In the last week, each of us has been on separate annual pilgrimages with our daughter, Emma.
For the first day of the Test against New Zealand, she and Mike went to Lord’s (no, not Lourdes!) – the holy shrine of world cricket. In the opening moments of the game, the capacity crowd of 30,000 fell completely silent in expectation.
Last Sunday, for the first time in two years, Emma and Helen resumed their annual pilgrimage to the great wooden ‘O’ - Shakespeare’s Globe theatre on the banks of the Thames in the heart of London. After years of promising, they decided this was the time to take 12-year old Sienna with them. As usual, it was magical. A figure in costume moved on the stage – or in this case among the ‘groundlings’ standing in front of the stage - and 1500 people fell silent full of expectation.
As Emma put it, “sometimes Lord’s and the Globe are thin places” (in the Celtic sense). In both cases, there are moments that feel like being in a cathedral - people focus and pay full attention to something real outside themselves.
Of course it doesn’t stay like that. After the first half an hour at Lord’s the noise level rose as the alcohol consumption increased. As always with Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing moved in quick succession from bawdiness to clownish antics to deep reflections on marriage and mourning.
There was a similar mixture during the Queen’s Jubilee celebrations last weekend. A military parade in Whitehall on Thursday was followed by a religious service in St Paul’s Cathedral on Friday. Secular TV commentators referred throughout to the Queen’s Christian faith as being her source of strength throughout 70 difficult years. Then a sound and light extravaganza in front of Buckingham Palace featuring dreams and aspirations alongside a huge colourful carnival and a comedy sketch which involved the Queen and her handbag and Paddington Bear and his marmalade sandwich.
In surprisingly quick succession, the sacred and the secular are rarely far apart. They are certainly not as separate as religious people often suggest. Avowedly secular people are not immune to hearing the occasional echo of heaven.
RS Thomas, the Welsh clergyman-poet captured it well with this:
‘Prayer like gravel / Flung at the ship’s / window; hoping to attract the loved one’s / Attention…I would have refrained long since / But that peering once / Through my locked fingers / I thought I detected / The movement of a curtain’. ‘Folk Tale’.
In our lives, we often get regular spiritual insights from friends who wouldn’t describe themselves as religious. Those ‘thin’ moments can arise in conversation when people dare to tell the truth about who they really are and very suddenly we are on the holy ground of self-disclosure. Equally we can feel distant from some who profess the same faith as we do but who tend to share their ‘knowledge’ rather than their unique individual spiritual experience.
The word ‘secular’ itself originally referred to monks who were free to leave the monastery for the market-place. We believe that at Lord’s and at the Globe and in many other ‘market’ places, what is Real can whisper more loudly than it does in church.