There is a long history of pilgrimage in England, and 2020 has been designated as the Year of Pilgrimage in commemoration of Thomas Becket’s martyrdom in Canterbury 850 years ago. Considering my long-standing fascination and involvement with pilgrimage, I am deeply interested in the special events and exhibits planned for this year, and am allowing myself the opportunity to immerse myself in historic pilgrimage as well as a practice that can nourish the modern soul. Jeff and I spent a day in London following the threads of our interests and walking in the footsteps of pilgrims past.
We started out at the British Library so we could view a few old books in the Rare Books room, volumes we wanted to peruse for personal research projects. For me there is something deeply satisfying about sitting in that very classical library space with its rows of wooden desks, each with individual reading lights, all surrounded by old books and people engrossed in their own research pursuits.
After lunch at my favourite restaurant, we went in search of a special exhibit of pilgrim badges at the Museum of London near the Barbican. Literally built into the old city walls, the museum is much larger and more comprehensive than I expected. Documenting the entire history of London, from prehistory to our modern day, they have pulled some of their extensive collection of medieval pilgrim badges and memorablia to display in amongst their broader collection of religious items.
Dropped or discarded by Londoners and/or pilgrims who passed through London on their way to other places, these items have been pulled from various sites along the shores of the Thames, their significance recognised, and their history preserved to document the importance of pilgrimage in Britain across the centuries, a story which continues to this day.
Awed (and armed with a new book about pilgrim badges, of course), we made our way back to Southwark Cathedral near London Bridge. This ancient cathedral, which has been central to London worship since the 7th century, counts both Geoffrey Chaucer and William Shakespeare amongst its historic parishioners, and it was the place from which Chaucer’s pilgrims set out for Canterbury centuries ago. Even today, the cathedral feels available and welcoming, and, indeed, considers itself a ‘people’s’ church. Still holding a daily Evensong service, it is a place I now frequent, and visit as often as I can when I am in London for any reason.
As part of this year’s Year of Pilgrimage, they commissioned a very special art installation for Lent. Called Pilgrimage: finding each other again in the paradise of lost souls, it revives an old tradition of measuring people and then having candles made to their precise measurement. The prayers for their souls would continue for as long as the candles burned. Artist Michelle Rumney was on hand to talk about her art as well as the pilgrims that her candles represented, and how she modernised the practice for the purposes of her installation by measuring hundreds of parishioners then cutting strings to their measurements and hanging them from the ceiling above the nave. The result is a stunning memorial to pilgrims, pilgrimage, and the spirit that leads us through our life journeys.
Here, Michelle is talking about the two central candles – one in memory of Thomas Becket himself, and one in honor of a woman who had done much to support pilgrims and pilgrimage in recent years, Marion Marples. (Michelle is pointing to Marion’s candle, above.) Those readers here who love labyrinths and often expect to see them mentioned in my writings will also be interested to know Michelle is also a labyrinth person/artist. Her labyrinth art can be seen here.
On this particular evening, the cathedral remained open for an extra few hours, during which the usual lighting was replaced by candlelight, allowing visitors the special experience of viewing the cathedral in that soft flickering light that invites Mystery to play into the soul.