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Sacred space

There’s something about cathedrals that has begun to draw me in over the last couple of years. So while I was holidaying within an hour’s drive of Exeter recently, I ended up having a look round the cathedral there.

At the risk of a sweeping statement, Cathedrals in England seem somehow to “do” being Cathedrals better than Scotland… I don’t think I can properly describe why, but there we have it – that’s my impression. Somehow there’s a feel to a place that’s been prayed in through the centuries, deeply connected to the life of the Spirit as well as to history and tradition that makes me want to sit down and stay. Permanently. And in places like Durham and Ely, where that space is also alive with contemporary things that speak within the frame of ancient things… well, I love that. (Maybe I’m just missing something about the Scottish cathedrals and someone will offer me a challenge to come and see what theirs has to offer!)

Anyway, as I wandered round Exeter Cathedral, I found that “English Cathedral” thing there too. My favourite bit was in a chapel set aside for silence and prayer at the east end of the building, where this sculpture, Unfolding Love by a local artist called Janis Ridley, held the central space.

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A short explanation of its themes got me thinking about what I was looking at:

“Unfolding Love…combines the taughtness and tension of an agonisingly painful position held for any length of time with immense grace and tenderness. The love of the young mother bent over her new baby transforms tension and pain into a healing process… It speaks also of how that love will grow and develop as it unfolds… The mother’s head, shoulders and back are almost foetal in their position; but the legs have unfolded and are pointed straight out towards the future and the unknown. In between is cradled the child – the bridge between the two and constant in the unfolding…”

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…there was an allusion to the Christmas story, to Mary and her son, and to God’s love in Christ endlessly sharing and seeking to transform the world’s sufferings. And with that I was left to respond as I pleased.

Before I knew it I’d been sitting contemplating for ages: the woman, her child, their setting in the chapel, life, love and the universe. All rather deep – and good – for a summer holiday afternoon.

Eventually I meandered back into the busyness of tourist-ville. But the woman’s form has stayed with me. I’m reminded that here’s a real treasure that cathedrals – and other sacred buildings – can give. The offer of a space for quiet, beauty, and the opportunity to contemplate things that are bigger than ourselves.

(PS – I had a wonderful time, but one thing really bugged me: charging people for entry. Not ok. I know the arguments for it, but I just can’t agree. If people – as statistics tell us – are increasingly seeking and finding “spiritual” significance in cathedrals over other “religious” environments, we should be welcoming them in with open arms. Mini-rant over!)

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