This is the year members of our family chose England as a venue for spiritual pilgrimage.
In January, Victoria celebrated her 26th birthday with a solo voyage to London and its connections to the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
In March, during Holy Week, Martha, Katie, and I will visit places in London that have been holy in our lives and heritage: Westminster Abbey, St. Paul’s Cathedral, and the final resting places of the saints and sinners of England’s religious past.
Some may well wonder if a fascination with Harry Potter compares in any way to the underlying religious dramas of London, including the tumultuous Reformation that swirled around the outsized personality of Great Harry VIII.
But I have difficulty seeing any spiritual and hermeneutical differences in the experiences.
Both Harrys were at the center of a mystical whirlwind of fracases between good and evil that impelled observers to seek the safety of higher powers.
Victoria did visit churches as well as historical sites and museums, but her primary goal was the Warner Brothers Harry Potter Museum and tour.
“It was probably the highlight of my trip,” which included visits to the Tower of London, Westminster Abbey, and Paris, Victoria said recently in an exclusive interview.
“At first I was worried that the visit to the studio might diminish my sense of the magic of Harry Potter,” she said. “But the magic is not so much in the movies – it’s in the books.”
Harry Potter was brought to life in seven novels by British writer J.K. Rowling. Victoria read each one voraciously as soon as it appeared.
Not every critic has been swept away by Harry’s magic. Critic Nicholas Tucker complained that the series contains “melodrama, moral certainty, and agreeable wish fulfillment” which makes it “good but not great literature.” But such comments do not account for Harry’s intense appeal for millions of his followers.
When Martha, Katie, and I visit London and Paris, we plan to immerse ourselves in Holy Week services at St. Paul’s Cathedral, Westminster Abbey, Notre Dame, and St. Peter ad Vincula. Hovering in the background of all these events will be the ghosts and graves of persons who dominate the history books Martha and I read obsessively: Thomas More, Thomas Cromwell, Bishop John Fisher, and Anne Boleyn herself.
Each of these people believed they had special insights into God and faith. They weren’t always right, but their beliefs made them both inspiring and frightening. The great king, a would-be philosopher and Catholic champion in his youth, set out to be a prince of compassion and justice. But a combination of his lust for Anne Boleyn, and his growing realization that his earthly powers had no limits, led to his divorce from Queen Catherine, his repudiation of the Pope, and the making of his deadly enemies list which led to the torture and execution of thousands who disagreed with him. The king made it a capital crime to read the Bible in English, or to deny the physical presence of Christ in Eucharistic bread and wine. In comparison, the world of Harry Potter seems more orderly than the world of Harry VIII. Harry Potter’s evil Lord Voldemort seems relatively benign by comparison.
Obviously, Martha, Katie, and I are not taking a pilgrimage to London to celebrate the chaos triggered by Great Harry’s egocentric and testosteronal theology. What we will be seeking is an opportunity to experience Holy Week – the observance of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus – in church settings that survived everything King Henry and his destructive minions tried to do. We hope to participate in the Palm Sunday Procession at St. Paul’s Cathedral, Vespers at Notre Dame, Compline at St. Peter ad Vincula, Maundy Thursday Eucharist and Footwashing at St. Paul’s, Good Friday Devotions at the Cross at Westminster Abbey, and Easter Eucharist at Westminster.
The realities and myths that gave rise to these rites are far too powerful to be derailed by kings. And that is one reason they are so holy to us.
The stories of Holy Week are specifically recorded in Scripture. That would seem to make them categorically different from the stories of Harry Potter, which are entirely products of the imagination of J.K. Rowling. However, as Picasso said, “Anything that can be imagined is real.” And since the Holy Week stories were written decades after they occurred, we can only guess which are true and which were products of an evangelist’s imagination.
But when it comes to experiencing the wonders of God and other higher powers, I would place more importance on what we can imagine than on what we insist to be fact. I once attended a World Council of Churches meeting in Central America and heard Nicaraguan Pentecostals talk about the faith of their ancient indigenous ancestors. Each of them believed in God, they said, because the Holy Spirit was active in their lives. None of them had ever met a Jesuit missionary or heard of Jesus, and each of them developed their own myths to explain the presence of the Great Spirit they never doubted in their lives.
Myths – religious and otherwise – are devices to help human wits comprehend truths so profound they cannot possibly be imagined.
The creation myths, for example, cannot be scientifically proven any more than Harry Potter’s wizardry can be accepted as real. It cannot be empirically demonstrated that the world was created by God in six short days, and populated by a man and woman whose sin introduced evil to Eden. And no one believes Harry and Hogwarts exist outside of our imaginations.
But myths provide a thrilling conveyance for a spiritual exploration of good, evil, and the theoretical confluence of higher powers – whether wizardry or God – that make it all seem real.
For Victoria and millions like her, J.K. Rowling and Harry Potter have established a mystical or even magical connection to other-worldly powers that can only be experienced by the soul.
It is my bias, of course, that the Christian Gospel, with all its myths and realities, provides the most perfect connection to God.
But I can also understand why, to many of his fans, a pilgrimage to Harry Potter’s London may be as spiritually fulfilling as a Eucharist at the Abbey or Compline at St. Peter ad Vincula.