Living Stories on the Road: The Pilgrim’s Progress to Canterbury

When I left Dover, I went straight to Canterbury for the next part of my journey.   Canterbury is a treasure trove for the literary and historically-minded sort.  Aside from the obvious (Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales), Christopher Marlowe, contemporary playwright of Shakespeare’s, was born here.  Thomas Becket was murdered here.  Edward, the Black Prince was buried here. A Norman Castle still stands in the outskirts of the town near the Roman wall, which can still be walked along. And just to make everything even more fabulous, the town center is complete with old buildings in that fantastic Tudor style, stone paved streets, and (could we possibly forget?) the magnificent Canterbury Cathedral.

Canterbury has long been on my list of places to visit because of reading The Canterbury Tales not many years ago.  Making a pilgrimage, as Chaucer’s characters did while telling their tales, struck me as a perfect homage to the writer and a fond memory for myself.

I did not anticipate that another literary pilgrim would be brought forcibly to mind by my travels.  John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, written a couple of centuries later, features a very different Pilgrim on a very different road.  Somehow, I managed to bring the two together.

What I didn’t mention in my last post was that the entire time I was climbing cliffs and exploring a castle, I had a massive backpack to carry around with me, complete with all my belongings for the trip and my laptop (I know, it was silly, but I had my reasons for bringing it).  It was tolerable for a couple hours, but soon become nearly unbearable.  I would have to sit down every so often to relieve the pain in my neck and shoulders.  I still enjoyed the day, but very much wished that backpack far away.

I was not able to put it down until we arrived in Canterbury on the eve of Easter Sunday.  With great joy, I slipped the burden off my back and on Easter morning, I followed the bells to the cathedral and celebrated the Resurrection.

If you have ever read The Pilgrim’s Progress, you know that the most significant moment in Pilgrim’s life is when he reaches the empty cross and the empty tomb.  It is then that his burden falls from his back and rolls into the tomb and he becomes Christian.  I had not intended to live out that scene quite so literally (who wants to carry a burden on their back while climbing cliffs?) but when I realized that my freedom from that physical burden came together with my arrival in Canterbury precisely at Easter, and with pilgrims already on my mind, I couldn’t help thinking about that story and that scene.  I felt like I had gained a slightly better understanding of that allegory.  If one day with my burden had nearly been the end of me (I’m allowed to be dramatic because it was a dramatic moment), what would half a lifetime be like?  And how much greater the incredible relief to be released from it?

This Easter was more profound for me than most.  It was my pilgrimage and the destination was a magnificent cathedral.  I could easily imagine why pilgrims for so many years would make their weary way to this place.  You can see the tall towers of the cathedral rising over the city long before you reach it.  The tolling of the bells draws you to its doors.

Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales does not dwell much on Canterbury or what happens when you actually get there.  His tales wander far and wide in their topics and his characters come from every walk of life.  The road to Canterbury brings them together in a common purpose and a common goal:

Whan that Aprille, with hise shoures soote,
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his swete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open eye-
So priketh hem Nature in hir corages-
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes
To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
And specially, from every shires ende
Of Engelond, to Caunturbury they wende…

St Martin's has been used for nearly 1500 years. I was impressed.

In April I went, like these pilgrims.  I visited the martyr’s grave, though all that remains of his shrine is a candle (Henry VIII had a fit one day and had Becket’s shrine destroyed). I saw the hostel where pilgrims were put up for the night on their visits to the cathedral.  I saw St Augustine’s abbey and the church he founded when he first arrived in England in 597 (where people still worship).  I saw Roman walls and a Norman fortress.

I saw the cathedral.

A single candle lit for the martyr.

As far as pilgrimages go, I have no complaints about mine.  I lived two stories, one old and one even older, and I celebrated Easter amidst stained glass and choir voices with my thoughts rising even higher than the vaulted ceiling above me.

This pilgrim is satisfied.

Next week:  Discover my irritation to learn that a duke and duchess have taken over Mr. Darcy’s House.
For more photos: My Travel Blog

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About Melissa

generally in love with things Celtic, mythological, fantastic, sharp and pointy, cute and fuzzy, intellectual, snarky, cheerful, or some combination thereof. Such things as sarcastic bunnies wielding claymores might come to mind...

Posted on May 9, 2012, in Art, Books, Christianity, History, Lantern Hollow Press Authors, Melissa Rogers, Photography, Story, Travel and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Canterbury is one of my favorite cathedrals in England because they still treat it like a church–Westminster Abbey and St. Paul’s are more like museums where they happen to have church services. I got to do morning prayer there once. A long line of black-cassocked priests swept through, kicking out all those who were mere tourists but inviting those who wished to remain for the service. To worship there is a rare privilege. And the acoustics–and the little choir that fills that huge building like an army of angel voices–don’t get me started!

    • I did like it better than Westminster. The service was definitely better. The music was transcendent and the archbishop’s homily was quite good.

      Plus, you can take pictures in Canterbury Cathedral. As an avid photographer, that immediately won it points that Westminster did not get.

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