt and white button-down shirt. Three leaps from June to September have wrought three new lives. Add new responsibilities for a husband and varied tasks for a wife, and a whole family, in just one summer, has closed one chapter and begun another.

In that breathless blur from graduation until the beginning of school there were, however, three weeks that stood still, three weeks of June that hung suspended between the chapters of our family’s book of chronicles. These weeks encompassed a long-awaited trip to England and Scotland, a vacation for all five of us, an immersion in British landscape and history, for which no one had to take a test, answer a phone call, or find a reason other than simply for the fun of it.

Yet this bit of travel, enjoyable as it remained throughout, began to take on a shape as it proceeded. A. week into the trip we knew what this journey was. It was a pilgrimage. The older three of us may have known at the outset that we were embarking on a pilgrimage. I suspect we never mentioned it, though, for fear that possibility might not jell into fact. Not until we were on our way home did any of us voice the real identity of this journey. There is something fragile about ‘;114 pilgrimage, a delicate double movement that takes pike not only in the trodding of the pilgrim along the road to the holy place but also in his soul, as his heart and mind bound along to their destination. Sometimes the heart may not keep the same pace as the feet; there is surely no guarantee that they always work together. Thus in our case there was a natural reticence about naming something that might not warrant the name. Names, after all, properly do capture meaning.

Moreover, in the spread of ages in any family there are variations in maturity. Our eighteen-year-old son knew as well as we what kind of trip this was. He had helped plan it. Our fourteen-year-old daughter glimpsed how the trip was shaping up. But our youngest daughter, just turning twelve, was along to see the queen, to buy a Laura Ashley dress, to see the punks in London and the bagpipers in Scotland; all of which she did. Cathedrals and ruined abbeys were not on her list. Still, she was a good sport.

The distance from twelve to eighteen is marked as profoundly by mental as by physical development. Increased ability to think in abstractions is only part of the mental blossoming of a teenager. Somewhere between twelve and eighteen the human mind steps into the adult role, able to reflect upon itself. With reflection comes memory: not the simple childlike remembrance of yesterday or last week or last year but the awareness of one’s own history and, more than that, one’s relation to a larger history of the race. The sudden identification with the memory of a family, a people, a civilization surges up in the teen years almost in a single moment. The painful nostalgia that hit us all about age sixteen or seventeen, leaving its trails of self-conscious poetry and diary entries, is the first acute realization both of being part of history and of being capable of making one’s own history. It is the realization that already we have accumulated a storehouse of memory, that our lives are a constant journey through which we are creating a past while walking into a future. A journey, though it may take a lifetime, has both a beginning and an end. It may be, furthermore, a pilgrimage, a journey toward a holy place, toward an end that is beyond us.

An eighteen-year-old boy knows very well the heady power of being able to create his own memories. Thus, he is willing to risk taking a pilgrimage. A fourteen-year-old girl, too, knows the first wonders of a history opening before her. A girl barely twelve is not quite there. She lives still in the short-term memories of childhood.

Thus in our various stages of readiness we set forth on our British pilgrimage, like Chaucer’s pilgrims bound for Canterbury.

“Every age is a Canterbury pilgrimage,” wrote the poet William Blake. Every age, then, is a struggle to rediscover the highest and greatest. Every life, too, is that pilgrimage, the effort to find a spiritual home, a resting place for the mind and heart.

But what is a pilgrimage for five modern wayfarers inevitably children of their age, which scorns the reason for a pilgrimage?

This particular journey bore several conclusions. First, we found our names. We learned our humble origins. Our names spring from a dusty Saxon antiquity when few people had more than generic family names. Hence some peasant once built a hut that he called a housestead or a homestead. Eventually his progeny called themselves “husted,” my maiden name. My husband may descend from more advanced stock. When a collection of huts formed a village and were set in a meadow, they were a “burleigh,” a village in a meadow. At any rate, our non-grandiose titles signify that our tribe have never been wanderers. If we are wayfaring pilgrims, consequently, we are traveling in search of a place. Surely, we are rooted folk.

Then, too, some of us had a second mission on this trip. We came in search of monastic ruins. Among the Yorkshire abbeys nothing exceeds the loveliness of Rievaulx on a dappled summer morning, its grassy carpet outlining the ruined nave and crossing, meadows and grazing sheep completing a pastoral landscape undisturbed by the slightest imperfection. Fountains, another Cistercian abbey, is nearly as lovely, its old stones glowing softly pink. Mount Grace Priory, a Carthusian monastery where the monks followed hermitic lives in separate cells around the cloister, looks less imposing but is more dour and brown.

One wonders about the great monastic tradition that inspired places like Rievaulx, Fountains, Mount Grace, and others such as Lindisfarne, St. Augustine’s at Canterbury, or the gem of British monastic sites, the isle of Iona just off the Scottish isle of Mull in the Hebrides. What kind of faith moved a thousand years of men to devote their lives to prayer, work, and penance? What strength of purpose enabled them to carry a faith and a civilization nearly single- handedly for a millennium? Is the barrier impenetrable that separates a twelfth-century monk of Rievaulx from a twentieth-century pilgrim? Is the cast of their minds so poles apart, and their worlds so different, that the, twentieth- century believer, despite study and an act of will, cannot extricate himself from his age sufficiently to understand the faith of a twelfth-century man? Or are the questions and quests of men of faith always and everywhere the same?

A twentieth-century pilgrim does find it strange to consider how it must have been to live in a world in which faith was the backdrop of life. There is a poignant difference between a medieval world, where faith was the very atmosphere of life, and our world wherein faith must exist in a cubicle of privacy. A trip through the cathedrals of Britain drives home that contrast. For anyone with even a shred of belief, it is impossible to roam these ancient shrines without being moved. To step into these cool, gray, bejeweled interiors — shafts soaring to pinnacles that both test the laws of gravity and challenge the mind to expand to the heights of reality — is to throw off for a brief moment the modern shackles of secularism and to enter the world of Chaucer’s pilgrims. There are no harsh modern black contrasts here. There are rather, as Rodin once said, endless half-tones of gray, sculptured modelings of fluted arches that are the ultimate satisfaction of our craving for beauty. The secret behind this Gothic beauty, finally, is the ingenious use of shadow.

As fourteenth-century Gothic churches were added to Norman structures which in turn were built on the foundations of wood Saxon churches, themselves often built on top of Roman foundations, these cathedrals span the centuries of English civilization since Roman Britain. Thus, even the devastation of the Reformation, if it sometimes diminished the beauty of these churches, did not lessen their meaning.

No single piece of architecture so represents the aspirations and attainments of Western Christendom as the cathedral. Anything but an antiquarian curiosity, it is, in its feast for mind and senses, a representation of the idea of Christendom. Surrounded by its outbuildings, its cloister, its chapterhouse, even though they be in ruins, the cathedral is a world in itself, the summation of man’s response to God. Hence the cathedral exudes intelligence and energy. It breathes warmth and personality. And in these ancient stones, luminous both in sunlight and shadow, worn smooth by feet, there is even intimacy.

The most striking thing about a medieval cathedral — the very thing that marks it as medieval — is its individuality. Though these churches all follow the same order, nonetheless each has a personality. Unlike a Greek temple, which is purposely a type, a cathedral is an individual. Each one is personal, as personal as looking up at one of its statues of a saint or king and recognizing, with a start, a face. Not the face of a type, but that of a person with a name.

So personal are these great churches that one falls in love with them. Which to choose? Would it be St. Paul’s in London, the splendid and unified Renaissance masterpiece of Christopher Wren, a perfect vision of how a basilica can capture light and space? Would it be Canterbury, gleaming in the sun, the heart of English Christianity and always the pivotal anchor of the church in southeastern England? Would it be Ely, set in the flat Fenland on what was once an island surrounded by water? Ely, beloved for its octagon tower and Lady Chapel. Peterborough, relatively unspectacular, with its Norman chancel and painted ceiling. Lincoln, dramatic on a hill towering above the city, judged by Ruskin as the finest building in Europe, integrated in design, its breathtaking nave and little  scalawag “Lincoln imp” sculpture laughing from his perch above the Angel Choir. York, rightly called the Minster, largest of English cathedrals, dignified bastion of the northern province of English Christianity. Durham, most magnificently positioned of the cathedrals, high above the River Wear, solid, massive, a Norman stronghold. Dunkeld, a small, simple cathedral set in a green velvet woodland beside the River Tay, where as early as 570 sturdy Celtic missionaries, the Culdees, had built a wattle monastery. Or would the favorite be one of the southwestern cathedrals? Winchester, squat, low, but surprisingly the longest Gothic church in Europe, seat of the powerful church in the Wessex country. Salisbury, situated on an open plain beside the River Avon, its elegant spire among the single finest features of any English church. And Wells, perhaps most endearing of all the country’s cathedrals, calm, gracious, with its west front a gallery of exquisite figures and its unique interior scissors arch bolstering the crossing.

Buildings — even buildings as magnificent as the medieval cathedral — are scarcely inspirational enough on their own to draw, over centuries, millions of people through their great portals. Only because they stand for something greater than themselves do buildings mean something to us. Behind or above a building stands an idea, a reason to capture us, to convince us that this building en-shrines something worthy of our attention and our devotion. When a building becomes such a symbol, it then becomes a hallowed place.

Yet we are fleshly beings. Ideas, consequently, do not float through the air around us. They are thoughts in concrete, particular human minds. For that reason, then, we are attracted not only by ideas but by the people who think them. Thus, the most hallowed buildings are those in which great people — heroes — have given testimony to their ideas. The most beloved buildings, unsurprisingly, are churches to which is attached the name of a saint or martyr, a hero who has lived and died for an idea exceeding earthly limits. A pilgrim is one ordinarily who is not only making a journey to a holy place but traveling there to do homage and to pray to the saint or martyr of the place. We who are Christians are of all people the most wedded to a Person as the embodiment of all truth, goodness, and beauty.

For the medieval man, for whom the material world was permeated with the divine — who, like Chaucer, had a robust appreciation of God’s creation — a pilgrimage to a holy site was the most natural, simple thing imaginable. When spring came “than longen folk to goon on pilgrimages . . ./ And specially, from every shires ende/ Of Engelond, to Caunterbury they wende,/ The holy blissful martir for to seke,/ That hem hath holpen, whan that they were seke.” How sane, how right for the fourteenth-century pilgrim to travel to Canterbury to pray to Becket, to Ely to seek out Etheldreda, or Hugh of Avalon at Lincoln, Cuthbert and Venerable Bede at Durham, William at York, Columba at Dunkeld and Iona, William Bitten at Wells, Osmund at Salisbury, Swithun at Winchester.

Unfashionable as it is today to undertake a pilgrimage to pray to a certain saint, we found ourselves on this trip in thrall to these heroic men and women. Unexpectedly, our British journey turned out to be three weeks with Becket, Etheldreda, Cuthbert, Aidan, Bede, Margaret, Columba. Unexpectedly, as well, Thucydides best summarized the high place of the hero that so marked our passage. In that noblest of war memorials, the Scottish National War Memorial at Edinburgh Castle, these words of Thucydides are etched into a wall: “The whole earth is the tomb of heroic men and their story is not graven only on stone over their clay but abides everywhere without visible symbol woven into the stuff of other men’s lives.” The saints of British and Irish Christianity, whose tales are of heroism and sometimes of martyrdom, follow the traveler like friendly ghosts. The centuries separating them from us collapse into immediacy. Not only their ideas but the very lives of these saints prove the possibility, the reality, of the highest way. By their example these heroes link themselves to the stuff of our lives.

Who were these holy people? Saints and martyrs, scholars, sailors, visionaries and missionaries, queens and monks. Faithful, all. A few examples show the toughness of their faith.

St. Augustine of Canterbury in 599 brought forty Benedictine monks from Rome to Canterbury in Kent. Under King Ethelbert’s protection he established a cathedral. St. Anselm, Scholastic doctor of the church, setting forth his great proofs for God’s existence, ensured that Canterbury would be a seat of medieval learning. Hence when Thomas à Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, was martyred in 1170 at an altar in his own cathedral, he became the unofficial patron saint of England. Becket’s murder was dramatic and gory. After a long power struggle with his old friend Henry II, Becket had tested the king’s patience. Four of the king’s own knights, sworn to rid the kingdom of “that turbulent priest,” as Henry had called him, on December 29 stormed through a door from the cloister into the northwest transept and cut down Becket, who was expecting them, even looking for the chance to prove that his first allegiance was to the Lord.

In the sixth century, when Christianity was getting its first toehold in Britain, the southeast bulwark was Canterbury. The other and even earlier rampart was Iona, a tiny gray, gale-gashed island of the Inner Hebrides. To this misted monochrome isle of Scottish Dalriada came in 563 the Celtic missionary monk Colum Cille, whose name meant “a dove.” If Colum Cille, or Columba, bore the name of a dove, he carried the bold heart of a sailor and prince. Great- grandson of the royal Irish house of O’Neill, Columba set up a monastery at Iona from which he sent missionaries to Christianize the Picts. Characteristic of Celtic monastic organization, which was much looser than later Benedictine and Cistercian, Columba’s community at Iona was set up with separate huts grouped around a small church. Yet it was in a strategic location for access to the Pictish islands. Journeying up through the Highlands, alongside Loch Ness (where he spotted a monster), Columba reached Inverness, headquarters of King Bridei of the Picts. He converted Bridei, who in turn had Columba’s men escorted to the Pictish court at Orkney. Columba’s monks also reached Skye, Lismore, and Tiree.

Not only was Columba a priest, he was a politician. Seeking to make the Picts into Scots, he backed Aidan to succeed in 574 as King of Dalriada. Aidan then sailed to the tidal island of Lindisfarne, off the coast of Northumbria, where he anchored the Celtic church in the Northeast. At the Synod of Whitby in 644, however, the King of Northumbria chose Roman over Celtic Christianity. Then the most famous bishop of Lindisfarne, Cuthbert, himself Celtic but now ruler over a diocese that conformed to the general practices of Western Christianity, in the 680s supervised the creation of the magnificent Lindisfarne Gospels. Bede, the Roman Northumbrian monk of Jarrow, who admired the Celtic clergy, chronicled these happenings in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People.

Of a group of strong and brilliant monks who took the Christianity of Iona and Northumbria to great heights, Columba stands out. Torr an Aba. the little mound in front of the abbey church at Iona, where Columba had his cell; the tiny shrine which likely rests on the original site of his tomb; the white doves that live at the abbey; the remaining high crosses, which were probably not in place in Columba’s time but which became popular about the beginning of the eighth century, are all appropriate to the memory of Columba on this island of Iona.

Adomnan, the ninth-century abbot of Iona and Columba’s kinsman of the O’Neill clan, wrote the saint’s biography. Describing the hours before Columba’s death, Adomnan wrote:

He climbed a small hill overlooking the monastery, and stood on its summit for a little while. And as he stood, he raised both hands, and blessed his monastery, saying: “On this place, small and mean though it be, not only the Kings of the Irish with their peoples, but also the rulers of barbarous and foreign nations, with their subjects, will bestow great and special honour; also especial reverence will be bestowed by saints even of other churches.” After these words he descended from that little hill, returned to the monastery, and sat in the hut, writing a psalter. And when he came to that verse of the 33rd psalm where it is written, “but they that seek the Lord shall not want for anything that is good,” he said, “here, at the end of the page I must stop. Let Baithene write what follows.”

There is another British saint, a Scotswoman, an altogether captivating woman, intelligent, strong, faithful, whose romantic story weaves in and out of eleventh-century history. This is St. Margaret, queen of Scotland, a model wife and mother to her children and her people. An English princess in the direct royal line, Margaret was only twenty years old when Malcolm Canmore, Malcolm III of Scotland, son of the murdered Duncan of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, fell in love with and wanted to marry her. Malcolm was twice her age. He was a widower with one son. Though manly and courageous, he was also rough, tempestuous, and illiterate. Margaret not only could read, she was scholarly and accomplished. She read the Latin Scriptures and the writings of St. Augustine. She spoke French learned at court. She embroidered in the exquisite intricate English style, sometimes called opus angelicum.

Malcolm already had met Margaret when she was a very young girl. After the murder of his father, Malcolm had been sent for safety to the English court of Edward the Confessor, where Margaret was staying with her brother Edgar and her sister Christina. When the Confessor died, Edgar had a direct claim to the throne. His claim, however, was submerged in the power struggle between Harold God- wine and the Norman William. In the chaos that followed William’s Conquest, Edgar took flight with his two sisters. Their ship was caught in a storm, forcing them to take shelter in a bay of the Firth of Forth. Learning of their arrival, Malcolm went with a party to meet them. Seeing again this Princess Margaret, Malcolm, according to the Anglo- Saxon Chronicle, began to desire her for his wife. Margaret, however, had other plans. Thinking herself suited by education and disposition for a contemplative life, she had intended to live the virginal life of the cloister. She refused Malcolm. But Malcolm persisted. Enlisting Edgar’s consent, and undaunted by Margaret’s repeated refusals, he at last persuaded the princess to marry him. They were wed in 1070. It was a brilliant match, both spiritually and politically. Margaret was beloved by her husband. Under her gentle and wise influence he tamed his own unruliness and became as faithful as she. Together they reigned well and prolifically, producing six sons and two daughters. Said the Chronicle of Margaret:

The foreknowing Shaper knew beforehand what he would have of her, because she was to increase the praise of God in that land, and guide the king from the erring path, humble him to a better way, together with his people, to lay aside evil customs the nation had followed, just as she did later. The king received her then against her will; her customs were pleasing to him, and he thanked God, who had given him such a mate. He thought wisely on it, as he was a very prudent man, turned himself to God and scorned every impurity. As the apostle Paul, teacher of all nations says . . . “Very often the unbelieving husband is hallowed and healed through a righteous wife, and so likewise such a wife through a believing husband.” This aforesaid woman afterwards in that land did many useful deeds to the glory of God, and also the royal estate, as was befitting of her ancestry.

Supported by her friend and advisor, Lanfranc, Arch-bishop of Canterbury, Margaret instituted reforms in the Scottish church, merging Celtic and Saxon strains, and brought it into line with the mainstream of European Christianity. She and Malcolm lived a life of devotion to God, to their kingdom, and to each other. They lived at the end of their lives in Edinburgh Castle, where Margaret had built the little Norman chapel of her name, now the oldest piece of Norman architecture in Scotland.

The saints of British history were lively and diverse men and women of faith who were worthy of the veneration they have received from centuries of pilgrims. They touched even the hearts of five American travelers who became pilgrims perhaps in spite of themselves. But there is one saint yet unmentioned, the saint of saints, whose shrines takes precedence over all the rest. That is Mary herself. No saint lives more vividly in the cathedrals than Mary. Not even the desecrations of Cromwell’s soldiers could rid these churches of the warmth of the Blessed Mother. What is more, not even the modern repudiation of her has vanquished her presence among these living stones. Wherever one walks in the ancient aisle ways, Mary appears to surprise and delight and comfort us. In a jeweled window, a tympanum, a rood screen, a fresco, a bas-relief, in the enchantingly beautiful Lady Chapels there is her image. Sometimes she is a small ivory statuette holding her baby son. She may be a sweetly smiling stone bust atop a ledge in the presbytery, as at Winchester, where she is known simply as the Winchester Madonna. Or she may appear, as at York, in a painted boss joining the arch in front of the choir screen. Anyone who looks up and discovers her presence in that hidden little nook knows he has discovered one of the beloved treasures of the Minster. Her influence pervades the old churches. In her quiet patience, her consoling maternity, her absolute faithfulness and purity, she lives on, just as Henry Adams said she would. Her very steadiness and strength and fruitful femininity are proof that feminist heresies and all such contortions of the nature of women and men are but straws to be blown away. Her sweet presence is proof, too, that any pilgrimage, whether an English pilgrimage or a pilgrimage through life, is also a journey with her and toward her. And it goes without saying that any journey with her is necessarily a journey with and toward her Son.

Our British wayfaring came to an end. All too soon those three weeks locked in time gave way to the daily round of summer activities. Yet there is a postscript to our pilgrimage, one of those ironic little twists of good-humored Providence that reminds us that if we fail to view life as a comedy, we make a mistake. Like so many families preparing to send their first child to college, we took the school selection process with the utmost seriousness. We all overblew the procedure into a year and a half of scrutiny. When the choice was made, however, what did it turn out to be — of so many choices that could have been — but my own alma mater. And what did the choice bring, ultimately, but a heave of relief that this child would be removed only to something so familiar as a little county seat town amid Indiana cornfields. The scene of the next chapter, then, was to be not the faraway places we had expected but the blessed familiarity of home. Surely the Lord laughs.

It may be that our family has traveled a road from June to September that miniaturizes the pilgrimage of our lives. If so, then in his assumption about the proper conclusion of our restless strivings, St. Augustine was more than wise. Our journey will end at home.


  • Anne Husted Burleigh

    Mrs. Anne Husted Burleigh is a free-lance writer, mother, and grandmother who lives on a farm overlooking the Ohio River in Rabbit Hash, Kentucky, near Cincinnati. She has written two books: John Adams, a Biography, and Journey up the River: a Midwesterner’s Spiritual Pilgrimage. She has contributed to many publications, including Crisis and Catholic Dossier, and now writes for Magnificat.

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