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Oct 07 2013

Sunday London

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I found myself in London over a weekend for work recently. I spent Saturday touristing among a group of people every bit as busy as a London rush hour. London is every bit as frenetic on a Saturday.

Sunday, however, is a different story. There is an almost sleepy feel to a Sunday morning as London stretches and yawns and tries to make up its mind what it wants to do on its day off.

I decided that I wanted to attend a service and one of London’s grand old churches. After a bit of thought I settled on Westminster Abbey. It was founded in 960 and the present day church was built in 1245 by Henry the Third. This gives it a defensible claim on being the mother church of the English language, and there have been services on the spot for over a thousand years.

I made my way in to central London on the train, and discovered that this is the day that most of the public works are done on the Underground. Construction on the Jubilee line left me stranded a stop away from Westminster and I had to do some rerouting on the fly (Bakerloo to District) to arrive at the Abbey a bit winded, and about ten minutes late. It pays to know what is going on because I walked up to the guard at the West gate and asked if I was too late for Matins. He directed me in after he had just turned away someone previously.

There is no tourism allowed on Sundays at the Abbey but they are always welcoming to worshippers. Information is here if you find yourself in the same situation.

The vaulted baroque cathedral was filled with the sound of Elgar and the organ and choir combined to wrap me in sound that hung on a full three seconds after the strains of the song completed. I fancied that I could hear the echoes of previous services in the slowly dying reverberation.

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Although a bit more “high church” than I am personally used to, the service was beautiful and I found my self tiliting my head far back to admire the high, vaulted ceilings and the beautiful stained glass. It continues to amaze me that all of this was put together with no power tools. Only the determination of man to build a house worthy of their God with the means of the day. Truly inspiring.

The Priest spoke on pilgrimages in her homily. She referred to Chaucer to remind us that the people telling stories in Canterbury Tales were on a pilgrimage themselves.

Westminster is so crammed with statuary and memorials and other art that it is amazing that it does not distract from the worship. Somehow, in its controlled chaos it all adds to the process. I found myself ruminating that I was on a bit of a pilgrimage of my own that day. Among the statues of Newton and Edward the Confessor, and my seat in the poets corner where Ben Johnson and William Shakespeare are honored I felt very small. Humble and insignificant. I had made my journey of five thousand miles and sat among a group of other visitors who seemed to share the same sense of awe and reverence I did.

I spoke to the priest briefly after the service about her message of seeking the spiritual. She was very kind and spent a moment and pointed out that the thrust of her message was that seeking God was a journey, not a destination and we were all pilgrims as we looked toward that goal.

A journey. A pilgrimage of constant motion and slow movement towards a goal we can never quite achieve. That does sum it up nicely.

Unlike some other churches I have visited there was no invitation to coffee or tea, but rather a slow hushed parade to the exit as we headed back to our own discrete lives. I realized that I was mostly surrounded by people, like me that had come from near and far, but that this was not where they normally worshipped. It was a pilgrimage that we all shared.

So if you find yourself in a strange city over a weekend, I think there is much to recommend a visit to a beautiful old church not just to see the art and history contained within, but to see it used as it was meant to be.

As a place for humble pilgrims to gather and think about things bigger than themselves. As a time to focus on making themselves better and doing something for those less fortunate.

These are the things that I think God has in mind, and hopefully a church with this much practice under its belt will have an effect on your thoughts and attitudes, as it did on mine.

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