Carlisle Cathedral

I'd like to write a bit more about Iona but need to take a detour first. At the moment we are in Carlisle, Clemency's birthplace. There is a castle, a real one, and a magnificent cathedral and a maze of tiny streets opening onto a market square. It is all quite picturesque, although dreary and careworn at the same time: this is a working city, not a tourist oriented museum. We have looked at the street where Clemency was born and the vicarage (now a Buddhist centre. These Buddhists are everywhere!) where she grew up. And we have looked at the cathedral.

Carlisle has a smallish cathedral, built in the late eleventh century to serve, alongside the castle, as a demonstration of Norman power. It has been overrun by the Scots on numerous occasions, and been subject to the indignities which various reform movements have inflicted on the church. Nevertheless, it is more completely original than most other cathedrals I have seen. The bulk of it is still the eleventh century original and not some late addition or alteration. Miraculously, some superb stained glass and some wonderful wall paintings survived both the zealotry of the reforming idiots of the sixteenth century and the bombsights of the Luftwaffe. There are beautiful objects from all the ages of the church from William the Conqueror until now. There is a lot going on there. I picked up a pamphlet for a very interesting lookking contemporary cafe service, and they have their ministry of contemplative prayer well developed. The cathedral is a contemporary place of worship but its fabric demonstrates a continuity as a place of prayer that dates back 900 years. Many of the other cathedrals have not had such an easy history. The reformers were more thorough, and Henry VIII more rapacious, and the 'improvers' more persuasive. Westminster Abbey, for example was used a a stables by Cromwell's men; the medieval choir stalls were ripped out and used as firewood; the exquisite wall paintings were defaced and whitewashed; statuary was either removed or smashed. The Abbey was a wreck until the 19th century when it was restored, not to what it was, but to what the restorers imagined it should have been like. The result is a beautiful building whose shell is Medieval but whose soul and purpose is Victorian. Westminster Abbey is not so much a place of prayer as a celebratory monument to Englishness - as expressed in the English language and the English royal family - and to the greatness of the British Empire. In comparison, Carlisle's monastic foundations still shine through. To enter it and to pray in it is to be connected to all that history and to the hopes and aspirations of the men and women who kept the faith down through the years.

So to Iona. The island is a little lump of rock off the coast of Scotland. Or really, off the coast of an island off the coast of Scotland. It is impossible to know what it would have been like originally, as it was already long occupied when Columba arrived in the sixth century. The landscape is flat and bleak and the weather if foul. Nevertheless it became the driving force of British Christianity for several centuries. Now, it has some remnants of its long history dotted over it, but like Westminster Abbey, these are largely 19th and 20th century buildings inside shells which are, partially anyway, medieval. The work of the Abbey community, begun in the middle of the 20th century is spectacularly successful, but it remains spiritual response to the issues of the 20th Century. I went to Iona expecting to encounter the Abbey and all it has to offer, but instead encountered the landscape and the weather. Bleak, harsh, beautiful and life changing.

Comments