I walked to Ely from Cambridge by catching the 07.31 train from Bury St Edmunds. As I passed by Parker’s Piece large numbers of Muslims were celebrating- eating breakfast in the open air and embracing each other. “Ramadan is finished!”, a young man explained, adding (helpfully) that this was “the equivalent of your Lent!”
I congratulated him and felt rather guilty. I have always admired my colleagues’ ability to manage Ramadan, particularly during summer. Any attempt to do without during Lent has been fairly feeble on my part, and never a cause for community celebration.
Fasting was a feature of pilgrimage for Margery Kempe (b.1373), who did not always get much sympathy. She describes her visit to the Holy Land to Mount Quarentyne, allegedly where Jesus had fasted for forty days. She felt too weak to get up the mountain until she was helped by Grey Friars, whilst her fellow countrymen would not acknowledge her. “And so she was ever more strengthened in the love of our lord and the more bold to suffer shame and rebukes for his sake”.. I can see why her countrymen found Margery irritating. Hardship and doing without bears an interesting relationship to holiness. Is my walking hardship or enjoyment or both, and how are they connected? There is a sense of satisfaction from arriving somewhere, and the journey is always interesting; Margery was looking for Pardon, and described a sense of grace and spiritual comfort. But she seemed to do it despite her fellow countrymen rather than as a community effort.
The river Cam looked in perfect condition, with lots of boats about. I was intrigued to watch a dredging boat, Berky, reach out and scoop a colony of watercress up and into its rollers with a pile of foliage arriving on board- we definitely need one of those on the Lark!
Hardship started to creep in at Waterbeach. I lost my way and found a gate impossible to open. When I found the path again things were badly overgrown and it had begun to rain. There was a large herd of cows in the way, although they had at at least trampled the ground enough to see where to go. I just tried to ignore them and also the sign which warned they could be aggressive with calves about. There were several miles where the path was very overgrown until things began to improve again. Then once again the marvellous cathedral came into view and I knew things would get better. And by some miracle I arrived at the station with 90 seconds to go before the train took me back to Bury St Edmunds
Miracles were a feature of the Holy Saints in Medieval times, and a reason for Pilgrimage- this sounds quite competitive, as the more miracles emanate from your Holy Site the more people will visit it. This is discussed in a PhD thesis by Michael Schmalz in 2017, using data from Herman’s De Miraculis. Edmund is credited with miracles involving punishment, but also rescue and healing. In a world without modern medical intervention this would be very useful indeed.
St Etheldreda was the centre of the cult at Ely, with reports that contact with her shroud-cloths could drive away demons, and her coffin could cure blindness. To this list we can now add prompt rescue by warm trains.