A mandatory pilgrimage

I looked at my watch. 6:37. Not good. The train would leave York station at 6:54. I got out my phone while briskly walking (and mostly dodging oncoming pedestrians) to double check that time—only to discover that I had been wrong: the train left at 6:49. Extra not good. I didn’t want to leave any students behind, I really didn’t, but I picked up our already quick pace.

In all of the many times I attended Evensong at York Minster back when I actually lived in York—when I didn’t really care what time I left or got home—the service always ran to about 45 minutes. Tonight, with a group of students who needed to catch a train back to Liverpool, of course the service went over an hour.

I do not like to hurry with a group, and least of all do I like leading a group that needs to hurry. My preference is always for people to make their own way, at their own pace—especially when traveling through a city so rich in history, because it’s difficult to be attentive and appreciative when one is on a forced march.

At Bootham Bar on our walking tour into the city.

The march into the Minster had also been a bit of a forced march. When I scheduled this excursion several weeks ago, I decided that I would require students to attend Evensong at 5:30. 

I hemmed and hawed about this. I pondered it on long walks and runs. I do not like to compel worship experiences any more than I like to force people to hurry through a medieval city. But I was fairly certain that if I made Evensong merely optional, most or all of the students wouldn’t go—the heathens—even though they’d benefit deeply from attending. That benefit might amount to nothing more than articulating their objections to high church worship, but precious few of them have even experienced such worship in England on their own.

In any case, I called the Minster at some point in early February to purchase access to the building for a self-guided tour in the afternoon, when students would be free to wander at their leisure, and I happened to mention that we’d be attending Evensong, as well. The office at the Minster responded with two invoices, one charging me for the afternoon admission and one indicating a zero balance for Evensong—which is always free, although they graciously set aside a block of seats for us.

In the “Visit type” field on the invoice, someone had entered “Pilgrimage.”

On the one hand, that one word resonated deeply with the goals of our program. We spent a good deal of time in orientation talking about different ways of traveling—as crusaders, as explorers, as nomads, as tourists—and in particular the virtues of traveling as a pilgrim.

On the other hand, the word “pilgrimage” raised the question, for me, of whether a genuine spiritual journey can be a mandatory experience. Is there such a thing as a compulsory pilgrimage?

No. The way I understand the concept, even if a pilgrimage is a fairly defined part of a religious tradition, the journey itself needs to be driven by the voluntary choice of the pilgrim. A pilgrim, by definition, needs to be looking for something and choosing to go out and look for it. A pilgrimage is a journey of seeking and self-denial, and the self needs to be both the subject and the object of that denying.

So I decided that the stated reason for our visit was simply inaccurate—it couldn’t be a pilgrimage if students weren’t choosing to make it—but I did look forward to students ending a day in York with “the full Anglican”—the spiritual equivalent of a “full English” breakfast. I have such beautiful memories of Evensong: times when I dragged myself in, tired and anxious and not at all in the mood, but when—squirreled away in an oaken seat in the back—all of my cares dissolved, and I couldn’t tell whether heaven had come down or I had risen up, but I suspected both, and I knew for sure that God and I had touched. 

Last Saturday night wasn’t one of those nights. Attendance was sparse; the choir was small; the chants just seemed too long. It was, if anything, colder than it was outdoors. The ushers had shown us to folding chairs beyond the choir itself, where there were no prayer books in which to read the words being sung. And I had chosen to sit on the side of the church facing the construction scaffolding on the opposite side, so the fourteenth century majesty of the building—always an important aspect of worship there—was largely obscured.

Even so, however—even when Evensong at the Minster fails to enchant—it strikes a balance that I find crucial in worship. The first half of the balance is hospitality, and this is largely accomplished by the Minster staff, from the friendly man in the scarf at the door who showed our group right in, to the usher who chatted with me while we waited—introducing me to a couple of other Americans in the queue—to the lector for the evening, who came up to our group in all of her clerical robes before the service started and bantered with the students for a bit. A couple of students were astonished when she approached the lectern at the beginning of the service and welcomed the group from Calvin University, the name of our little school back home echoing through fourteen centuries of space and stone.

The second half of the balance, however, is the sense of something bigger than oneself. I would almost suggest that it’s not really worship if some element of the service doesn’t somehow say, “It isn’t all about you, you know.” The first question of the Heidelberg Catechism is “What is your only comfort, in life and in death?” and its answer begins, “That I am not my own….” A worship service ought to communicate this deep, difficult, counter-cultural truth. I need to be welcome there, but the service needs to bring me out of myself, to feel like something not my own.

In so many modern churches, the expectation is that a service will bring God to the worshipper: the music should be the kind I like to listen to, tuned to my taste; the Bible should be read in a clear, easy translation; the sermon should apply the Bible to my life. I should be able to sit back in a reasonably comfortable chair and simply receive all of that.

Evensong dispenses with most of those catering comforts. I am sure that, when my students sit down to write about the service, some will criticize it as being excessive: the robes, the organ, the nuanced harmonies. I suspect, however, that some of their discomfort springs not from these “excesses” but rather from felt deficiencies: a service like this doesn’t bend toward them the way their church back home does.

“Britain will not come to you,” I said to students during orientation; “you must go to Britain.” You can’t just sit in your dorm room in Liverpool and expect meaningful cultural experiences to come knocking at the door. You have to go seek those things, and doing so will involve some self-denial. It often won’t be easy, or comfortable, or even fun. Do it anyway. Get out there; get in there.

Students take in the Great East Window earlier in the day

So I sat in my little folding chair Saturday night, staring at the construction scaffolding and shivering, not understanding many of the words being sung, and more than a little worried about the hustle we would have to make to the train station. “This isn’t what I’d hoped it would be,” I said to myself. “The magic isn’t here. Students are going to hate this.”

What I was doing, of course, was to project my own disappointment on the students and blame them for it—which is, among other things, a gross unfairness to the best group of students I’ve ever worked with. And at some level, I knew that I was doing that, and that I needed to follow my own advice: “It won’t just come to you tonight. Get in there.” 

So I closed my eyes. I did slow breathing exercises. I meditated. And I prayed. Not really catching the lyrics of the psalms, I used my own words. And when I opened my eyes, I had the sense that my own words were becoming not my own, hovering upwards into the chilly air along with the harmonies of the choir, along with centuries upon centuries of other petitions, worries, griefs, and gripes that have risen in this place—little bits of lives as unintelligible to me as the words the choir was singing. I had been welcomed into a spiritual space far, far greater than its welcome of me.

We made the train. This is the other reality of Evensong: the reality of the real world that awaits just outside the great Minster doors, the long walk home or the worried hurry toward the rail station. Mundane concerns like this help to define the service by contrast, the slow time and huge space of Evensong somehow becoming even slower and huger in memory, compared to the rush-and-bustle of a busy street corner in downtown York. One cannot live in Evensong. It is, after all, tightly tied liturgically to just one moment of the fleeting day. So we found our train seats and settled in just in time for the train to hurry us out of York and off into the night toward Liverpool.

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Happy husband since 2001, proud dad since 2010, diligent English professor since 1995. "And gladly wolde he lerne, and gladly teche."