“Who will rid me of this troublesome priest?” These word of King Henry II spoken nearly 900 years ago, began a series of events that we still talk about today. Henry II and Thomas Beckett were good pals until Henry made Thomas the Archbishop of Canterbury. Then, Thomas did the unthinkable and decided to not do everything Henry wanted, that started a power struggle that ended when Henry’s henchmen took him literally and murdered Thomas in the middle of the Cathedral. Within hours of the murder, miracles happened with the blood of Thomas. Henry regretted his words and spent a lifetime doing penance. The world began walking to Canterbury for miracles and salvation.
A hundred and fifty years later, Geoffrey Chaucer immortalized the Canterbury pilgrimage and the stories of medieval life. 600 years later. The Canterbury Tales are still part of almost every high school curriculum, except my high school where the stories were deemed inappropriate and not good for me. Oh my.
Since I love reading about pilgrimages as much as taking them I picked up Jerry Ellis’ book Walking to Canterbury. Last year, I read his book Walking the Trail about his experience walking the Trail of Tears backwards from Oklahoma to Alabama to feel more connected to his Cherokee heritage. Jerry wanted to honor his English roots as well by making a pilgrimage in England. He also walked from London to Canterbury along the traditional pilgrim route. Throughout the story, he perfectly weaves The Canterbury Tales and life in medieval England into his own experiences of the local people and places he encounters, walking in both worlds simultaneously. During the pilgrimage, he carved a walking stick with the faces of Christ and Sequoya, to honor both pilgrimages.
When I made my own pilgrimage to Canterbury in 2005 I had never read The Canterbury Tales or the story of Thomas Beckett. What I knew was that Canterbury is a magnificent cathedral and the Archbishop of Canterbury is the highest authority in the Anglican church, As an Episcopalian the prayers always included the current Archbishop. I didn’t walk to Canterbury but took a train from London with my husband, teen daughters and my dear friend Rachael. It was the first warm day of spring and the town was alive with people wanting to revel in the glories of sunshine, blue sky and flowers against the backdrop of Gothic perfection. The day had a magic and wonder I will never forget.
We met up with Rachael’s daughter Anne and her family and bought a family ticket that included all of us as we were family by choice. Rachael and I wandered silently through the cathedral slowly enjoying every detail we could possibly see. I particularly liked the zodiac roundels in the floor near Trinity chapel that date to the 1400’s. Our tour took us to the crypt where we admired the elaborate vestments and chalices. Just at the door to the garden were prayer candles. I lit one and made a vow that I didn’t expect to make that day, a vow to do what the Universe asks of me whatever that was. It was a sacred moment that changed me, a vow as important to me as my baptism and confirmation and marriage.
Rachael and I stepped into the sunshine and were greeted by her 7 year old granddaughter Louise who was impatiently waiting on a bench. “Hurry up Nanny, I’m 72 years old now.” Louise was right. Time had stood still that morning and at least 65 years had passed in a twinkling of an eye that beautiful day.