05 August 2017

Bristol Cathedral, Eve of the Transfiguration of Our Lord, 5 August 2017

The ordinary...the extraordinary...a continuum

Once, several years ago, I was walking around the block in the Castro in San Francisco. It was a Palm Sunday Procession with crucifer, incense, torches, vestments - the whole thing. People followed as we moved through the neighborhood of houses, churches, stores, bars, and lots of people. As we moved, one of the members sidled up to me and as he kicked at a cigarette butt wondered what the spiritual value of such an endeavor was, given the ordinary surroundings. I asked him in return if he thought that the path of the original Palm Sunday Procession was rarefied or ordinary. We often view such events through the scrim of holiness and sanctity, forgetting that they were actually begotten in the ordinary.

The doorway above, at Tintern Abbey, led from the refectory to a closet - a very ordinary space, built for the quotidian duties of a community of human beings. Turn a corner and you go from the ordinariness of a pantry into truly extraordinary and holy space - space that uplifted the community of men that were seeking God in a pilgrimage that was monastic life.

What is clear is that we need both - the ordinary and the extraordinary. These two elements help us to live and find meaning in that living. In a way it is like a window (actually a series of windows) just outside the Chapter House at Bristol Cathedral. What was waste glass, ordinary trash, was taken by some artisan and made into a combination of wonder and usefulness. As Archbishop Anthony Bloom once wrote, "humility is the situation of the earth." The earth often takes what we waste and transforms it into life. What is humble and discarded can become the stuff of holiness and a discovery of the divine.

I once commented in a sermon at Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts, that the very day, the minutes and hours, time itself, is an icon of Christ. That is one of the gifts of accompanying the Saint Mark's Choir in their pilgrimage at Ely and Bristol Cathedrals. In the repetitive nature of the Office, Evensong layers on the extraordinary over the ordinariness of time. 

Just as ordinary trees and plants surround an extraordinary Gothic cathedral and their ordinariness is transformed into the beautiful - a continuum of granting meaning and purpose one to the other. A starry night, a cigarette butt, a found baptismal font - once a planter, a piece of bread, a cup of wine - extraordinary!

Baptismal Font at Deerhurst

The Reserved Sacrament at Tewkesbury Abbey

This evening was a revelation (again) to me. The man pictured below is Jonathan Dove, an English composer. The choir had sung his "Seek him that maketh the seven stars" at Ely Cathedral. At that hearing I was transfixed. When they sang it this evening at Bristol Cathedral I was transported into the realm of tears and joy.

Jonathan Dove
The text is quite simple, a quote from the Prophet Amos, not usually known for his joy, and from Psalm139. 

"Seek him that taketh the seven stars and Orion, and turners the shadow of death into morning" (Amos 5:8)

"Alleluia, yea, the darkness shineth as the day, the night is light about me. (Psalm 139)

If you would like to hear this extraordinary choral piece, press here. It is a recording of the piece by the Ely Cathedral choir.

The ordinariness of day and night become the splendor of knowing God's will and care for us, but it is a process, a progress, and a pilgrimage. "Seek him" requires the resolve to move and change. That was the gift that the choir gave to me this evening. It is the eve of the Transfiguration of Our Lord, and the like Peter, James, and John we might wish to continue in the glory. But the pilgrimage is almost at an end, and we are bidden to return to the ordinary, to the plain, to our lives. Yet, there is the chant to "seek him." And in seeking him amongst those around us to see the glory - the glory of the seven stars the work of him that made us.

A "starry night" in the Lady Chapel at Ely
Thank you St. Mark's Choir for the privilege of accompanying you on your extraordinary mission.

30 July 2017

Ely Cathedral, 30 July 2017

Treasures worth seeking.

It is our last morning at Ely Cathedral, and we will miss it terribly. The Dean, The Very Rev. Mark Bonney, and the Cathedral staff have been so hospitable to the choir and to me as well. We loved working with them, and they made so many possibilities available to us. At the 10:30 Mass, the Dean was the preacher, and chose an excellent segment of the Gospel for the day to riff on. It is Jesus' question to the disciples after a series of parables (The mustard seed, yeast, the hidden treasure, and the fine pearl.) Jesus asks them: "Have you understood all this?" The Dean then gently took us through a number of the Christian mysteries, and wondered if we had understood this. 

It was a good question and he treated it well. I had come into the cathedral earlier, partially to listen to the choir in rehearsal, but also to make one last pilgrimage amongst the cathedral's pillars and chapels. Some of my thought were guided by another quotation from that same Gospel, 

"Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old."

George Emblom and I experienced treasure as we stood with Canon Victoria Johnson at the high altar following Evensong. There in the cross were multiple treasures. From what looks like a variegated golden object, up close reveals details of angels with thuribles, stones, and images. Like faith, closer inspection might beget wonder as we look at the details that had escaped our initial engagement with them. So like the scribe, we were bringing out the treasures, old and new, to help us think and believe. Those thoughts lead to understanding and further discovery.

The choir enabled that inventory as it sang both old and new - a piece inspired by a starry sky, Anglican chant, songs of our Lady in multiple versions, and Simeon rejoicing in the fulfillment of what he had been seeking. 

Over the last couple of Sundays we explored Jesus' parables on seed and weed, sower and soil. But now we are clearly in the harvest - a harvest of treasures, both old and new - a harvest of understanding, if you will. As I walked the cathedral I saw many things, both old and new, that challenged me to think through my faith. The chantry with its complex ceiling that bid me to sit and meditate:

Places in the cathedral where one might see the intersection of the really old with the relative new:

A window depicting the Jesse Tree that made me realize that it's really all about time and process - and change too, I think.

Such a place aids us in our attempts to understand and integrate the Gospel into our lives. So thank you George Emblom for bringing that capacity to us, and to the choir for making it all glorious. Thank you for your many voices, young, old, those who augmented, and those who have sung faithfully for many years. You all bring out treasures, both old and new, and enable our efforts to understand and to believe.

And finally thank you to the Dean, The Canon Precentor, James Garrard, Canons Jessica Martin, and Victoria Johnson, and to all the vergers, sacrists, ushers, and others who helped us unload the treasures.

29 July 2017

Cambridge, 27 July 2017

The Chorus and Individual Voices

The image to the right shows two examples of death portraits from Roman Egypt at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. It depicts two individuals who had passed from this life, and depicts them at their prime - the best image possible of them for remembrance and for eternity. As I look at these individuals, I realize that to look to the past is not to look at an abstract or even an absent thing, but rather to look at ourselves as one with human beings in a different circumstance and context.

When you walk by the cathedral at Ely you notice a huge amount of destruction, and a humble add-on between the bays of the cathedral.  It is an important lesson about life. The influence and pain of damage may be dealt with, but its presence is always there. Here, I think, is a celebration in noting what had happened at the hand of Cromwell's troops and others - celebration and reflection on what had been in the past and still evident in the present. As they say these days, "It is what it is." And so it is allowed to stand and be evidence of our total story.

Before I left on this pilgrimage with the choir I had days and weeks of wondering and pondering whether or not this is what I needed to do as a pastor. Those questions pursued me well beyond my boarding the plane at SFO. Would my presence be only gratuitous or would it have substance? I hoped for the latter. The portrait above is of a Sicilian Peasant by John Singer Sargent. I found it quite moving, because it added to my thinking all of this through. He is handsome, yes, but what is behind those eyes. Is it sorrow or just a day of hard work? What were his joys and delights? Only conversation and interaction at the time might reveal what the real story is. 

Jacob Epstein - Third Portrait of Oriel Ross

That is the real beauty of art, of sculpture, painting, and song. It is the human element that is only discernible through listening, seeing, and perhaps touching. Jacob Epstein's sculpture, again at the Fitzwilliam Museum, draws us in to ponder what the mind of this woman was as she faced the artist, really as she faced the person who would allow her presence and remembrance beyond her time. 

In my time here I have been blessed with a continuum of story and remembrance from many members of the choir, and those accompanying them. As rector of Saint Mark's I attempt to know as much as I can from the various people who come there for liturgy, prayer, and succor. However it is in eating, walking, playing, and singing with the people of the choir that I have seen and heard a deeper and more compelling song. 

To my clergy colleagues, take advantage of your retreats, or accompany your people when they go off together to sing and discover. You will be uplifted by your experience of them in a new and different context.

Matisse - Woman Seated in an Armchair

Has there been relaxation? Yes, but more than that there has been refreshment in the exhilaration of getting to know people anew in a different context. It is a real gift from God. I am reminded as I continue my tour with the choir, and continue in my efforts to listen and regard - I am reminded of this prayer.

O God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

All of this gives me, and anyone, the ability to glimpse the glory of God reflected in our lives and appearing above and in the structure of our living.

Image of Christ the King, Peterborough Cathedral

25 July 2017

Peterborough Cathedral, Tuesday, 25 July 2017 - Saint James' Day

Iconoclasm in Two Cathedrals

Today we took a side trip to Peterborough to see its cathedral, and its expansive and unusual west side. There will be some comments about Oliver Cromwell, pictured above - but that will come later. A bus picked us up and we trekked north and west up to the city of Peterborough, passing through rich fields some rich with sugar beets, and others with some type of grain. Flat and fertile would describe the countryside. After the small town comforts of Ely, Peterborough seemed quite busy and bustling. The Cathedral looms at one end of the Market Square, presenting the city with an unusual façade.

An ancient abbatial church, Benedictine, it was made a diocesan cathedral following the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII. It represents, as do most cathedral churches, the layers of time, taste, and usage. The first vision is of the baptismal font, recovered from a garden in the close.

The eye is next drawn to the contemporary crucifix that hangs over the crossing.

What is not easily perceived in other cathedrals, but seemed to be accessible here were the evident layers of redecoration and renewal. It was most especially seen in the Presbytery and its rather nice mosaic floor and the Victorian baldachino and high altar, which stand in contrast to the Norman surroundings. The stalls in the quire are Victorian as well, and quite handsome.

These stand in contrast to the pulpit and lectern in the crossing where what appears to be a Georgian pulpit and lectern stand.

It is in the quire that the tour guide clues us into the history of the place, and the theme for today's reflection - the destruction wrought at the hands of Cromwell and his troops. We are asked to look at the fine eagle/lectern in the quire.

It is certainly beautiful, but not unusual. We see them everywhere in European and American churches. There is one aspect to this lectern that does make it unusual. 

Do you see anything missing? The story goes that the Cromwell troops thought that this lectern was gold, and sought to melt it down for the valuable metal. A monk clipped off a bit of the feather to prove to the soldiers that it was really brass, and thus the piece was saved. There was, however, major destruction. All of the medieval windows were destroyed. There is a small example of medieval glass in two windows behind the high altar. They were gleaned from the shards of the destroyed windows and present an interesting aspect (one seen in some German churches as well).

The most drastic example of this destruction can be seen in Ely Cathedral's Lady Chapel. It's perpendicular Gothic windows were totally denuded of their glass, presenting us today with a bright interior.

Monuments were stripped from walls, ridding them of supposed papistic superstition and idolatry. In the photo below, we see two types of destruction. There are the remains of a family memorial, and above it you can see the remains of the old Norman apse (note the zigzag line that delineates the lower wall) and the 16th Century "New Room" with its flamboyant Gothic ceiling.

So we see the destruction wrought from ideologues, and that from those who sought to improve the capacity of the place, replace removed sections with beauty.

A political aside:

It seems to me that we are witnessing a similar destruction of institutions, education, cultural arenas, and natural resources all for the sake of a retrograde ideology. I can't be too critical of Cromwell when I sit back and allow the destruction of these things in my own time. (Off the high horse).

It was a lovely day of seeing countryside and city, culture and humanity. Before we left there was lunch in the cathedral close under a lovely green tree. Yes, a fine day, finished later with Evensong on Saint James' Day, where I along with the choir participated in the Ely Cathedral's worship.

24 July 2017

Ely Cathedral, Monday, 24 July 2017

The Contained Pilgrimage - Some Thoughts

In 2008, I took my mother to Germany to celebrate her 92nd birthday. I only required one thing of her and that was to allow for a trip to Aachen to see Karl der Großes chapel, and to visit the pilgrim church of Saint Anne in Düren, a small city that lies between Köln and Aachen. Saint Anne's Church was destroyed in the Second World War, and was rebuilt using a lot of the ruined stone in a marvelous building designed by Rudolf Schwartz. So it was my pilgrimage, a trip to search for a moral or spiritual significance in life - a building, and an artistic expression. Oddly enough, peoples throughout the ages wandered their way to Düren to see the head of Saint Anne, the mother of the Blessed Virgin Mary - so there was an alternative pilgrimage that was possible.

Right now I am on a pilgrimage with the Choir from Saint Mark's Episcopal Church in Berkeley, California, and my thoughts have been centered for several days on what it means to be a pilgrim. Usually pilgrimages happen over long distances, such as the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain that stretched from various points in Europe - Köln being one starting point. My thoughts are, however, that pilgrimages can happen within confined spaces, and indeed do. At the outset one is greeted when entering Ely Cathedral with a labyrinth. It gives you a clue as to what you need to do while in the building - wander - make a pilgrimage - seek a moral or spiritual goal. The most famous of such labyrinths is at Chartres, sitting below the regular seating in the nave.

At Ely the Baptistry is to the immediate right as you enter, giving you another clue about the journey and about where you might begin. 

I think that we tend to think of churches as places where a community gathers, and when we go there we expect to be in the company of a lot of people, all gathered to worship and to sing and pray together. What troubles me about this is that it limits our expectation and experience of the place. Might it be more than that, might it be a place for individual wandering and pilgrimage as well. Take a look at the floor plan of the Cathedral at Seville below.

Notice that in the midst of the nave is the quire, really a separate building that blocks visual access to the high altar that lies right behind it. This is not a room for gathering a bunch of people that can see the mass from the far reaches of the nave. It is built for limited congregations, and for those who wish to be pilgrims there. Seville is really a large room with destinations within it. Ely is really a collection of rooms, in which a congregation may gather, or individuals may wander.

The Baptistry is a starting point, although it could be a destination of remembrance as well. If you look at the plan, the nave, the quire, the ambulatory with its chapels, the Lady chapel, and the transepts and their chapels represent a variety of destinations that a pilgrim might seek. As I sat in the choir this evening at Evensong, my eyes wandered up to the galleries that snake along above the quire (and in the nave and transepts as well). I had always thought of them as architectural necessities, rather than as other routes for monk/pilgrims seeking individual serenity and quiet. They are probably both.

What follows are three "pilgrimages" that I found at the cathedral. There are many, such as the individual figures in the arches of the Lady Chapel, or the panels above the stalls of the quire. Here are suggested pilgrimages that can give you some idea of how you might wander at Ely:

1. Pilgrimage around the Baptistry and its Font - Investigate the images of the Evangelists on the Font. Where is the Font placed in relationship to the entire Baptistry? Why? 

2. The ceiling of the Nave is its own pilgrimage - but you might want to bring binoculars. The ceiling fills 12 bays of the nave and begins with Creation, The Fall, etc., continuing through the whole Hebrew Scriptural Salvation History. It was painted in the Victorian period in 1862.

3. The Quire. Notice the panels above the individual choir stalls, and the carvings below the seat level and at the end of a row of stalls. So much information is available to the faithful pilgrim who searches on her quest. 

I worry that I've become a bit pedantic with all of this. However, my visit to Ely calls me to look differently at the worship space in my own parish church. How might I be a pilgrim there, and how might I encourage others by its architecture to do the same?

23 July 2017

Ely Cathedral, 23 July 2017

A Traffic of Ideas

What I'm about to write here I'm certain that any art historian worth her or his weight in gold might have some disputes about. My thoughts here are really about connections across lands, cultures, and times. But first, where are we and what am I doing? Right now I'm accompanying the parish choir of Saint Mark's Church, Berkeley, California, where I am serving as Interim Rector. We arrived yesterday at Heathrow and immediately loaded a bus that took us cross the English countryside to Cambridgeshire and to the town of Ely. The landscape was flat, with yellowed stalks from the crop that had just been harvested. There, on the horizon, was the cathedral church, visible from a great distance, very much appearing as a ship on a sea of fields. Indeed, it is known locally as the ship of the Fens. So here we are with this ancient Norman church. My first vision of it as the bus pulled into the car park was a recollection of this:

This is not in Ely at all but is the remains of brick work in Ostia Antica, the ancient port of Rome. What has captured my imagination here is the repeated artwork, and the decoration within the arch, indeed the decorative effect of the brick work. This is the image that immediately caught my attention as we left the bus:

The repetition of arch and column and the whole decorative treatment of the façade seems, to me, to be redolent of the brick work in Ostia. This treatment can be seen through out the building as the artisans worked to make the surfaces rich with waves, diamonds, checks, and other geometric devices. It can be found throughout the building.

This program of decoration can even been seen in the Gothic additions to the building which are decidedly flamboyant in nature. This is especially evident in the Lady Chapel.

The overly decorated Gothic arch is at point given a dimensionality as the point of the arch is pulled away from the surface to create an arabesque type feature. Even the ceiling ribs are combined in such a way as to hint at the angles of the arches in the Norman sections of the building.

So how do ideas such as style and treatment travel? Were they even influenced by the Roman brickwork seen in Ostia or perhaps elsewhere? One thing is certain. Our world has always been culturally connected, and remains so. We just need to find the evidence.

Tomorrow I will look at other aspects of the cathedral.