From: Pilgrim Road
Canterbury is lively and welcoming this November afternoon. Her streets, lined with pubs and souvenir shops, are noisy with the tongues of a dozen different lands. People still flock to visit the magnificent Gothic cathedral and its tomb of Thomas Becket, just as they’ve been doing since the late 1100s. Along these bustling lanes once walked the Wife of Bath, the bawdy Miller, the courtly Knight, the Pardoner, and the other colorful pilgrims in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, who told each other stories to pass the time on the road.
But if Canterbury breathes welcome and warmth, she also has an air of Saxon solidity, thanks to her cobblestone pavements, granite fences, moss-covered church walls, and grumpy gray ramparts of rough flint. Canterbury is a stony place.
I’ve left behind me her bustling streets and crowded pubs. Behind me, too, are the towers of the cathedral and the ancient city walls. I’m off in search of a special spot that hides about a half-mile outside of town.
I turn left up a narrow road that climbs a wooded slope. After a few minutes, a tiny church peeks out from behind the trees on the hilltop. This is Saint Martin’s, the earliest place of continuous Christian worship in all of England. It was already ancient when Bede the Venerable wrote in the early 700s that it was “built of old while the Romans were still inhabiting Britain.”
In the year 580, when Canterbury was the capital of the kingdom of Kent, the pagan King Ethelbert married a Christian princess named Bertha. The Queen had an oratory on this spot, and it was here that Ethelbert, now converted to Christianity, was baptized in 598 by Saint Augustine of Canterbury.
Near the crest of the hill I turn up a footpath that leads through the little churchyard and stand for a while looking at the old building. Despite improvements made in the twelfth century, some of the outside walls still show original Roman brickwork.
I walk slowly into the dark, silent chapel, overwhelmed by the sense of holiness of this sacred place whose roots have tapped deep into the rocky Kentish soil since the time of the Romans. All alone in the silence, I sit on a wooden bench and let my imagination wander easily back over the centuries.
Pope Saint Gregory the Great has chosen Augustine, prior of a monastery in Rome, to lead a band of monks to evangelize the pagan territory of the Angles. Their vow of obedience and their missionary zeal speed the little band on their way, full of joy and enthusiasm. But as they travel overland through Gaul, they begin to hear disturbing tales of the savage and murderous English natives. There are graphic details of the strange customs and the unpronounceable tongue that await them. There are sailors’ hair-raising reports of the treacherous currents and killer storms that lie in wait for travelers crossing the English Channel. The list of hazards gets longer every day. The missionaries’ enthusiasm for their task evaporates like the morning mist, and finally they hold a meeting to discuss whether this mission is really such a good idea after all. Caution wins out: they send Augustine back to Rome to explain to Pope Gregory the impossibility of the task and ask papal permission to return to their monastery in Rome. If Augustine and his little band get their way, the Saxons may have to remain in their pagan darkness for a few more centuries.
But Pope Gregory, the first biographer of Saint Benedict, knows the Rule for Monks and its Chapter 68, “The Assignment of Impossible Tasks to a Brother.” According to that chapter, if a monk is assigned “a burdensome task, or something he cannot do,” he should try it anyway. Then, if it proves beyond his ability, he is to explain humbly to his abbot why he cannot perform the task. Benedict continues: “If after the explanation the superior is still determined to hold to his original order, then the junior must recognize that this is best for him. Trusting in God’s help, he must in love obey.” We don’t know the pope’s exact words to Augustine, but we do know that he sent him right back to his companions with a letter of encouragement – and strict orders not to turn around again!
So the monks obediently continue their journey to Britain and today are venerated as the courageous missionary monks who first evangelized England. But it’s nice to know that they, too, were subject to an occasional case of cold feet! Like me, they were susceptible at times to discouragement and doubt. Their lives, like mine, included fear as well as faith, defeats as well as victories, weaknesses as well as virtues. The Canterbury monks are the patron saints of people who get cold feet. In the dark vaults of Saint Martin’s church, they whisper to me this afternoon to keep up my courage every day and struggle faithfully with my fears and doubts and hesitations.
I bid good-bye to the voices in the chapel and step outside into the chilly churchyard cemetery on the hilltop. Gray clouds still hang low over the roofs and towers of Canterbury below. The first raindrops begin to tap me gently on the shoulder, and I shiver in the November dampness; I turn to head back down to the bus station.
Begin this Lenten journey the way Augustine and his monks began their voyage to England, with hope, enthusiasm, and joy. The journey with Jesus into the truth about yourself may not turn out to be as daunting as their trip across the English Channel, but it will certainly have its difficulties.
Think for a few moments about a couple of obstacles you have encountered along the way in past Lents, and ask yourself how you might prepare yourself to overcome them this time. Then compose your own pilgrim’s prayer, asking the Lord to bless you as you set out on your journey and bring you to a joyful celebration on Easter morning.
Sacred Scripture (Joel 2:12-13)
Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.
Rule of Benedict (Prologue, vv. 48-49)
Do not be daunted immediately by fear and run away from the road that leads to salvation. It is bound to be narrow at the outset. But as we progress in this way of life and in faith, we shall run on the path of God’s commandments, our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love.