Sermon: Pullman Pilgrimage
Preached on 27th August 2006
by The Very Reverend Michael Sadgrove
This is my first sermon since Easter. So I am out of practice. Most of you know that I have been on sabbatical leave for the last few months. Getting back into your stride is not just a matter of discovering how the place has changed while you have been away but also how you have changed. On the Cathedral front re-entry has meant no big shocks I'm glad to say, and I do want to say thank you to my colleagues and to you for sparing me. As to how this period of leave has affected me, only time will tell. A sabbatical is not simply a chance to study and write - though I have done that. ‘Sabbath' means a change of pace, refocusing, the renewal of perspectives and horizons. And that changes you.
While I was away I made a physical journey that I hoped would be emblematic of an interior, spiritual journey. Jenny and I wanted to follow the line of brass cockle-shells set into the road outside our house in France. They point down the hill towards a place a thousand miles away. In the middle ages, our village of Vézelay was a starting point of the great pilgrimage to the shrine of St James at Compostela in northern Spain at the westernmost tip of Europe. Its symbol was the cockle-shell or coquille. Each year thousands of pilgrims undertake all or part of the Camino: on bicycle horseback or foot, and converge at Santiago with half of Spain for the Feast of St James on 25 July. For many of them, it's an opportunity to renounce, at least for a time, rapid and polluting forms of transport, re-connect with the soil beneath their feet, gain a deeper spiritual perspective, perhaps take time to come to terms with some life-crisis and allow the slower, gentler pace to give a sense of what the human journey is for.
One of my colleagues unkindly dubbed this adventure ‘Pullman Pilgrimage', for we decided to drive there and back. Yet to drive offered perspectives of its own. For one thing, it enabled us to do the entire journey there and back as a single event, which is how those who completed it in the middle ages experienced it. Because the car is an archetypally modern form of transport, to put it to the service of pilgrimage raised questions about being pilgrims of our own 21st century. Not to race along motorways but to drive slowly, stop at churches and shrines to pray and meet pilgrims, treat the car as sacred space and home for this little community of pilgrims - perhaps there could be something redemptive in such an approach. And if pilgrimage is meant to include ordeals, we encountered those in a strange land whose language we did not speak and whose city-centres were seething with aggressive Latin drivers for whom two innocents abroad sporting a UK registration plate are fair game.
Those 17 days of pilgrimage proved a remarkable experience. I don't think we were expecting to feel the ‘pull' of the Camino so strongly, and the fellowship of its travellers moving in a purposeful procession across Spain. The spirituality of the churches, the beauty of the landscapes, the stories of the people we met, to know that pilgrims had been making this journey for hundreds of years all made for an unforgettable adventure. Arriving at the magnificent cathedral at Santiago was profoundly moving after that immense journey. I have not experienced anything quite like it.
But pilgrimage is not simply about etherealising. Santiago, like Jerusalem and Rome, and for that matter Durham too, raises questions that can be disturbing. In the Cathedral there is a monumental sculpture of St James on horseback, brandishing a sword. Underneath are hapless Muslims being massacred - for St James is matamoros, the moor-slayer adopted as the patron saint of the Reconquista, that project of seven centuries to drive Islam out of Spain and reclaim it for Christendom. The cathedral authorities have the decency to hide the lower part of that sculpture with flowers. But it opened my eyes to what I had not appreciated before, that making the pilgrimage in the middle ages was a political act. It stood for the church's power over another faith community, a power that was brutally expressed in battle and bloodshed. Soldiers of Christ, indeed, as in the hymn we have just sung and the reading from Ephesians - but with literal shields and helmets and swords. It was thought-provoking that I was writing a book at the same time about St John's Passion Narrative where Jesus says ‘My kingdom is not from this world; if my kingdom were from this world, my servants would be fighting'. And we should recall that here too, our great church of Durham was not only built as the shrine of a saint. It was an unambiguous statement of Norman power. It belonged with the Conqueror's ruthless policies in the north of England and his massacre of the native Saxon people. To associate gentle Cuthbert with that act of ethnic cleansing is perhaps more paradoxical than making James the Son of Thunder the symbol of the re-conquest of Spain.
I am saying that political realities and the dark side of our human condition are never far away even in the most uplifting sacred spaces. In today's gospel, Jesus speaks of himself as the living bread that came down from heaven. He is the source of our life: without him we die. Just before this, he has fed the hungry crowd with the loaves and fishes, and they have threatened to grab him by force and make him king. By evading capture and going on to teach about this living bread, Jesus renounces political power for himself and his followers; his kingship is ‘not from here'. It is not that politics and power are of no concern to him - the opposite in fact, for the embrace of the Word made flesh is nothing less than everything: all that belongs to our human condition belongs to him. Rather, his exercise of power points to a kingship beyond all human authority and rule. He came, he says to Pilate, ‘to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears my voice'.
Pilgrimage, if it is real, must always be a journey into truth. It is not enough to overcome ordeals, have beautiful experiences, return home with travellers' tales to tell. There must be some glimpse of truth: about ourselves, our world, our God. No-one who is aware of the threats we face in our century can go to Compostela without a sense of sorrow for the destructiveness of the past and present, and without realising afresh that the language of hegemony and conquest can have no place in today's world. Like the crusades, the story of Reconquista calls for a healing of memories. Today's gospel points us to its source. Peter speaks for a world hungry for hope: ‘Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life'. St John says that we see the glory of God in the one who is lifted up on the cross and draws all humanity to himself; there we see love poured out for the world. The cross brings healing and reconciliation; and food for the long march towards the kinder, more Christ-like world we long for. We bring to this eucharist of living bread our longing, our hope, that the crucified and risen Lord will soon gather up the fragments of our broken world and of own broken lives so that nothing may be lost.
John 6. 56-69