Day Five: Canterbury to Dover
(Peter) We made it. The first 18 miles or so of the Via Francigena have been trodden by MSSJ pilgrim feet, with we hope many more to come in the next two years. Today we saw sun and rain, a bad fall, a good lunch and the bittersweet conclusion of our short but sweet pilgrimage. Before we scattered to the winds, we met on Dover’s beach, and two of us braved the cold channel waters to finish the trip in a fitting manner.
While plans are still very preliminary, we’re thinking St. Bernard’s pass in Switzerland next year and Rome the year after. Stay tuned to BCC for further details as plans crystallize.
For now I’m off to spend the night in an airport. Safe travels, everyone; I hope to see you soon.
Day Four: Canterbury
(Ronan) On the previous two pilgrimages we have never scheduled a day off, something which has been useful today in both helping to rest sore feet and to give us time to properly enjoy Canterbury. We were given a tour of the cathedral with Canon Clare, who showed us some of the parts normally roped-off to tourists, such as the shrine to Becket where she blessed us for our onward journeys. The Society was also welcomed by name by the Dean at the beginning of Evensong, a service which was even more sublime than normal. Tomorrow, with new pilgrim passports for Rome in hand, we begin the first leg of the Via Francigena from Canterbury to Dover.
(Peter) At the close of Evensong the cantor prayed that we would be an Easter people, which touched me deeply. We have been accompanied on our walk through the English countryside springtime flowers, and in front of Canterbury Cathedral is an Easter display featuring the stone rolled from in front of the tomb below the cross. It’s not hard to contemplate the victory of life over death in a such a setting, and I can’t help but see the many daffodils–my deceased mother’s favorite flower–lining the way as a gentle reminder that she too will rise despite the seeming permanence of the location of her final resting place below ground and a concrete slab.
Day Three: Ashford to Canterbury
(John C.) We are walking longer distances this year than we have in the past. 18 miles yesterday and 15 miles today. Although the terrain was reletively flat, the extra distance was quite punishing. After walking a great distance, your feet begin to ache, a constant dull reminder that you are doing something for which your body is unprepared. Near the end of the walk, the pain became acute.
One of the interesting effects of pilgrimage, and ritual generally, is how it reminds us that we are embodied. On the Internet and in religious (political, economic) discussions is the tendency and the temptation to keep our focus on the abstract. Pilgrimage disallows this; wondering with every step why you are doing this crazy thing forces you to consider why you are doing it? Why am I a painfully walking to Canterbury when a train or bus would get me there easier, quicker, and not that much more expensively? What purpose does this really serve if I can only think about how much my feet ache?
Mormons believe the soul is the combination of the body and the spirit, but we have a tendency to discount or malign the influence of the body on us. To be honest, I maligned my feet with some frequency as we walked along today. Some members of the party had to drop out today, as their bodies could not go on. We look at the body as a limit to our spiritual progress.
However, as much as I cursed my body today, it is what got me to the Cathedral. I could not wish myself there, nor travel solely in mind. My pain did not magically go away, nor did my journey end (I had to find food, after all). But my body is the means of my pilgrimage. Battered, foot-sore, and weary, it was enough.
(Peter) Today’s stage exacted a heavy toll: with chafe in every footstep it was all I could do to roll into town under my own steam (pro tip: pilgrimages that begin the week after the last snows are a dicier fitness proposition than those that take place at the end of summer). But enough of the pity party .
Today was a great day to walk to Canterbury. The weather worked with us, the countryside inspired original poetry, we learned the story of a church ruin from its voluntary caretaker, we all arrived at our destination and it turns out that John is a good storyteller (those who had filled their lamps took turns relating Canterbury Tales).
Deeper reflections will have wait until more immediate needs are addressed. In the meantime, enjoy a few snapshots from today.
Day Two: Detling to Ashford
(Ronan) Our route out of London was by train into the Kent countryside where we picked up the North Downs Way. The path initially went up and down through rolling chalk downland and was surprisingly strenuous for what is an otherwise relatively flat part of England. We have enjoyed near-perfect weather: dry, the warm-side of cool, and at the end of a day saw a lovely sunset over the spires of the Kent Weald.
(Peter) I joined the group a few miles down the road at Hollingbourne, an hour later than originally planned due to the French air traffic controller strike. Upon reaching our meeting point–The Dirty Habit, a venerable pilgrims pub–they were nowhere to be seen. So I ventured down the obviously named Pilgrim’s Way to meet them, only to discover that it was not meant literally and the pilgrims were in fact on a parallel track. Once that was straightened out we enjoyed a bracing lunch beforing continuing another six hours down the way. Rarely has a roadside motel looked so inviting, and I didn’t even go the full distance. We’ll see how many of those that did get up in the morning.
Day One: London
I’m tired. Walking-around-London tired, but that still counts. Our party left home this morning to meet our fellow pilgrims at The George by London Bridge, the best approximation of Chaucer’s Tabard still standing. We collected a pilgrim stamp at Southwark Cathedral before enjoying choral evensong at St. Paul’s. On the way I lost the sole of my shoe — a bad omen?! — so had to get a new pair. The evening was spent at BYU London where I ad-libbed an apologion for the MSSJ in front of a group of study abroad students. Tomorrow Kent and the walk proper!
Some preliminary thoughts before the MSSJ’s pilgrimage to Canterbury.
Any pilgrimage by Mormons to venerate the tomb of Becket at Canterbury has to surmount two objections. The first is the natural skepticism that we inherit from our modern culture. We all know that hagiography is often deceptive. People are flawed, whether they be Theresa of Avila or Theresa of Calcutta or indeed Joseph of Vermont. We have been told in our books and movies that medieval churchmen grew fat on riches and corruption, so why should Thomas Becket be different? This leads to the second objection to veneration: the apostasy narrative in Mormonism leads us to mistrust the divines of an “apostate” church. It is true that some have been chosen by the CES manuals as good — Luther and Tyndale, for example — but Becket is not one of them (at least I don’t think I have ever heard his name raised in a Mormon setting before).
My task here is to try to not only say a thing or two about who Becket was but why a visit to his tomb as a pilgrim, rather than as a tourist, is not a wholly un-Mormon endeavor. My argument would hold also for St. James or King Olaf, and so the Society’s previous pilgrimages are hereby retroactively defended!
When you read the history of Becket, the first thing that strikes you is just how French England was in the 13th century. After his childhood in mercantile London, Thomas Becket’s life sees him in and out of France, either as an agent of Henry II (1154-1189) or exiled by the same. Henry II was the great-grandson of the Conqueror and in his marriage to Eleanor he added the duchy of Aquitaine, stretching from the Loire to the Pyrenees, to his realm. The map of “England,” if such it can be called then, included England and much of northern and western France.
In 1161, Henry made Becket, until then his chancellor, archbishop of Canterbury, believing that Becket’s loyalty to the crown would keep the church in his pocket. However, Becket transformed himself into a pious cleric and defended the church in its struggles with the king. On the 29 December 1170, four knights, believing the king wanted Becket dead, murdered him in Canterbury Cathedral. Within three years, Becket was made a saint — a Roman poke in Henry’s eye — and his shrine in Canterbury Cathedral became an important focus for pilgrimage. Thus, another chapter in the history of the English crown’s relationship with the church was written.
Out of this, important questions arise. How saintly was Becket really? Was his move from mammon to God a genuine conversion? Is he worthy of veneration? Before I have a go at those questions, let us set Becket aside for a moment and first consider veneration in general. Is the Society on wholly un-Mormon ground when it doffs its hat to Sant Iago, or Olaf, or Becket? What does veneration mean?
Let us consider a recent canonisation. Ignore the ceremony that surrounded it and you may find that the canonisation of Popes John Paul II and John XXIII had more in common with Mormon religious impulses than you may at first have thought. Ignore also what Rahner and Vorgrimler call the “unbridled sentimentality and religious trash”* to which veneration can succumb and instead judge the veneration of saints in catholicism (Anglican or Roman) as generously as you can. Herewith a quick comparison of veneration, intercession, and canonisation in the catholic and Mormon traditions.
To venerate a saint is “always to praise and glorify God, since the quality of the saint which is recognized as worthy of imitation was the gift of God’s grace” (Rahner and Vorgrimler). The saint is therefore the concrete manifestation of the holiness that all Christians can achieve as a reflection of God’s own goodness. Saints have “the image of God engraven upon their countenances” (Alma 5:19). To venerate them is at once to praise God’s goodness and to aspire to reflecting it in one’s own life. The veneration of Mormon “saints,” mostly apostles and prophets, living and dead, is a major feature of lived Mormonism today. Note that veneration is not adoration: only God is worthy of such. Can Mormons venerate the goodly dead? We can and we do.
Because Christ is the great Intercessor, many Protestants are uneasy with the concept of the intercession of saints. One prays to the Father through Christ, and that is that. However, this is to misunderstand the nature of prayer. Prayers of adoration are only for the Godhead, but to pray for intercession to the saints is simply to ask them to carry your prayers to God alongside your own petitions. Mormons constantly ask others to pray for them, suggesting a belief that other people’s prayers can somehow make the prayer more efficacious. The temple roll is a prime example of this and suggests that the saintliness of temple patrons can speed our petitions to God.
There is also the sense that the ones we venerate — apostles and prophets mostly — have special access to God’s favour. Thus young Christal Methvin wished for President Monson to bless her, despite the fact that this was within the remit of countless other (un-venerated) priesthood holders. Similarly, I know people who have access to General Authorities who take special comfort in knowing that these men pray for them. This is intercession; Catholics seem simply to be saying that this practice extends beyond the grave. There may be a sense in which this is also true in Mormonism. The temple roll might also be drawing upon the holiness of the righteous dead. There is also the belief that angels are or will be human beings, thus Jacob demanding a blessing from an angel (a saintly human) is ontologically akin to a Catholic asking a dead John Paul II (a saintly human) for a blessing or a Mormon asking Thomas S. Monson (a saintly human) for the same. The blessings are always God’s, of course. Do Mormons ask the goodly to intercede for them? We can and we do.
The popes’ canonisation was just a ritual selection of two human manifestations — as the Roman Catholic Church sees it — of God’s countenance. The rituals and rhythms of the veneration of saints in Catholicism are not aesthetically Mormon, which is why they may seem so alien, but theologically, they are not. Mormons ritually select their saints in different ways, mainly through the recitation of canonical myths. That we venerate them and hope for their intercession seems fairly uncontroversial to me. Do Mormons canonise the saintly? Yes.
And so we return to Becket. Was he a saintly man? It is a complicated picture. If we believe the hagiographers, his enthronement as archbishop brought about immediate changes. Gone were the silks and furs, replaced by monastic garb and a hair-shirt. He arose at 2 a.m. to say his daily office before washing the feet of thirteen poor men. He lost himself in the scriptures. He ate and drank sparingly. If all of this is true, Becket was indeed a pious man but piety alone does not make one a saint. It is the clash with Henry — and his murder — that elevate him, the motives for which I find difficult to divine. As John Guy states,** Becket believed he was a latter-day John the Baptist sent to rebuke King Herod, but personally I am not sure I can side with Becket here. His wish for the Church to remain above civil law — what he would call the rule of tyrants — is not entirely sympathetic to my ear, trained as it is by a modern belief that all are under the law, be they kings, priests, or peasants. As a modern, I am also sceptical about the tales of the miraculous that sprung up after his death. I am simply too cynical to believe it all.
So let me be depressingly post-modern. On the road to Santiago it was clear to me that the bones in the reliquary box in the cathedral were incredibly unlikely to be those of St. James the Great. The whole myth seems so obviously a product of Spanish Christian nationalism in the face of the Moorish threat, as well as being a very convenient boon to the cathedral that would benefit (and still does) from lots of pilgrim cash.
And yet, little of this mattered on those Galician roads. The myth gave our merry, blistered band a focus and I came to believe, in some way, that I was James and James was me, just another pilgrim on the road to heaven. I prayed a lot on that road, more than I do at home, and I believe I heard God’s voice. This is the power of pilgrimage, and pilgrimages need saints and relics, so it is all good.
So, to conclude, I have no problem with canonisation and veneration but am agnostic about Becket. I cannot see myself praying to him but I believe I will find Canterbury a holy place, a place where the Christian imagination can be fired by myth and pageant and a holiness that is made very real by centuries of honest pilgrimage. Most of all I intend to enjoy the God-given beauty of the Kent countryside and the splendour of Canterbury while reflecting on the tale of Becket and what it might have to say about the role of the Church — any church — in our civil society today.
* Rahner and Vorgrimler, Theological Dictionary, s.v “Veneration of Saints.”
** Guy, Thomas Becket, p.172.