Hushed whispers echoed around me as tourists watched through the bars of Islip Chapel in Westminster Abbey where I knelt before an Anglican priest inside. Her words of prayer dropped on me like love.
My undergrad in English Literature had put Westminster Abbey at the top of my list for years. I wanted to see Poet’s Corner, where British poets and writers have been buried or commemorated. I wanted to pay respects to those who brought another world to me.
I didn’t think I’d ever have the chance though. As a child, my vacations were usually a weekend camping within a few hours of Los Angeles. I hadn’t been out of the state of California until I was 18 years old and hadn’t been on a plane until I was 26. Since I started writing, I’ve been saving the money I earned towards this trip to the UK, my first outside North America.
One thing I didn’t realize until walking into Westminster Abbey, is that it is a working place of worship. It seems silly now to share, but I had thought of it as a tourist site, not a church. But from the very moment you enter, it is clear this is a place of worship; voices are low and photos are not allowed. As much as I wanted to capture the beauty of the place, I was grateful for the restriction as it required me to be more present.
The immensity of the Abbey is overwhelming. Each step reveals the burial place of a composer, philosopher, king or queen. My mind was flooded with fragments of melodies or tales from history as moved deeper. As if the Church itself understood the gravity it imposes, each hour clergy would interrupt our thoughts and lead us in prayer. Docents stopped in mid conversation, staff handing out audio guides bowed their heads and we were reminded once again where we were standing.
Each day, visitors are invited to join a service behind the altar, where every monarch since 1066 has been coronated, to the shrine of St. Edward the Confessor, where he is buried. The area around the shrine is small and can hold just a dozen or so guests. After a monarch’s coronation, they slip behind the altar through a secret door in the screen to pray to St. Edward, for wisdom and guidance as they lead the people. The priest invited us to participate in this prayer ritual, walking around the shrine, once praying for guidance and wisdom on our own life journey and a second time, praying for those we take on the journey with us. It was a moving experience, not only praying in such an intimate space with this dozen but also praying with those who have worshipped here for centuries before us.
After the service, I mentioned to the Anglican priest that I read they provide anointing. She said yes, they do and asked if I would like one. I said yes, not entirely knowing what for. She lead me to Islip Chapel, which I had passed by earlier, peaking in through the bars on the chapel window. She unlocked the door and she and I both about the same size, squeezed through the narrow and low passageway. “They were smaller people back then.” She said.
She listened while I told her I’d been writing the past few years. I told her I’d gone as far as I could on my own but now I felt God was calling me to do something new, to go deeper but I hadn’t clue how. I didn’t tell her how I knew this new path was going to take me to a lonely place, where I could not distract myself with people and activities that held me back—from learning and growing.
I didn’t tell her I was scared. Ready. Willing. But scared.
In the Book of Romans, St. Paul says we often don’t know what to pray for, so the Holy Spirit himself intercedes for us. I felt Him at work as she used the word “pilgrimage” as she prayed over me, placing oil on my forehead.
In that moment I realized I felt something I hadn’t felt in a very long time. I wasn’t lonely.
I hadn’t realized it, but it was a pilgrimage.
“Let the words flow.” She said as she walked me out of the chapel. “Do not worry. A new voice will come.”
He brought me all this way, so I could hear His voice, saying He loved me.