For You. An installation by Tracey Emin. Liverpool Cathedral. 11-03-17


The thing which I find most impressive about our British cathedrals is, strangely enough, not the grandeur, the wonderful stained glass, or the majestic pillared naves inside them, it is the way that they are able to grow and change with the times. They are open, inclusive spaces which have stubbornly resisted the temptation to fossilise and this is why their congregations are growing while parish churches mostly decline. They understand that people today are not joiners. We like to find our own way and come to our own conclusions and each of us has a different starting point. There are no easy right answers. Those who are not steeped in religious culture- and that is many of us- need to be given a chance to have time out and think. A cathedral gives those who walk through the doors an opportunity to do that. Of course there are services and if you want to learn about Christianity you can do that, but you can also learn about yourself. You can sit in silence, take in the beauty and the quietness around you and work out for yourself what you think, rather than being told. In medieval times a criminal could seek sanctuary in them, and know that they were safe until the coroner arrived to bring official justice and we can still take sanctuary from our own lives in a different way. They provide a breathing space.

It is a brave thing for a cathedral to commission a modern Art work and place it centre stage in a traditional setting and it is also a brave thing for an artist to attempt. Tracy Emin’s installation under Liverpool Anglican cathedral’s west window- a huge area of stained glass with four windows covering 150 square metres by Carl Johannes Edwards was first put in place as a temporary installation in 2008 as part of the celebrations for Liverpool’s European city of culture year. It is a single sentence in pink neon, in her own handwriting and it reads “I felt you and I knew you loved me.“ It is a deliberately ambiguous statement- one with great power- which allows us to bring our own needs, experiences and concerns to it and it accepts everybody. We have all given and received love, throughout our lives, in many different forms and from many different sources. We may not be able to put its meaning into words, which is why so many people keep trying, but we know what it is when we feel it.

The installation is visible from almost everywhere in the cathedral, either wholly or in part. It keeps reappearing as you walk around the space and becomes almost like a mantra, reminding us gently of the most important thing about faith and the most important and noble thing about human beings- our capacity for love.

When it was installed Tracy Emin said that she wanted to “make something for Liverpool cathedral about love and the sharing of love” and she has succeeded quite beautifully. Everything in Liverpool Anglican cathedral was placed there to express love of God and her work opens up this truth so that all people, of any faith and none, can think about what is the best part of us all. It’s title, For You, is a very personal one and it reminds us that love is a gift, rather than a decision or an obligation.

The architect Giles Gilbert Scott devoted most of his adult life, from the age of 24 to his death at the age of 62, to building Liverpool Anglican cathedral from soft local sandstone. The foundation stone was laid in 1904 and he died without seeing it completed but he was able to put the last tower finial in place. The work was finally completed in 1978 and only the west end, where the Benedicite window and the installation is set, differs from his original plan. I’m sure that Tracy Emin’s work would surprise him but I hope he would be pleased that his great project continues to inspire and grow and that it can still mean something in a much changed and much more secular world.

The Reluctant Christian.

Heather had always thought of herself as a Christian. It was what she had been taught and it was what she believed…… sometimes. That was fine. Doubt was fine. How could you ever be certain about something that you couldn’t prove? She had realised that very early on, when she first heard the phrase “a sure and certain hope” in church. Even at eight years old she knew that this didn’t make sense. Hope was never certain or sure. When her mother said “we’ll see” that was hope. When the ice cream was in her hand that was certainty. The two never went together. God was too big an idea for her to get her head around, but she liked Jesus. He was on the side of bad people and when she got into trouble she remembered that and felt smug. Heaven was confusing. There are many rooms in my father’s house, Jesus said. She liked that because she was good at drawing houses. There must be lots of rooms. Millions of rooms. Bigger than a palace. All those dead people needing a bed. Well not dead- obviously. Risen. Jesus had risen again and so would everybody else who believed in him. She had worried a lot about bodies and what they would be like in heaven- would people who were poorly and elderly when they died be stuck like that? If she fell under a bus would she have to be eight years old forever? When Rev Hunt told her that the early Christians had worried about what kind of bodies they would have in heaven too she felt very clever. He couldn’t tell her the answer though. That happened a lot. Eventually she had learned not to ask. She just tried to believe as many as six impossible things before breakfast as though she was Alice in Wonderland but this was hard to do all by herself.

It was a long while now since Heather had been to a church service. It must be almost thirty years. This was not God’s fault. Long before middle age she had realised that while God might be all right, on a good day, other Christians were a big problem. They just didn’t like her very much and she didn’t like them. She had never gone down well. It left her sitting alone in a carefully chosen pew half way down the church, enclosed in a paper thin bubble of self consciousness which looked to those around her like a solid wall of heathen mud brick. After a service one or two people might come up to her with their cup of tea and say that it was nice to see her but they never seemed to find it quite nice enough, as they soon moved away and she was left to slip out early on her own. Inevitably she had stopped going. There were only so many times that she could listen to the story of the prodigal son- surely his brother had a point- and it was easier to think about the difficult bits on her own. Like the meek inheriting the Earth for instance. Didn’t happen. When some Jehovah’s Witnesses had knocked on her door and asked her about that, without even saying hello first, she had told them that she hoped it was true that the meek inherited the Earth because she was one of them. They didn’t like her either.

No services then, not for years, but if she was in a strange place where she was sure that nobody would recognise her, or worse still try to talk to her, she would lift the sneck and push the heavy door of a church to one side, carefully closing it behind her and find a place to sit down half way up the nave, just as she always had. There was no mother sitting next to her any more, ready to nudge her if she turned to look back or wriggled, so she could look around as much as she liked. The church that she was sitting in now was a good one. She had suspected that it would be as soon as she had been faced with the defiant message carved out in red and black letters on the first pillar that you saw. “Pra remember the power.” Once it had been an encouragement. Now more often than not it would seem like a plaintive request. There was an eagle lectern, a stern Victorian stained glass window with St George skewering a dragon and the name of the person who had paid for it in gothic script across the bottom, a high pulpit with a curving set of steps leading up to it, and seats in the choir stalls carved with animals and tiny people who hid away in the dark when you pushed a seat down. It was a glorious mish mash, formed by everyone who had wanted to make their mark on it throughout the centuries. It had the right Godly smell too, the kind of holy scent that takes many years of candles, dust and prayer to develop. It was charming. She frowned at the lion on the kneeler in front of her, a millennium lion it announced proudly, wondering about the word charming. God had been called many things, good and bad, by many people but charming seemed wrong whatever you thought about him. She was wondering about having a walk round when she heard the sneck of the door click. Damn. There was nowhere to hide so she just had to sit it out, exposed in the centre of the large empty space. They might just be visitors. They might leave her alone. They might go away.

They didn’t go away. A cheerful, well rounded woman walked boldly down the centre of the nave carrying a large armful of white lilies, gypsophilia and green foliage.
“Good afternoon!”
Heather muttered a good afternoon at the woman’s back as she walked past. If she was quick she could get out before she had to say anything else.. She was almost on her feet when the woman’s face appeared right next to her.
“Budge up.”
The woman sat down bold as brass. There was no way out of the pew now.
“Nice to see a visitor. Did you come to see the misericords? Lovely aren’t they?”
Heather had no idea what the misericords were.
“Not really- I just sort of wandered in.”
“That’s good. Let God lead the way.”
It gave Heather a jolt hearing God mentioned suddenly, even Christians didn’t often do that so quickly in front of strangers these days, but then if you couldn’t mention him here, where could you?
“I’m not a believer I’m afraid…….. at least I don’t think I am.”
The woman did her best not to look disappointed.
“What makes you unsure?”
“The church mostly- organised religion. It doesn’t always seem to have a lot to do with God.”
Well she had asked.
“He gets mentioned a lot.”
Heather gave the woman a sidelong glance. It was all right- she was grinning.
“Sorry.”
“Don’t worry. I sometimes wonder what I’m doing here and I’m on the flower rota.”
The woman introduced herself as Delia and returned Heather’s glance.
“Why don’t you go to church then?”
There was a long silence.
“Sorry. My big mouth again. You don’t have to tell me- it’s just our vicar said we should ask people so I am. It might make your mind up for you.”
She made a rueful face.
“Of course there’s always the risk that it might put you off.”
Heather laughed.
“Would it put me off if I came here?”
Delia screwed her nose up.
“Fifty fifty I’d say. It depends who you sit next to.”
“Do many people come?”
“A few. The usual mixture of the lost and the bewildered. They were the first to believe and judging by the way things are going they will be the last.”
“That must be discouraging.”
“It is for the person who has to count them every week that’s for sure.”
“Somebody counts them?”
“That’s how we know that we’re in decline. Although I like to think of it more as genteel poverty. Shabby chic.”
Heather looked around her. The church was a bit like a down at heel stately home, come to think of it. One that the National Trust hadn’t got around to yet, full of beautiful things that had been there for a long time, dusty corners, faded fabrics, polished metal and waxed wood. All labour intensive. It was the kind of place that unlucky owners sometimes called a money pit and now the servants had gone. The small core of family members who were left- the Delias- had to make do and mend, doing the work once done by a small army of believers. Delia was still talking.
“Of course there are churches where it’s all new carpets, plastic chairs and microphones. The younger ones like that and that’s where the growth is. Good luck to them. It wouldn’t do here. They’d have to take the pews out of here over my dead body.”
Heather wondered about pews. Of course they would be an issue. They were a straight backed, rigidly arranged bastion against change, filling the space with a silent promise that things would always be like this. You could dress it up as protecting heritage and beauty but what you were really protecting yourself against was the possibility of change. This was where God had always been and in the past he had never needed a microphone.
“I think the saddest thing is that so many people don’t think about God at all any more- after all even the most convinced atheists have done that and made their mind up- that’s probably why some of them are so angry.”
“Oh people still think about God. They just call him something else. Crystals, angels, mindfulness, the universe- as if the universe ever cared less about anybody. They are still looking, they just don’t come in here to search any more and there’s nothing to make them feel guilty about that. God will go on working- of course he will, he’s God- but if the church isn’t careful it won’t be through the church.”
This sounded like subversion to Heather.
“Do you say this kind of thing to the other people in your church?”
“As if. I’m unpopular enough already. I get fed up of people who seem to think they can understand the workings of almighty God- especially when the workings of almighty God mostly boils down to exactly where the vicar stands to say the peace and what kind of teabags there should be at PCC meetings.”
Heather laughed.
“If he’s there I think he might be just a bit bigger than that.”
“I’d like to think so, otherwise what am I worshipping?”
“Well, nothing potentially.”
“At least you will never be able to say I told you so.”
“I wouldn’t do that. I was brought up a churchgoer and it never leaves you. I sometimes think I come back to places like this to mourn. Hoping.”
“God’s not dead.”
This firm statement seemed to remind Delia why she was there.
“Well, I’d better get on.”
One last quick smile and she was on her feet, all bustle, finding, fetching, pouring, flat feet flip flopping around gathering what she needed. She was comfortable here, happy in her own space, purposeful, confident. Heather sat silently, watching her work. The vase she was using was an old one, quite ugly really, with a dented, wide meshed metal insert. As the pile of flowers and greenery on the grey flagstones grew smaller it was transformed into something beautiful, a timeless cascade of white lilies, trailing leaves and tiny white lacy flowers, an act of faith which had been made and remade many times before by a series of skilled hands. A whisper into the darkness. Finally the job was done. It felt as though it was time for Heather to leave. She was not allowed to do this silently. Delia waved a dustpan at her as she saw her get up.
“So have you found any answers?”
Heather shook her head.
“I don’t think there are any answers. Only questions.”
Delia smiled.
“Just so long as you keep asking.”
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In Ampleforth Abbey.

Silence becomes something tangible,
something active,
something real.
The smallest sound cries out in pain
ricocheting off the walls,
demanding attention.

This is a vaulted store of mystery,
a repository of unspoken needs and requests
sent out into the empty air
by those who have come and gone.

Light falls softly on pale stone
shattering coloured glass into action.
The thin sound of a tiny bell
shivers in the air.

The long lines of hard pews
hold the memories of those who sat there,
believing or wondering.
The bored, shuffling, anxious faithful.

Unlit candles,
Empty lecterns
Silent choir stalls,
the veiled dome on the altar,
have time to spare.
They can wait.
Steadily the space breathes out,
heavy with longing.

I breathe in the smell of dust,
burning wax,
heavy fabrics,
old books.
The scent of history.

Solemn faces from the past
people the emptiness.
Questioning, watching, enduring.
I have no answers for them.

Suddenly the organ explodes into swirling cadences.
The walls vibrate, savouring the sound.
The empty space lifts up its head,
remembering,
and the unseen multitude around me
stand to sing.

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Collecting My Solitude.

Love demands a response.
Dislike is threatening.
Questions are difficult and tiring.
At such times, when I am worn thin from wondering,
I walk out onto a stretch of empty, open sand
and head towards a line of chalk cliffs
which stretch out into the distant mist.

I wander slowly amongst the sea air, barefoot,
allowing the soft, sea worn sand to stroke my feet,
searching for a tiny box which I have left there,
carefully concealed from those
who do not know how to look.
It is a box hand crafted from precious metal,
with long patience and intense skill.

I catch sight of the glint of gold!
It has waited for me after all.
I run my finger over the surface,
tracing subtle, swirling patterns,
and find the secret catch in the lid
which allows a hidden iridescent bird
to flare out its wings and sing.

“I went to collect the few personal belongings which…I held to be invaluable: my cat, my resolve to travel, and my solitude.”
― Colette

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Pra Remember the Power.

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This is a four word sermon, carved on a pillar several hundred years ago in a small quiet church on the outskirts of Scarborough. It made me think. The person who first carved this message in St Laurence’s church, Scalby, and the people who first saw it had no doubt what it meant. It faces you as you enter the building, challenging you the minute you walk in through the door, before you turn to walk down the nave and reach the safety of your seat. It was designed to be a reminder of God’s power for each person who enters the building, a reminder which would have been understood as a double edged sword. God’s power could be seen to destroy all too easily in a society where early mortality, violence and uncertainty was an everyday reality. It was something to fear. It was also something to cling onto, the one thing that you could rely on in a world where there were no safety nets and nothing was certain. It interested me that the word used was remember, not revere or respect. Remember.

Aside from the regular worshippers, who would still understand the message in exactly the same way, I wondered whether it still had something to teach our mostly secular society which no longer subscribes to a belief in God, whether it is ready to openly admit it or not. Our culture as a whole “doesn’t do God”. Can a carving in a small church made several hundred years ago still have something to teach those who have no faith, or a very different one? I think perhaps it can.

Pra remember the power
of those family and friends who have influence over you. Recognise it, value it, but question any acceptance of their values and opinions which comes too easily to you. Your family love you but they may not know what is best for you. Your joy in life may come from something that they know nothing about and they may never be able to lead you towards it or understand why it matters to you. Accept their experience and remember that it is hard won, listen and grow from it but never let it limit your own expectations. Your friends care about you, but they have their own agenda- you don’t have to share it. You are allowed to be different. You are allowed to find your own path with their support.

Pra remember the power of the tradition and culture that you grew from. You may need to fight against it but always value and respect it. Like it or not it made you who you are. Those older or younger than you will have developed their own values in a different world to the one which you grew up in. Understand that and forgive their differences. Talk to them and learn from them.

Pra remember the power
given to those who are in authority over you. Understand what you can and can’t do to challenge it. Understanding where the power lies in any given situation can be the key to changing things where change is needed. Work out where to find assistance from those in authority when you need it. Never be too proud to admit that you are weak and ask for help. Those in power over you have a duty to look after your well being- that is why they are there. Expect their respect and if you don’t get it, challenge them- but always remember who is in charge. Tread carefully.

Pra remember the power of those who run our society. Understand that they will make mistakes but always, always, hold those in power to account for them. They are saying what they want you to believe- learn to recognise the truth which lies behind that as you listen to them.

Pra remember the power
that you have over others. You influence those who you meet and care about every day whether you realise it or not. You can use this power to build or destroy the happiness of others- never take it lightly or imagine that what you say or do (however trivial) doesn’t matter. Someone will notice and their world will be made better or worse for it.

Pra remember the power
and beauty of the natural world around you. Cherish its beauty and do what you can to protect it. You are part of an ecosystem, not a single organism and you rely on everything around you in order to survive and thrive. It will not sustain you without active and vigilant care for its well being. None of it should be taken for granted or misused.

Pra remember the power
that you have inside yourself. You can’t do everything- nobody can- and you shouldn’t assume that you can do anything that you want to. Forget your weaknesses and forgive yourself for them, other people may well continue to point them out to you but the fact is they will probably always be your weaknesses, shrug your shoulders and work round them. Work out what the nature of your own power is, your own talents, interests, skills and passions. Use that knowledge to make a place for yourself in the world and do whatever it is that you are best at. Above all work out what makes you happy and do that, not what other people have told you will make you happy, not what you have watched other people find happiness from, not what you feel you ought to do, but what really makes your own heart sing.

If you can do that then whether you believe in God or not you won’t be so far away from him and if he doesn’t exist you’ll be too busy enjoying living to worry about it.

A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognized, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round.

from Church Going by Phillip Larkin.

Hymns Ancient and Modern.

My childhood was full of hymns, and not just at church on Sunday. Every day in school assembly I sang a traditional hymn, and so did just about everybody else growing up at that time. When my high school tested everybody one by one for the school choir in an early music lesson it was Hymns Ancient and Modern which was doled out desk by desk. I don’t think it was a religious choice, it was just that we all knew many of them so it was the easiest way to do it. In spite of the fact that even back in the 1960’s church congregations were already collapsing we had all stood there in rows belting them out (or mumbling them) at primary school day after weary day. They were on a massive tattered brown roll of pages which was hoisted up on a winch above our heads with the pages thrown back over the top to show the right hymn for the day.

Most of them were quite baffling. Praise My Soul the King of Heaven or Breathe on Me Breath of God is a bit of a far off concept when you are six or seven. When we sang Fight the Good Fight I had a whole scenario which I could play in my head as I sang it and it had nothing to do with faith or facing the difficulties of life as you try to be worthy of eternal salvation. I had seen playground fights and I enjoyed imagining myself winning a series of them as I sang. I was a belter, not a mumbler. When I sang “Lay hold on life” I imagined myself pulverising life and raising my “joy and crown” above my head at the end of the verse with my foot placed firmly on its stomach. I was a tiny, quiet, over protected and highly imaginative only child- it was my one opportunity to contemplate violence.

I had four favourite hymns. In fourth place was one which I now think is the possibly the most vacuous piece of nonsense ever to be inflicted on small children. Glad That I Live Am I, written by Lizette W Reece in 1909.

Glad that I live am I;
That the sky is blue;
Glad for the country lanes,
And the fall of dew.

After the sun, the rain,
After the rain the sun;
This is the way of life,
Till the work be done.

All that we need to do,
Be we low or high,
Is to see that we grow,
Nearer to God on high.

It has no originality at all just a stifling acceptance of a mundane, repetitive way of life that saps the spirit. Accept your lot and get on with life without grumbling. Work hard until you die and if you have stood there long enough and sang enough boring hymns you might get to heaven but don’t count on too much before then.

In third place was Daisies Are Our Silver written by Jan Struther in 1901.

Daisies are our silver,
Buttercups our gold:
This is all the treasure
We can have or hold.

Raindrops are our diamonds
And the morning dew;
While for shining sapphires
We’ve the speedwell blue.

These shall be our emeralds
Leaves so new and green;
Roses make the reddest
Rubies ever seen.

God, who gave these treasures
To your children small,
Teach us how to love them
And grow like them all.

Make us bright as silver:
Make us good as gold;
Warm as summer roses
Let our hearts unfold.

Gay as leaves in April,
Clear as drops of dew
God, who made the speedwell,
Keep us true to you.

This stands the test of time a little bit better for me. It’s simplistic but at least it encouraged a delight in the natural world and it talked about things which I saw every day, as a country child. I had absolutely no concept of what a soul was or what faith might be but I liked speedwell, and roses, and new leaves and raindrops and I knew what they were.

In second place was John Bunyan’s Who Would True Valour See, part of his great work Pilgrim’s Progress written in 1684 and turned into a hymn by Percy Dearmer in 1906. This is writing of real quality inspired by deep faith in horrible circumstances, far too complex for an infant and yet something about it managed to reach the consciousness of my small self. I found life confusing and difficult and I liked the idea of being strong and undaunted. I wanted to be unstoppable and fearless too. I had enough people besetting me round with dismal stories- I wanted to face a roaring lion without being scared and fight a few giants. Of course Percy Dearmer wrote a great tune too and that helped.

Who would true Valour see
Let him come hither;
One here will Constant be,
Come Wind, come Weather.
There’s no Discouragement,
Shall make him once Relent,
His first avow’d Intent,
To be a Pilgrim.

Who so beset him round,
With dismal Storys,
Do but themselves Confound;
His Strength the more is.
No Lyon can him fright,
He’l with a Gyant Fight,
But he will have a right,
To be a Pilgrim.

My favourite hymn of all was When a Knight Won His Spurs, another Jan Struther one written later in her life, first appearing in 1931. That made it just over 30 years old at the time I was singing it so I daresay it was thought of as new fangled and modern.

When a knight won his spurs, in the stories of old,
He was gentle and brave, he was gallant and bold
With a shield on his arm and a lance in his hand,
For God and for valour he rode through the land.

No charger have I, and no sword by my side,
Yet still to adventure and battle I ride,
Though back into storyland giants have fled,
And the knights are no more and the dragons are dead.

Let faith be my shield and let joy be my steed
‘Gainst the dragons of anger, the ogres of greed;
And let me set free with the sword of my youth,
From the castle of darkness, the power of the truth.

This is the perfect hymn for a romantically inclined, overprotected only child who spent a lot of time on her own. I loved Grimm’s fairy tales so along with the gentle lyricism of the tune and the sentiment, there was also a real sense of danger. Grimm’s fairy tales are tough and full of explicit cruelty. Children are abducted and abused in them and have to rely on only their own cleverness and strength of character to survive. It’s a brutal world picture and the idea that a single knight could ride out to combat all the evil in the world, and that I could be like him, however small and weak I might be, was a fine ideal to aspire to. It is a clever touch that the knight is a single figure- easy to idealise and visualise. Above all it told me that the giants and dragons which had filled my thoughts had once been real. There was a deep sadness in the fact that they were no longer alive but this hymn told me that they had once existed and that was what mattered.

Strangely, God didn’t really come into any of this at the time. They may have sent me to Sunday School but it wasn’t until quite a few years later that I realised that some people believed in the bible and tried to live by it, and it was much later still before I drew my own conclusions. I was busy making up stories of my own from the ones that I was being told. It’s what children do when you put something that is too difficult in front of them.

The Looking Glass.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The sun is painting with light on pale cold stone,
Using the colours and the designs of the artist craftsman
Who first saw the light spilling out through his work
To make a new window which had its birth
In a far away ball of fire.

Faces stare out silently from the past
So much colour, so much movement, so much hope.
Voices from a world of faith, fear and certainty.
So very human. So very other.
So very distant, yet close at hand.

They speak across the centuries
With the immediacy and force of a present moment.
Made by human hands who feel fear and awe.
Faces in a kaleidoscopic looking glass
Which show us both ourself and a stranger.

While they have waited the world has slipped away from them.
Leaving them only their dignity.
I look into their eyes and wonder,
And find a connection between two minds
Who share everything and nothing.

 

The photographs are my own. They are details of some of the windows in the abbey church of  St Lawrence at Ampleforth, designed by Patrick Reyntiens.