Last summer, a group of choir members from St. Alban’s had the opportunity to go to England for a week to be the Choir in Residence at Wells Cathedral. We sang the daily services of Morning and Evening Prayer, and also had the opportunity to sing at Coventry Cathedral and St. Alban’s Abbey, and also with the members of a local parish choir. This week, instead of our Daily Cup offerings, we will hear from four of the participants about that experience and what it meant to them.
Prior to our recent choir trip to England, Bishop Eugene Sutton set a
I’ve considered this challenge through my own perspective as a historian. Reasons for visiting holy places have changed over the past two centuries. In the 1800s, European interest in the Middle East grew because of dramatic archaeological discoveries in Egypt. In 1896, Thomas Cook, the father of modern organized tourism, led a party to Jerusalem; his later tours brought together visitors for adventure, instruction and devotion. His trips to English cathedrals became a magnet for travelers who sought a mix of historical, cultural and spiritual experiences.
In the 20th century, pilgrims began to think differently about the idea of “place.” While pagan Greeks and Romans recognized certain sites as inherently sacred, Jewish and Christian holy places were usually associated with the works of God or a saint. In modern times, these perspectives are often blended together. This became clear to me when our choir took a side trip to the small town of Glastonbury near Wells. Stories about visits by Jesus, Joseph of Arimathea, King Arthur and Guinevere, and extraterrestrials have all become attached to Glastonbury, and a sign to the town proudly announces its twin identities: Glastonbury and Ancient Isle of Avalon. Here, those in pursuit of Celtic Christianity, pagan religion, Arthurian legends, and visiting aliens all converge in the same landscape.
As travelers—tourists—we certainly delighted in the glorious sights of our trip and the occasional absurdities (Avalon? extraterrestrials?). As pilgrims, we found that Coventry, St. Albans, and Wells Cathedrals offered time for deep reflection. We found ourselves living multiple roles—as individuals, as sopranos/altos/tenors/basses who came together as a choir, as Episcopalians, as Christians—and humbled by that experience. For those of us who see a world with increasing compartmentalization and an eroding sense of community, the days we shared were profoundly moving. Pilgrimage was a metaphor for the faith we practice, connecting each of us to one another, and the physical world to the world to come.
These places of pilgrimage are truly transformational, shifting us from observers to participants. I think of what our choir experienced, standing at the nexus of singing our faith, of representing our home church, of feeling ourselves linked to those who prayed in these extraordinary cathedrals over hundreds of years. Through this alchemy, pilgrimage becomes a catalyst for our own change, whether this might be healing of mind or body, a new perspective, an inner peace. I know this happened with me. And for this, I am truly grateful.