‘Stone altars’ (Part 3)

I asked for your hearts, but you built these stone altars for yourselves

A strange nervousness and anxiety began to take hold of me the closer we got to London. My wife and I had spent the morning in Gloucestershire celebrating our God-daughter’s first birthday party. It had been an early drive and my nervousness had ensured that I volunteered to do both legs of the journey – to and from Stonehouse: I needed some sense of control in order to avoid being overwhelmed by the, and I thought at the time, unnecessary excitement. Each mile that I conquered seemed to amplify the rumble at the pit of my stomach, increasing the thump of my heart while drawing it closer to my throat. I couldn’t admit the extent of my turmoil to my wife, but rather soldiered on: if I crumbled now, we might not make it to the Cathedral.

Slowly the roads got busier and so did the frequency of buildings and traffic signals. It seemed as though the 100 miles or so between the beautiful young lady and the huge edifice – concealed by its modern counterparts – had sailed by. Right onto the A501 – Southampton Row, then Kingsway. Left onto Fleet Street by Bush House. I finally convinced my wife to turn off the satnav, I knew very well where we were and the most important thing then was providence: we needed to park.

There had been a bit of a rush added to the journey as, unbeknown to me until the night before – as always – I had to be at the Cathedral an hour and a half before the service to rehearse. This meant leaving the party early and putting my foot down for most of the trip. Had we been aiming for 7pm, the day would’ve been less stressful and – maybe – the journey less anxious.

She – the Edifice – pushed the rest of the quite tall building aside and lay the skirting of her dress around the space she had made. Standing tall she proclaimed her majesty and magnificence, highlighting the exquisite stonework in the pillars that held her court. We drove round, I in awe again, and were lucky to find parking on Paternoster Row. In haste we made our way toward the nearest tea place in order to sit and top up on caffein and food before going in – we had clawed back half hour which we intended to use ‘wisely’. Somewhere between parking and walking, I lost my appetite. The first tea place was full, and so was Starbucks. The cafe inside the Cathedral Crypt was also closing. M&S was our only hope.

As we emerged from the crypt, at whose doors a well built gentleman was ushering patron’s out, we spotted Azariah – my presenting Clergy and friend. He had his robes in the bag he carried. Unnervingly for me, he seemed aware of the depth of my anxiety – at least it seemed to me he did; with a hand on my shoulder he silently said what was needed to cement my walls of self assurance until the next onslaught. I downed the mango, pineapple, and passionfruit smoothie he bought me in one go and followed the calmer two, my wife and the vicar, into the Cathedral.

I had never been inside St Paul’s and almost expected pixie dust to fall. Following Azariah but keeping close to my wife, I gazed at the different works of art and genius that formed the inside of this beautiful monument (I do not use that word lightly: all connotations are apt methinks). He found my seat where my service order was waiting and after a few conversations with other candidates and clergy, I settled down for the rehearsal. (My wife must have been bored stiff).

Two things – that I retrospectively reflect on here – happened. The first was that I was placed beside a young lady who was due to be married. She hadn’t been baptized or confirmed and needed to be in order to marry in the church she was a part of. This was interesting as I wasn’t confirmed in the Church of England when I got married, a statement of the breadth within the Church. She had no idea what was about happen – I realized when I joked about the pool beneath the floor infront of us in which she would be dunked that nerves overcame her.

The second was the care with which the Chaplins and deacons took to prepare in order that the Bishop wouldn’t have any unpleasantries: their honest diligence was inspiring. Would I happily dedicate my life, and time, in the service of another man – He would have to be a great man (as it turned out this Bishop was).

After running through the important aspects of the liturgy with us, we were set free for the half hour or so before the service. The charm of the building had began to be lost on me. My nerves were vanishing quickly and the cocky side of me was slowly increasing the number of ill timed quips and jokes: my mind was beginning to disengage with the vows I was about to affirm.

The crowds began to gather outside the Cathedral where a fire had been lit by the vergers. I had been saying hello to the friends and family that had come along to the service in support and thus missed out on the prime spots. ‘How religious’ I thought when I saw the two lines of clergy in file along the steps from the Cathedral doors down to where the fire burned. Imagining the laughter of an athiest at the sight of the robes, and the Bishop’s hat, I chuckled – missing part of the reading; a nudge from my presenting Vicar and friend began to knock me back into the proceedings…

 

 

‘Stone Altars’ (Part 1)

My beautiful wife to be had a dress fitting on a day that was inconvenient for her bridesmaids (our journey to getting married was littered with moments like these where all we had was each other and the love we shared to call on, and fight for). I accompanied her to Chichester where the dress shop was but owing to the role I had in her life – bridegroom – the forcefield around the shop wouldn’t let me near. I decided to spend the hour or so in Chichester Cathedral speaking to the only man I was certain – at the time – understood what I was going through.

If you’ve never been to Chichester Cathedral, I suggest you take the trip. In fact, I recommend a trip to any such Cathedral. The collision of art, religion, culture, power, wealth, and politics is both fascinating and awe inspiring. This however, wasn’t my reason for going. It was the closest church to the dress shop and I wasn’t in the mood for a coffee. That said, the magnitude of the edifice wasn’t lost on me. I wondered around it toward the front door, overwhelmed by the sense that if God did come to earth, he was certain to fit in a building so big and wouldn’t feel out of place (Glory and all) in a place so adorned and revered.

Quietly and slowly I walked up the small steps, forgetting the feeling of difference that had earlier occupied me as I walked through the town center (I get these bouts of insecurity whenever I feel like a minority – which happens a lot especially in the countryside). God had to be here, and he would give me reprieve from the worries of un-approving parents and friends.

Four pews in I turned, any further and I’d be within speaking distance of the priest – not what I was here for. I sat facing the altar, which seemed almost a mile away, and focused in on the silence; hoping for that ‘still small voice’. After a few minutes within which I failed to concentrate, distracted by the whispers carried down the great hall, and the silent footsteps I could feel around me, my thoughts cleared. It was as though I had been running through thick forest and suddenly had come upon a treeless landscape, just green grass as far as the eye could see. In the bliss of the moment, a sentence emerged.

I asked for your hearts, but you built these stone altars for yourselves

Then… silence again. Then the whispers. Then the footprints. Then the priest turned and began to walk towards my pew. Stereotypically, I put my hood on: it was time to leave.

Almost two years later, I haven’t fully understood – and graple with – the significance and meaning of that sentence. As I left the church I felt fairly convinced that it was a clear message to rebuke the sentiment I had that God lived in buildings such as the one I had been in. It was an open rebuke and, excited as I was, I was equally disturbed. The contradiction being that I had to walk into the building to hear/ see/ sense/ think the words I believed were relevant.

The connotations carried in the ‘for yourselves’ made me feel as though I should never set foot in a cathedral again. It convinced me that – and this may be true – the place for a Christian isn’t inside the building but outside it. Continually being a part of the Church (collective of Christians) while living and serving within the community. The building was unnecessary as love dwelt and poured out of the heart. The buildings felt unnecessary, almost tower of Babel-ish; a distraction from the deeper sense of conviction and relationship that meeting with a dynamic, living, kinetic God would bring.

I asked for your hearts, but you built these stone altars for yourselves

For the good that that line of thought did me, I had missed one crucial lesson which I only began to gather this week.