by Jack McLean
Published in Gulf Islands Driftwood (1997)
Until recently, I had never experienced anything more than a detached admiration for the great cathedrals of medieval Europe, those massive houses of worship inspired by what has been called “the age of faith.” Not that my experience has been vast. In Europe, my visits to the bishop’s seat have been confined to Notre Dame of Paris and St. Paul’s in London. Not exactly an architectural connoisseur’s itinerary.
But a recent trip to Durham Cathedral in County Durham in northeast England, the former ecclesiastical stronghold in the “Land of the Prince Bishops”, was to reserve an unexpected newfound appreciation, not only of Anglo-Norman architecture but also of the spiritual depths contained in these massive houses of God. As it turned out, whatever heightened awareness I gained of the stylistic merits of the cathedral Church of Christ and Blessed Mary the Virgin, came in the form of a spiritual experience.
Now when I say “spiritual experience”, I am not referring to anything dramatic or earth-shattering. There was no signal conversion, no divine commission, no aura of celestial lights to transform the soul’s inner darkness. But what I experienced that afternoon sitting in the nave of Durham Cathedral was nonetheless an experience worthy of “depth psychology”, characterised above all by a thoughtful quietude and a more profound, pervasive sense of peace. Later as I reminisced about the visit, I recalled the second and third verses of King David’s 23rd Psalm, once memorised by generations of Canadian school children and the favourite psalm of my maternal grandmother, Jessie Fallon Halsted: “He leadeth me beside still waters. He restoreth my soul.”
My old friend and Newcastlonian Stephen Lambden and I alighted from the train at Durham Station, 16 miles south of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, our point of departure. In a leisurely walk, as we wended our way down the hill from Durham station into Saddler Street, still busy late in the summer season with ordinary citizens, traffic and tourists alike, then across the Elvet Bridge that spans the River Wear, I caught something of the age-old sense of anticipation felt by the medieval pilgrim about to attain his goal in one of the most hallowed spots of English Christendom.
The disposition of this lovely, largely rural town blended harmoniously into the lay of the land and led the traveller easily and naturally to the Great Cathedral which was both the heart and nucleus of the medieval city and region. Standing above a sharp bend in the river, on a rocky peninsula that it shares with Durham Castle, the church dominates the landscape, a mute sentinel that has stood faithfully for almost a millennium.
As we made our way through the streets of Durham, I found a certain satisfaction in the knowledge that I was repeating the self-same ritual act performed since the consecration of the building in 1093, the very common practice of countless numbers of pilgrims who, over the centuries, have made their way to the tombs of St. Cuthbert and the Venerable Bede.
As you climbed the incline of the roadway leading to the entrance of the “close” on which stands the cathedral and its several dependencies, a roadway whose surface has been cobbled from stone many times over, you sensed that you had reached a singular jewel in the crown of English ecclesiastical history. Before you stood the massive, brown-stoned structure, imposing and stately. Although the cathedral represents an older order of spiritual grandeur, having its origins in a monastic way of life now largely anachronistic, it stands out as a great silent witness to a still living spirit of piety.
As luck would have it, the Eton College Choir had travelled to Durham to perform Evensong. Once the sexton had called the faithful to prayer with a gentle toll of the bells, rung from a very long cord hanging down from the roof of the church in the main transept, the service began. At the center of the church, ensconced in two divisions of lighted stalls, with the choir master standing between them, the vital young men and women of Eton sang out their prayers in well-articulated, modulated tones, beautifully observing all dynamics in a presentation that was nothing short of superb.
The soul settled as the sacred songs alternately swelled and faded, producing calmer waters on the incessant movement of busy lives. Not only the waves, but the depths also took respite in some deeper, more solemn but welcome form of spirituality, one that flowed purely and easily, without artifice or stilt. Some faithful members of the Church of England stood according to ritual at the appropriate times. Stephen and I sat quietly among the sparsely spread little troop of tourists and drank in the melodic beauty.
I communed with the lingering scent of all the prayers of the pious that had arisen for nearly a 1000 years to nestle in the lofty vaulted ceilings. I listened for the whispers, the well-worn wishes, the tired hopes and longings of many a pilgrim heart. And it was there and then that my soul made the living and still present connection with the myriads of prayers that had risen over the centuries—all the prayers, the petitions, the praises, the cries of broken and longing hearts, the paeans that rose up in gratitude from thankful souls. It was with the prayers of all these pilgrims that my soul communed, with the whispers of so many a pilgrim heart, offered up in love and devotion to the ineffable, prayer-hearing, prayer-answering God of the universe. In their prayers, I heard and felt the sanctified echoes of departed souls, still speaking beauteous words of longing across the ages.