In 2008, I took my mother to Germany to celebrate her 92nd birthday. I only required one thing of her and that was to allow for a trip to Aachen to see Karl der Großes chapel, and to visit the pilgrim church of Saint Anne in Düren, a small city that lies between Köln and Aachen. Saint Anne's Church was destroyed in the Second World War, and was rebuilt using a lot of the ruined stone in a marvelous building designed by Rudolf Schwartz. So it was my pilgrimage, a trip to search for a moral or spiritual significance in life - a building, and an artistic expression. Oddly enough, peoples throughout the ages wandered their way to Düren to see the head of Saint Anne, the mother of the Blessed Virgin Mary - so there was an alternative pilgrimage that was possible.
Right now I am on a pilgrimage with the Choir from Saint Mark's Episcopal Church in Berkeley, California, and my thoughts have been centered for several days on what it means to be a pilgrim. Usually pilgrimages happen over long distances, such as the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain that stretched from various points in Europe - Köln being one starting point. My thoughts are, however, that pilgrimages can happen within confined spaces, and indeed do. At the outset one is greeted when entering Ely Cathedral with a labyrinth. It gives you a clue as to what you need to do while in the building - wander - make a pilgrimage - seek a moral or spiritual goal. The most famous of such labyrinths is at Chartres, sitting below the regular seating in the nave.
At Ely the Baptistry is to the immediate right as you enter, giving you another clue about the journey and about where you might begin.
I think that we tend to think of churches as places where a community gathers, and when we go there we expect to be in the company of a lot of people, all gathered to worship and to sing and pray together. What troubles me about this is that it limits our expectation and experience of the place. Might it be more than that, might it be a place for individual wandering and pilgrimage as well. Take a look at the floor plan of the Cathedral at Seville below.
Notice that in the midst of the nave is the quire, really a separate building that blocks visual access to the high altar that lies right behind it. This is not a room for gathering a bunch of people that can see the mass from the far reaches of the nave. It is built for limited congregations, and for those who wish to be pilgrims there. Seville is really a large room with destinations within it. Ely is really a collection of rooms, in which a congregation may gather, or individuals may wander.
The Baptistry is a starting point, although it could be a destination of remembrance as well. If you look at the plan, the nave, the quire, the ambulatory with its chapels, the Lady chapel, and the transepts and their chapels represent a variety of destinations that a pilgrim might seek. As I sat in the choir this evening at Evensong, my eyes wandered up to the galleries that snake along above the quire (and in the nave and transepts as well). I had always thought of them as architectural necessities, rather than as other routes for monk/pilgrims seeking individual serenity and quiet. They are probably both.
What follows are three "pilgrimages" that I found at the cathedral. There are many, such as the individual figures in the arches of the Lady Chapel, or the panels above the stalls of the quire. Here are suggested pilgrimages that can give you some idea of how you might wander at Ely:
1. Pilgrimage around the Baptistry and its Font - Investigate the images of the Evangelists on the Font. Where is the Font placed in relationship to the entire Baptistry? Why?
2. The ceiling of the Nave is its own pilgrimage - but you might want to bring binoculars. The ceiling fills 12 bays of the nave and begins with Creation, The Fall, etc., continuing through the whole Hebrew Scriptural Salvation History. It was painted in the Victorian period in 1862.
3. The Quire. Notice the panels above the individual choir stalls, and the carvings below the seat level and at the end of a row of stalls. So much information is available to the faithful pilgrim who searches on her quest.
I worry that I've become a bit pedantic with all of this. However, my visit to Ely calls me to look differently at the worship space in my own parish church. How might I be a pilgrim there, and how might I encourage others by its architecture to do the same?