...when they said unto me "We shall go into the house of the Lord!"
I love cathedrals. I always have. As the child of parents who loved both God and history, I found myself introduced to the joys of cathedral visits from a very early age, and they shine as polished stones along the road of childhood memories...Canterbury, where I was gripped with the story of St Thomas Becket and heartbroken that the glories of his shrine had been despoiled at the reformation, so that I could no longer imagine myself travelling with Chaucers' pilgrims: Westminster Abbey, where I wanted to simply remain in Poets' Corner, to tell these men whose words filled my head how much I owed them: Lichfield, Gloucester, Hereford, which we visited almost by mistake one day, having got involved in one of the many diversions inspired by the hitchhikers we often picked up on family holidays. This one lived somewhere near Ross and was adamant that we MUST visit “his” Cathedral if we did nothing else that summer..
I was taught from the earliest days that whenever we visited a church, whatever our other agendas, the first thing to do was to pause, kneel, pray – and I quickly experienced for myself the power of these places where “prayer has been valid”.
As a student, I found myself visiting more of the great cathedrals to sing the services - Norwich, Hereford, Salisbury, Wells, Bristol, Worcester, Ely...Each was special, though at that time I was adamant that it was the music that mattered. The purpose behind it was more mysterious, problematic...
Thenof course there was Durham, in whose shadow I spent a year scrabbling happily about with George Herbert and the writers who had shaped him....That great building, with pillars that seemed like tree trunks that sent deep roots down into the past, influenced me in ways of which I was barely conscious at the time. Only 10 years later, as I found myself beginning Reader training in a small room on Gloucester's College Green, and the Cathedral loomed out of the darkness, while our tutors competed with the sound of Tuesday's ringing practice, I knew I had come home.
When I returned to Durham for a flying visit 2 weeks ago, I felt instantly reconnected. Somehow, without my knowing it, the Cathedral had taught me important things about God just by being there...The Evensongs which had drawn me in day after day had helped me realise grasp something of the ceaseless prayer and praise of heaven, - and the purpose of that daily offering, whether or not there was a congregation there to appreciate the beauty.
The regular trips across the nave from the library on Palace Green to the tea shop off the cloisters had refreshed me, made me pause to breathe a different air, to sense a more vivid reality.
And St Cuthbert – well, who knows what he did for me, as I spent winter afternoons quietly in his company, lighting a candle and wandering in my thoughts, along the rocky Northumberland shoreline we both loved.
Now, incredibly, I find myself able to call a cathedral “home” - and I wonder how we can use our building in its turn to challenge or inspire the students who now study on our doorstep. The world is quite different, of course. Writing about my childhood makes me uncomfortably conscious of this.
Somehow we no longer dare to let these great theatres of faith and history speak for themselves...We have lost confidence in the power of their silent message – find ourselves constrained by the spirit of the age to offer entertainment in place of awe, to explain and clarify instead of allowing open access to a living mystery.
But I'm sure that as cathedrals exist as way-marks on our journey to God, the buildings themselves retain a power that is greater than the sum of their architectural and historic glories. And, though their existence is in some ways indefensible in a world of desperate need, though the responsibility of keeping them in good heart and sound structure can threaten to overwhelm those who love them....still, they are necessary in the same way that mountains and seascapes are necessary – as mirrors in which the glory of God can be glimpsed for a moment, catching us unawares and bringing us to our knees.