The journey began for us with the names of places in England, Scotland and Wales. Some sites were well-known, the destinations of ancient pilgrimage trails. Others were seldom visited, unmarked on all but the most tenacious maps. Long identified with men and women who had lived their faith boldly, each place had mediated the Christian story over the centuries, often drawing travelers closer to God.
With the prospect of a sabbatical year away from our work in the United States, we pored over a map of the United Kingdom, pencils in hand, as a tentative itinerary came into view. Britain provided a breadth of Christian landscape perhaps unsurpassed in the world, with sites steeped in Celtic, Catholic and Protestant traditions. Beckoning us were chapels and sea caves, mountains and cathedrals, retreat centers and holy islands. Could sojourning in these places, listening more attentively to the lives of people linked to these sites, help us understand their experiences of God and, more to the point, bring us closer to God as well?
We had long known of Iona, for example, off the west coast of Scotland, where Saint Columba founded a monastery that illumined much of northern Britain. But what would it be like to walk the island? How did you get to it, and where would you stay? Why does the Celtic saint’s legacy attract people even today? “To tell the story of Iona,” one writer noted invitingly, “is to go back to God and to end in God.”
Methodist friends had often alluded to John Wesley’s Aldersgate Street experience. In some ways Methodism traces its history to this corner of London where Wesley had felt his heart “strangely warmed,” overwhelmed with an assurance that his sins were forgiven. Could we return to Aldersgate, not to recreate Wesley’s experience- as though epiphanies could be snatched like butterflies–but rather to glimpse his understanding of God’s forgiveness, that it might shed light on our own?
The ancient city of Norwich harbored a memory of Lady Julian, the fourteenth-century mystic who wrote zealously of God’s love and provided spiritual advice from her solitary cell. By immersing ourselves in Julian’s writings and prayerfully returning to sites associated with her, could we ourselves sense more fully God’s imperishable love?
Britain offered this spectrum of Christian sites from the fourth century to the twenty-first all within a nation smaller in size than our home state of New Mexico. From Coventry Cathedral to Saint Margaret’s tiny stone chapel at the heart of Edinburgh Castle, from C.S. Lewis’s Oxford to T.S. Eliot’s Little Gidding, from the pastoral Wales of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poetry to the English market town of Olney where John Newton penned “Amazing Grace”–all across the United Kingdom were places where men and women had borne generous witnesses to the faith within them. What attracted us to a location was not so much it’s physical topography as its spiritual biography.
Reassuring his disciples in Jerusalem’s upper room, Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit would “bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you” (John 14:26). We traveled in the light of that promise, asking ourselves: “What is here, in this place specifically, that the Holy Spirit might bring to our remembrance? If we will but listen, what aspect of the will and love of God is evinced by this place and by the persons who lived and sought God here?”
In our experience, the places in this book have been far more than sites of historical interest. They have, in different ways, been settings where that sort of holy listening, that kind of Spirit-led remembering, has happened to us. We found ourselves repeatedly recalling T.S.Eliot’s verse from the “Little Gidding” (not least at Little Gidding itself):
You are not here to verify….Instruct yourself, or inform curiousity…..
Or carry report. You are here to kneel……Where prayer has been valid.
We set out to visit these sites from St.Andrew, Scotland. We chose this town that feels like a village as our base for several reasons. Though unaffiliated with its medieval university we found that St.Andrews provided us with a priceless library collection on British Christianity, a girls’ school for our two daughters, and, not least, a home beside the North Sea. To the amazement of our neighbors, we even relished Scotland’s rain, which fell like a blessing on parched New Mexicans.
A pattern emerged during what became two years residence in Scotland, and during subsequent, shorter returns: After a period of preparation, having distilled all we could from the university’s library, we left St. Andrews, often from the nearest train station at the village of Leuchars, our trips timed as much as possible to good weather, thin crowds, and favorable tides.
Kneeling in these places “where prayer had been valid” has deepened the way we pray everywhere. We have come to see, with Elizabeth Barrett Browning, that “Earth’s crammed with heaven, and every common bush afire with God.” As Gerard Manley Hopkins perceived, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.”
Of those places we chose to chronicle–settings illustrative of Britain’s vast spiritual landscape–many seemed to illumine certain facets of faith in particular. Scotland’s Whithorn, for example, where Saint Nina carried the gospel to unruly Picts, revealed the burden of witness and a call for Christians to speak despite unfavorable circumstances. Canterbury Cathedral, with its East Chapel’s focus on contemporary Christian martyrdom, put into relief the cost of discipleship from Thomas Becket down to the current day. Where better to wrestle with difficulties of forgiveness in our own lives than in the bombed-out ruin of old Coventry Cathedral and amid Coventry’s new, postwar Cathedral’s dedication to reconciliation?
We hesitate to call these destinations “sacred sites,” as though some settings (and by implication not others) offer domains of the holy. Perhaps, as Thomas More suggested, “there are places where God seems to want to be worshipped”; indeed, rocky outcrops of beauty like Lindisfarne and Iona can direct attention toward heaven just as observatories turn eyes to the sky. But at times pilgrims give credit to extra-ordinary place for experiences wrought more by dedication or ordinary time. After she heard visitors refer to Iona as a “thin place” where “there’s very little between Iona and the Lord,” Evelyn Underhill remarked, “I am far from denying that from our human point of view, some places are a great deal thinner than others: but to the eyes of worship, the whole of the visible world, even its most unlikely patches, is rather thin.”
This is one reason we include places off well-worn pilgrim tracks. As the poet William Cowper, coauthor with John Newton of Olney Hymns, wrote from England’s market town Olney:
Jesus, where’er Thy people meet,
There they behold thy mercy-seat;
Where’er they seek thee thou art found.
And ev’ry Place is hallow’d ground.
Our journey has yielded a wide view of the church in the world and a clearer perspective of our own calling. We discovered that we had not so much taken the journey as allowed it to take us—and strengthen and challenge us, and send us at times by the unforeseen routes. As George Macdonald once said of stories, true journeys somehow don’t seem to end. “The path of life is not only in eternity but towards eternity,” notes Grace Adolphsen Brame, “and the journey is not finished.”
For those who would visit these sites, either alone or in groups, we provide practical travel information in the Travel Notes. “The idea of pilgrimage is one that we badly need to recover today,” urges British writer Ian Bradley. Down through the centuries, the hope of drawing closer to God frequently provided the primary motivation for a journey. Particularly for visitors to Britain descended from Celtic, Catholic, and Reformed traditions, pilgrimage remains a way of travel that can orient lives of faith.
WHITHORN AND SAINT NINIAN “The cradle of Scottish Christianity”
The journey began here for us, along the southwest coast of Scotland on the Galloway peninusla. If you can, seek out Ninian’s sea cave in the quiet of the day. —David
I walk to the cave in early morning, down an archway of sycamore, ash and oak, along an insistent stream and through a final cleft that frames the approaching sea. A right turn across a beach of smooth stones leads me up to the mouth of Saint Ninian’s cave.
The shallow recess sits a few yards above sea level, a damp, narrow crevice in Silurian slate, twenty feet high and equally deep, cloistered from any gale that might better this southwestern tip of Scotland.
Sixteen centuries ago, tradition tells us, NINIAN (c. 360-c. 432) walked here for silence and prayer, briefly withdrawing from his monastic community three miles away at Whithorn. Before arriving at this coast cell myself, I had imaginaed the Celtic saint huddled within the crevice’s damp shadows like Saint Cuthbert in his Farne Island hut, purposely having dimmed daylight lest the sun’s dazzle distract him.
But now I envision NINIAN on fine early mornings outside his cave on a tier of stones, sea-watching, gull-glancing, and letting God speak in the rinsed morning. Inside the cave I try to discern the rumored crosses etched into the slate. As my eyes grow sharper, I can see them slowly emerge from the darkness, faith as Ninian’s story itself.
What little we know about NINIAN comes from a handful of sources, chiefly a shore, captivating biography written in the 12th century by the Cistercian monk Aelred of Rievaulx and a free words by the chronicler Bede in the 8th century.
A hundred years before Columba arrived at Iona, NINIAN founded in 397 the first monastic settlement in what is now Scotland. Built from local shales and slates and lime-plastered white to glisten like a lighthouse in the sun, the monastery took on the name Candida Casa-the Latin becoming Whithorn (White House) in its Anglo-Saxon rendering.
British-born and Roman-educated, NINIAN preached and told the Christian story to the southern Picts, aboriginal inhabitants of Scotland. His father had ruled as a king of the Celtic tribe of the Britons, but the son turned his back on royalty. Like Saint Francis sloughing off his wealth, NINIAN exchanged entitlements for another currency. Not only compassion and zeal but also a certain breadth characterized his life; NINIAN excluded no creature from God’s grace, gathering even cattle and sheep together at night for a blessing. Biographers shower praise on him:devout, sagacious, bold, and, not least, attentive. An awareness of God graced NINIAN like an astronomer’s eye fixed to the sky. “It is characteristic of the saints,” observed Lucy Menzies, “that they tend gradually, little by little, to be transformed by that which they seek.”
The word first colors each reference to Ninian and Whithorn: the first stone church, the first monastic settlement, the first missionary in Scotland to tell others the gospel story. HIstory leaved unanswered the question of who first told Ninian himself.
…..continued in next blog.