Shortly after joining the choir September nearly a year ago, I was excited to hear about this pilgrimage tour. The chance it offered to sing sacred music in two of the most hallowed spaces in England would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that I could and would not want to miss.
Returning ten days ago from the solo trek across Northern England that had me staying for another week after the tour ended, and having had some time now for the afterglow to begin to marinate, I can say emphatically that the experience did not disappoint. As my reflections become more cohesive, front and center is all that singing. Just lifting my voice up as part of the gifted ensemble that is our choir was awesome in itself. To do so for a total of fifteen services over the two-week period made for its own spiritual "deep dive"... one that I am sure will continue — if I but remain open to it — to work its magic on me as the residue of the experience jells and becomes more deeply lodged in my psyche and soul.
How to begin to make sense of it all? Many of the pieces we sang were veritable chants or suffused with chant-like qualities. It is the timeless subtlety of their harmonies and the prayerful content to which we gave voice, coupled with a rich sense of those who had come before and similarly raised their voices in these spaces, that spawned the most powerful moments for me. They cultivated a new opening, a new referent point and hunger, to which I will no doubt be returning again and again, as the new spiritual connection that I see taking shape for me continues to evolve.
This, I am coming to understand, is what it means for me to have participated in this pilgrimage. I am so grateful to Dale and the rest of the choir, and to the many in our church congregation who in one way or another supported this undertaking and enabled it to happen. May all who read this — if you have not already — have the good fortune to one day experience something comparable. It is truly a blessed moment to be treasured.
When you walk the Weir River Walk around Durham Cathedral, you will happen upon a carved Cuthbert cross on a wooden bench. It is a wonderful place to sit down, or stretch from a run or walk, and just think. Sun and rain, wind and rainbows, were all seen from this place. Sitting here made me believe that we are all just a little closer to heaven and even a little more filled with God’s spirit.
Prayer of St. Cuthbert
Everliving God, who didst call thy servants Aidan and Cuthbert to proclaim the Gospel in northern England and endued them with loving hearts and gentle spirits: Grant us grace to live as they did, in simplicity, humility and love for the poor; through Jesus Christ, who came among us as one who serves, and who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
There is a breathtaking strength and beauty about Durham Cathedral. Surrounded by the Wier River, the Cathedral has stood for over 900 years. Its strong solid pillars hold fast a stone ceiling that makes you wonder how the people long ago could have put such a structure together. Our time in the Cathedral was a wonderful experience of light, sound and spirit. Each afternoon we ventured into the chapter house, with its stone floors and huge wooden door. We would rehearse for our time before, polish our sound and drinking in the spirit as we reassembled to vest and pray in a space that filled our hearts. We would return in procession, to the chapter house, where we would reassemble and await the clergy, who would enter through a huge ancient wooden door 20 feet high, which they would open wide with a large, clanking key. The sound of the lock brought total silence, greetings and with blessings exchanged, we were sent off to sing.
One of the real treats to visiting the Cathedral in Salisbury is the close. Originally built for the clergy around the Cathedral, it is now home to some family homes and a wonderful green space that the entire city can enjoy. The really neat thing about the close is that there are two gates that form the close. The city outside can be bustling and noisy with tourists and city dwellers, but stepping inside this gate is a time of quiet. Each morning we could head out into the city to enjoy the wonderful spaces, and each afternoon, we came back through the gate, into the quiet and to sing in the wonderful Cathedral of Salisbury.
Have you ever thought of getting up at dawn to walk 3 miles in water and mud with bare feet? Well I can tell you that the trek to Lindsfarne by foot is all of that and so much more. When you begin the journey you already know that this is going to be different, but you cannot imagine how things change as you walk. The pace quickens and slows based on the mud, water and distractions of the grey seals howling in the distance and the birds flying in the distance. The walk was a great time to reflect on how Saint Cuthbert must have felt hundreds of years ago as he walked and waded through dark sand covered in a few inches of chilled water on his way to what is now called the Holy Island. There are two look out towers on the walk that are built high enough for protection from the rising tides. About 2 miles into the walk I climbed up into the tower, partly to see what the seals looked like and then I stopped to look at our group. We all were walking together, separated from the land but not from each other. I wondered if that was how those early pilgrims felt.
There is a cool crisp air in Salisbury on the Harnham Meadows at dawn’s first light. Each morning I began my day in Salisbury with morning exercise. Partly to see the city which has stood for hundreds of years. Partly to be quiet in a time when there is only lambs and wind to hear. I found that the grass was a little greener and the sun shone just a little more crisply than any place I had seen. One morning, after the usual evening showers, I caught this glimpse of what life is like when you stop for a moment and look to see sunrise and rainbows.
I’m afraid that I have to confess, we pilgrims are a whiny bunch. There’s been a bit of grumbling, from myself included. A sampling:
“It’s raining. Again.”
This hotel room/restaurant/shower is so cramped!
“The roads are so narrow and windy, no wonder it takes so long to get anywhere. “
“The sidewalk is so uneven.”
“The wifi is so spotty, I can’t get any work done.”
“Really, one ice cube?”
“The water pressure is so low.”
“The hot water is out.”
“The cold water is out.”
“The toilet won’t flush again.”
“It’s such a long walk to the bus.”
Perhaps what galls us most is that the English don’t seem to be bothered by any of these “great” inconveniences. They look at us funny when we complain, because, of course, the English simply make do.
I’m actually fairly sure we complain most about the very things that make possible what we love most about England.
Those gorgeous green hills and valleys? The fields of heavy, golden wheat? Those cheerful cottage flower gardens? You know, the rain might have something to do with them.
Those endless views of countryside, unspoiled by interstate highways or strip malls? Yeah, well, imagine if that narrow, windy road had four lanes and a spacious travel center at every exit.
We complain about the smallness of everything in England, but we love “quaint” streets that look like Diagon Alley and pubs that go back to the 1600s—places built long before cars or hordes of tourists or large rolling suitcases and which couldn’t be enlarged without destroying them. We love the idea of staying in a 17th Century house, but grumble about the wifi, stairs, drafts, and plumbing, without considering the impossibility of retrofitting a four hundred year old building—never mind an entire city’s infrastructure—to meet our suburban, 21st century American expectations.
We in the United States have built a culture around convenience and creature comfort. But the English, it seems to me, made a different choice. They mastered the fine art of “making do.” They made do with buildings and plumbing and roads that were good enough to get by on but not much more; they invented those fabulous hunter green galoshes. They decided that fields and old buildings were more valuable than a closer parking lot, a bigger shower. What they lost in convenience, they gained tenfold in beauty, history, and tradition. “Mustn’t grumble,” they learned to say.
What we shape our lives around—convenience or tradition or comfort or beauty—affects our habits and expectations. What we shape our life around shapes who we are.
Travel gets us out of habits and changes our expectations; it forces us to reshape our lives. When you’re in England, you can’t pick and choose the parts of English culture you like and avoid the rest. If you want the old buildings and beautiful countryside and good church music, you have to learn how to “make do” or risk being miserable. We could do worse than shape our lives around history, tradition, and beauty, and not convenience or comfort. Perhaps it might make us better people.
Personally, I’ve actually gotten pretty good at not complaining about inconveniences in England. Of course, it only took me three pilgrimages with St. Philip’s choir and a trip on my own to get there. And, of course, I found something new to complain about this trip, so, really, I’m back to square one.
You see, I’m not singing. I’m travelling as a tag-a-long with my mother-in-law, Susan, and husband, Ben, who are singing. And we’ve brought along our great aunt Callie. And our two small children, a six-year-old and an eleven-month-old. We call ourselves the Carlisle Family Circus and we’re only partly joking.
I love my family, but when Ben and Susan go to rehearsal, I’m usually left alone to entertain two small children in a foreign country, often in a cramped, historic hotel room (because, you know, it’s raining again and we can’t go outside). And then I take them to evensong and try to keep them quiet for forty minutes of lovely, ethereal worship in a beautiful, historic, and very reverberant space. While the rest of the congregation leaves the cathedral blissed-out and close to the Almighty, I leave a stressed-out, nasty ball of self-pity. Don’t think I don’t grumble and whine about the whole thing, because I do. My poor family.
It’s taken me the better part of this trip, but I’ve finally realized something as I sit in a back corner of Durham Cathedral, hiding behind a Norman column, nursing one child to keep her from screeching while spying on the other one to make sure she doesn’t go dance around the high altar: Travelling on a choir pilgrimage is a whole other level of “reshaping your life.” Our choir members shape their days here around a schedule of rehearsal and worship. Like the monks and musicians of the great cathedrals in which they sing, they mold their lives around art and God. I can’t help but think it makes them better people.
And those of us, like me, who aren’t singing, have to learn to shape our lives around the choir’s schedule. Mostly that means we just have to wait until they’re done singing, but in a real sense, it also means we have to relearn how to shape our lives around other people. I’m used to being the main breadwinner in our family; the one who leaves in the morning and lets someone else take care of my children. This is my habit and expectation. But this trip has forced me to modify what I shape my life around, if only temporarily: my husband’s singing, my children’s moment-to-moment happiness. There are worse things to shape your life around. It is my habit to feel closer to God when I am able to focus on the beauty of worship and experience the quiet of prayer. But what if I could learn to change that expectation; what if I could feel closer to God by trying to keep my children entertained enough so they don’t disturb the worship of others? What if I could learn to feel closer to God even as I am simply “making do?”
Travelling as part of a bigger group of pilgrims makes me shape my life around other people rather than my own convenience. I can’t think of many better things to shape your life around. God willing, it will make me a better person, even if, right now, I’m a little whiny.
We are experiencing Durham and its Cathedral in many unexpected ways. We learned of a pilgrimage in search of a place to build a Cathedral and Shrine to St. Cuthbert whose body when exhumed was incorrupt. Also buried in this shrine with St. Cuthbert is the head of St. Oswald whose feast day falls during our pilgrimage.
We have toured Fountains Abbey, learned of how monastic life and prayer shaped this part of England. We have heard stories and seen so much that over centuries, changed because of invasions, rulers, and life, and we are finding parallels in pilgrimages of others.
A pilgrimage is a journey with an opportunity for growth, perspective, reflection, and prayer. This Cathedral Choir pilgrimage is building friendships, a sense of community, and renewal. As each Evensong service begins, we sing the familiar "O Lord open thou our lips" with the choral response "and our mouth shall show forth thy praise."
During our pilgrimage we are experiencing prayer in different ways, and this has been a point of discussion throughout our time here. The prayers are thoughtful and relevant, and the intention clear...encouraging us to find a way to help and support each other and our "struggling world." We have prayed for the leaders of nations, for peace, and balance, and for those leaders to be focused on the lives of others. We pray that they will avoid acts of conceit, or harm, and for them to have discipline, restraint, knowledge and consideration of all in this world as decisions are made. There have been prayers for those who are displaced from employment either by illness, or circumstance. We have prayed for hope and direction as they seek employment and to make a living and contribution to the world we share.
At this point, It would be easy to have a standard response of "Lord have mercy," and blindly move to the next petition in our traditional way, but here the prayer continues in a new direction. The prayers then give thanks for those who are employed and are able to contribute and asking us to recognize that in sharing and supporting others our circumstances can only improve. This additional component reminds us that prayer is not just for answers to difficult problems. It is also an opportunity for Thanksgiving.
This pilgrimage has been inspirational not only because of the sung praises and prayers offered, but because we are taking the time to be intentional and connected, not only in our community, but the world we share.
We were privileged to sing in Canterbury Cathedral 4 years ago. One of the evenings was a remembrance of the the reconciliation after WWII. Japanese and German representatives were there and it might have been the highlight of my trip.
Now, in Salisbury, I was in the bookstore and saw this. I was moved as much now as I was then. The inscription on this paperweight is what made me cry again during the closing of the homily by the British representative.
Week 1 is done and we are on the train to Durham! Four of our Choir are returning home and one new pilgrim has joined our ranks for the second week of our trip! Final thoughts and reflection from Fred Rose and Marjorie Singley-Hall.
Blessings and thanks to our choir members Carolyn Alexander, George Galloway, John Stivarius, Kevin Wickware and companion pilgrims Jim Alexander and Tommy Galloway! Welcome to Rebecca Harris who has joined our fold!
Fred Rose wrote "Pilgrim's Song":
With tired feet
by babbling brooks we walk.
Our open hearts by the
green blowing grasses proceed.
Carrying prayerful hearts and burdens we pass under
tall cooling trees.
Fragrant flowers guide our path and
choirs of birds sing and welcome us along the way.
Onward our journey goes, and then
our eyes upward gaze at
the towering spire adjacent a verdant green.
With expectation our feet press onwards, and
through ancient doors and arches we tread upon
Up the steps we climb.
Then, on with the robes followed by a sit,
we wait while the sweet organ plays.
Some gaze up admiring the glass.
Some study tombs.
Some pray, and some pace.
Some are anxious, yet some are calm.
Then, after lining up and prayers said, the procession begins.
Slowly to the stalls we glide and
imagine all the songs sung and prayers said before
so long ago by pilgrims just as we.
“O, Lord open though our lips,” is chanted, and then we sing
Responses, psalms Magnifcats and Nuncs and
anthems all as many choirs past.
Closing prayers and blessing added to our own, and
up to God they ascend echoing those of pilgrims before.
We sing our “Amens,” and give thanks to God for bringing us here.
Thanks be to God for journeys made and those to come, and for
voices singing and friendships made and rekindled.
For God’s unceasing love we offer thanks and praise and for
safely guiding we pilgrims to sing God’s song.
From Marjorie Singley-Hall:
This has been a week of joyful singing in the beautiful and incredibly historical Salisbury Cathedral. Every day brings a new element of discovery down a spiritual path not traveled before, whether through praying with or for one another or finding new meaning in the music we sing here. Today was no exception.
A group of us set out this morning to visit Stonehenge and Old Sarum. Several of us had been to Stonehenge before, and all of us enjoyed seeing that unique and spiritual place.
None of us had been to Old Sarum. We climbed the hills along the narrow paths.We marveled at the incredible beauty of the countryside.
We took pictures in the castle ruins. We gazed at the perfect outline of the ruins of the Old Sarum Cathedral, site of the first Salisbury Cathedral, and wondered what it was really like to worship there. It was a distance to climb down to walk through those ruins, and we had to get back to sing. So, we were unable to climb down the hill to walk the ruins.
When we were vesting to sing Evensong, another member of the choir told us she was able to walk the ruins of the Old Sarum Cathedral earlier this week, and she felt the presence of God there.
Then, we went into the choir stalls at Salisbury Cathedral and sang Herbert Howells “The Sarum”Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis.
The day was complete.