My travels thus far have been uneventful, even seamless—St. Louis to Chicago to London. Taxi from Heathrow to Waterloo Station. Train ride to Salisbury, and then a short taxi ride to the White Hart Inn.
Having arrived too late for morning worship, I made up my mind for evensong at the Cathedral, just blocks away from my hotel and whose tallest-in-Britain spire is visible from my window. The gothic structure of the building strikes a silhouette recognizable to anyone who has ever thought about medieval architecture, and inside the building are treasures enough—the best preserved of the four surviving copies of the Magna Carta is in the Cathedral here, and the clock in the tower is claimed as the oldest time-keeping mechanism in the world, still in use, just to cite a couple of examples.
On journeys like this one, I try to practice the art of pilgrimage, and not tourism. It is not easy to do, when I am tired or distracted. But the curiosities of a place are easier to deal with than the place itself and its people. When I am in tourist mode, I pass through the place; but when I am in pilgrim mode, I am able to do as someone taught me long ago, and I allow the place to pass through me. A tourist collects things—souvenirs, cards, relics, data, photographs, checkmarks on the to-see list. A pilgrim risks conversion.
I have enough native curiosity to make a pretty good tourist, but I pray for the spiritual attentiveness required of a pilgrim. I was at least alert enough to recognize that these stones had overheard the prayers of believers for three-quarters of a millennium. The building is saturated with the prayers of the faithful, as apparent as the grooves worn into its steps, made by all those feet who have gone over them. It is a beautiful place, yes, but more to the point, it is palpably holy.
But back to evensong, my reason for coming to the Cathedral. There is familiarity and comfort in the 1662 service, sung in choral fashion, and sung in the gothic choir. This is not the style of office that I want for everyday diet, mind you, what with its archaic language and framework of professional participation only, all others being allowed to watch and listen. But it is a style that fits Salisbury.
And even in this old-fashioned, somewhat stifling template for prayer, the Salisbury Cathedral has found a way to do something brand new. There is a separate girl-choir, who take turns singing on an equal basis with the more familiar boy-choir. A girl-choir! And it was they who sang the office, and what a wonder it was to see them and to hear them. They premiered an extraordinarily difficult, almost atonal anthem commissioned for them, these girls, all younger than thirteen. The music was sublime, almost lyrical in the modern composition. The text for the anthem uses a sonnet by George Herbert, who spent most of his ministry as rector of Bremerton, just over a mile distant from the Cathedral. Here is the text:
- Prayer, the Church's banquet, Angels' age,
- God's breath in man returning to his birth,
- The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
- The Christian plummet sounding heav'n and earth;
- Engine against th' Almighty, sinner's tower,
- Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
- The six-days'-world transposing in an hour,
- A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;
- Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
- Exalted manna, gladness of the best,
- Heaven in ordinary, man well dressed,
- The milky way, the bird of Paradise,
- Church bells beyond the stars heard, the soul's blood,
- The land of spices, something understood.
- I am very glad that I opted for evensong.
- My reason for being in Salisbury is that the Sudan Partners are meeting here, Monday through Wednesday. The Diocese of Salisbury has a thirty-five year link with the whole province of the Episcopal Church of the Sudan, and they are graciously hosting a pre-Lambeth meeting for all the Sudanese bishops and bishops from the companion dioceses.