Let mans Soule be a Spheare, and then, in this,
The intelligence that moves, devotion is,
And as the other Spheares, by being growne
Subject to forraigne motion, lose their owne,
And being by others hurried every day,
Scarce in a yeare their naturall forme obey:
Pleasure or businesse, so, our Soules admit
For their first mover, and are whirld by it.
Hence is’t, that I am carryed towards the West
This day, when my Soules forme bends toward the East.
Ten years ago to the day we were in Cheshire housed for Holy Week in an idyllic, converted outbuilding misleadingly called ‘The Stable’. (If this was a stable, these had been very pampered cows indeed.) Perched on the cusp of the UK’s Peak District, an hour’s drive east of Chester Cathedral. Daily, we’d head to the still partially Roman-walled city that houses this beautiful sandstone edifice. And join the several hundreds, drawn to the ritual and, in Chester’s case, the artistry of the week’s services.
The decision to ‘immerse’ in the progression of days, commencing Palm Sunday, had not been difficult. Early days spent as an ‘indifferent Presbyterian’, the concept of a compelling build to Easter Sunday had failed to take root in my spiritual side. Easter holidays had meant annual trips to find warmth, usually south of the Mason-Dixon. Later, Good Friday was a day off work. Easter Sunday, after the mandatory church service (generally, the only service!), was as much about ham, scalloped potatoes, new ‘bonnets’. chocolate rabbits, and egg hunts. A ‘brush’ with Anglican liturgy had piqued my interest a few years earlier. And so, here we were.
We’d come expecting a full plate of Evensong, supplementing all the traditional service elements of the ‘season’. We were not disappointed. The ‘bonus’, however, followed Good Friday morning’s service: a three-hour devotional, somewhat enigmatically entitled Let There Be Dark. Canon Trevor Dennis, a teacher, writer, and performer, in addition to his role as clergy, had assembled a selection of readings from his several collections of poems and stories, interspersed with periods of contemplative silence, organ music, and hymns.
The readings were delivered, depending on the particular ‘spin’, from the pulpit (the ‘right’ side, corresponding with the ‘upbeat’, positive stories) or the lectern (the left side for the sinister ones). One narrative thread included a plea for understanding from a Jew of Christ’s day, recounting the potential for chaos visited on him and his brethren by Jesus’ radical ideas, asking for a bit of patience and time to adjust. Another, a diatribe against chocolate and ‘spring colours’, appropriately ending with ‘let there be dark’. Others: Job’s wife given a voice, Eve, admitting to feeling that it was ‘safe to go back in the water’ — only to find her long-awaited celebration shrouded in black.
It came as no surprise that, following each reading, the nave was absolutely silent. This was not a man advocating dark thoughts. Only that each side, each polarity serves to define the other. To inform, clarify and give meaning to the other. Both deserve, require exploration and, ultimately acknowledgement and acceptance.
This Easter Sunday morning echoes much of the paradox, the contrasts that Donne may have felt as he penned his Good Friday poem, four hundred years ago. Taken as a pivotal point in the poet’s life, as he transitioned from the secular to the spiritual, his journey’s account describes his pull in opposing directions, a view of ‘two worlds’, two solitudes (all the more resonant today) as he struggles to reconcile each with the other.
We’d made the ‘ride’, over similar ground, ten years ago, to be present for the concluding services of this same week, Holy Week, in a building attended by hundreds. This morning I’m reminded of Canon Dennis’ message of that time: how do you appreciate one — without its polar opposite.
This morning, the buildings are empty. The world is a very different place. And we have ‘the opposite’. The challenge, the task it seems is holding the space between, finding ways of ‘joining’, adapting, and continuing to celebrate. A few days ago, we’d watched Bach’s Passion of John, a very ‘different’ vehicle and, for many, bordering on heresy at the time — now a standard. This morning we viewed some of the many, herculean efforts of musicians, clergy, choristers, and parishioners prepared, at personal risk and cost over the past week (again, Holy Week) to provide the elements that transcend ‘bricks and mortar’. Working alone, or in the small numbers that the times allow; singing, speaking to vacant, unpopulated space. Different, to be sure. Lesser, diminished — absolutely not!