Pilgrims: Jeremy's reformed view of "the Reformation thing"

So much of what she saw of the cathedral left her with so little to say. She'd come to Canterbury on a pilgrimage of her own to visit the shrine like so many thousands before her—even though she wasn't Anglican, even though its high-church style was something that simply wouldn't play at Riverdale, the church she'd pastored for the last five years. It was in the soul or something, she thought, in the blood of all of those who professed the name of Christ—a pilgrimage to Canterbury, the mother church of the Anglican Communion, the seat of the archbishops of Canterbury since the time of Saint Augustine, leader of the missionary effort to bring Christianity to Britain in the seventh century.

There was, after all, the sheer age of the place and the monumental heft of tradition one felt at every step on the tour she and her family took through and around its premises. There were times she wished she'd left the kids at home, tired as they'd become of "old things." But on the whole they behaved themselves well, stunned into a kind of awe, as she was, by the magnificent grandeur of the whole place.

There was absolutely no escaping the humbling sense of smallness even the kids felt as they entered the nave through Christ Church Gate and stood beside huge pillars and beneath a ceiling so overwhelming it took your breath away. This was a palace of God. No one spoke, even though it was August and tourists were everywhere. There was a kind of hushed silence from awestruck humans, like ants beneath the satiny-looking ribs of the vaulted ceiling incredibly high above their heads. Even Jeremy, without being told, had jammed his Bulls cap into the back pocket of his shorts.

As she stood there with Anne-Marie, their youngest, Carolyn couldn't help thinking of the new church plans at Riverdale—how they'd not really skimped, the congregation hardly paupers, but how the new church seemed, in comparison, grotesquely American, a place of worship created not so much to bring glory to God but to accommodate a stage and a sound system—something vintage Las Vegas.

"Mom, why?" Jeremy asked blankly as they stood at the font, something Mark, Carolyn's husband, had to identify from the guidebook. The font was constructed of marble, with figures of the four evangelists round the base and the twelve apostles on the cover—a heavy cover, as Jeremy discovered, that had to be lifted from its place by an elaborate system of pulleys he might have erected himself from his grandpa's old Tinkertoys.

"What's the point?" he said. "I don't get it."

"It's for baptism," she told him.

"I'm not an idiot," he said, savageness borne from adolescence. "But why?What's the point?" She knew what he was thinking—how the baptismal font at Riverdale, designed and created by a sculptor from their church, seemed little more than a fat gourd when compared with this. He was wondering why these people hundreds and hundreds of years ago had invested so much on a piece of furnishing.

"The point is the richness of the sacrament—it's a way of drawing attention to how important baptism really is," she said. But even as she said them she thought the words sounded as tinny as a false apology. "This thing's getting close to four hundred years old," Mark told Jeremy, pointing at the guidebook text. "You get to be that age, and nobody asks why anymore." He pointed at it. "Just think—somebody put it here at the same time pilgrims were settling Massachusetts."

"People from right here," Jeremy said, "from England. People running away from all of this."

In a way, Carolyn wished he hadn't learned history as well as he had.

"It says here that the Puritans smashed it in 1642," Mark announced, as coldly as some veteran tour guide.

"How come?" Jeremy said, still shaking his head at the pulleys. "Smashed it?"

"Banged it up pretty good," Mark said, his nose in the guidebook. "It's a Puritan thing, I guess—too much pomp and circumstance or something," he said. "But some guy must have hauled it out and then stored it the whole time Cromwell was in power—hid it." He looked up at Carolyn, laughing. "A bunch of junkyard dogs, weren't they?" he said.

Signs everywhere begged people to remember that this was a place of God, a place of worship for centuries, a place of silence, and Carolyn wished her family wouldn't talk so much. She tipped her head toward the moving phalanx of tourists. "Let's keep going," she said.

They followed along, down a flight of steps into what the guidebook called the northwest transept, and stopped before a small, square altar of stone barely bigger than a hassock that stood beneath a grotesque black cross, jagged and sharpened to a point, both arms mounted with horrifying swords like lightning bolts.

"This is it," Mark told them, "the place Saint Thomas was murdered. Right here, at this very spot in 1170—December 29." For the kids' sake it had to be said, Carolyn thought, but the way Mark announced it seemed inappropriate, the kind of inflection he might have used to tell them where Jack the Ripper had done in one of his victims.

She pulled Jeremy and Stephen beside her, Anne-Marie still holding her hand. "For centuries people have come here, to this very spot," she said quietly. "Thousands and thousands of people, just like us."

"What for?" Stephen said.

"Because he was a martyr," she told him. "Saint Thomas was murdered right here for his belief in God."

"Right in a museum?" Anne-Marie said.

"It's a church, dummy," Stephen said.

"This is a church?" Anne-Marie said. "Who comes here?"

"We do," Stephen said, "all the way from Rockford." He looked up at his mother. "Does that make us pilgrims?" he asked.

"The pilgrims came to America," Jeremy said. "They got the heck out of here."

Carolyn was thinking of Chaucer, and Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral. How could she explain it all? "Saint Thomas didn't do what the king wanted," she told them. "The king thought he could run the church, and Saint Thomas thought it was wrong for the civil government to run things. So," she said, "the king had him murdered" she pointed at the altar, "... right here, right at this very spot."

"No kidding?" Stephen said.

"For hundreds of years people have come to this very spot," she told them, "for almost a thousand years already."

"Like Graceland," Jeremy said, "or O. J.'s house."

She looked at him angrily.

"Really, Mom," he said, "I read it. Lots of people drive past the place where his wife was murdered. It's like a shrine."

"It's not like this," she said. "It's not at all like this."

Beneath the nave, in the marvelous crypt whose series of Romanesque archways and columns and capitals opened magnificently to the lovely Jesus Chapel at the far eastern point of the cathedral, votive candles created a solemnity that hushed the kids once again, as Mark tried to scan the details in the guidebook.

Somewhere on the south side, Mark questioned a museum guide about a stained-glass facade that seemed unfinished or broken, its vividly colored panes running only halfway up to the roof line, then ending abruptly where the glass seemed only darkened with age. "Part of this, I suppose, was destroyed by Nazi bombing?" he wisely asked the guide, as if he were already confident of the cause.

The woman was portly, full of energy and anxious to talk. She pointed up at the crooked edge of brightly colored glass. "Roundheads," she told them. "Cromwell's fanatics. They passed quite regularly on this side of the cathedral, and when they did, they likely pummeled the glass with rocks." She threw out an open hand. "Beastly of them, wasn't it?"

Beastly, Carolyn thought, thinking the line of broken art itself a monument.

When they were finally ready to take a walk around the outside of the cathedral, and Stephen was urgently needing the mens' room, Jeremy wasn't around.

"You take him," she told Mark, pointing at Stephen, Anne-Marie's hand still in her own. "We'll find Jeremy."

And they did. Carolyn retraced her steps up the stone stairway and through the throng of visitors, then found Jeremy quite quickly. He'd gone back to the ancient wall of broken glass, where he was standing with the guidebook in his hand, reading.

"So what did you find?" Carolyn said.

"You know, Mom," he said, "it says here that statue of Christ where we came inóyou know, outside of the main gate where we paid admission. It says here that statue is new because years ago the Puritans just tore down the old one." He pointed at the book as if it were revelation. "It says that right here."

She nodded. Anne-Marie was anxious to leave.

His eyes were full of fire when he looked up at her. "We're Puritans, aren't we?" he said. "I mean, every year we do this Reformation thing in church. They're us, in a way, right? We come from them."

"'Original reformers,' I guess you'd call them," she said, creating some distance. She looked up at the blank spaces of the window, the jagged lines where old beauty had likely been desecrated by rocks and stones.

"Calvin and Luther and all of that, right?" he said.

"Calvin and Luther, right."

He nodded, and then he turned all the way around, scanned what could be seen of the wondrous quire, the chapels behind him, the span of stained-glass windows, the creation of hundreds of years of work, incredible expense, unquestionable beauty and majesty. She saw it again with him, followed his eyes all around the wonderful Canterbury Cathedral.

And then he stood there on one leg, hands in his pockets like a smart-aleck kid. "You know, Mom," he said, "I'm glad we came here." He looked at her directly. "I think I understand why you brought us."

A pilgrimage is what she thought of it as when they set aside one day of their tour of England to visit Canterbury. A pilgrimage of sorts. Homage-bringing.

A sacred journey of religious devotion. Something enlightening—something good for the kids.

James Calvin Schaap (jschaap@dordt.edu) is a writer and professor of English at Dordt College, Sioux Center, Iowa.