Sure enough, there were two women there in great distress. They were middle-aged sisters. That morning they had lost their mother. They did not know where to turn or what to do, only that they wanted to sit quietly in a church with their own thoughts and memories. They had not found another church open at night, so they had come to the Cathedral and found the lights on. Although the concert was going on, the duty verger had thoughtfully taken them to a part of the church where they would not be disturbed. He had given them cups of tea, a kind gesture on his part. He had helped them light candles in memoriam. Cathedrals owe so much to their vergers.
We sat there and talked about their mother. She had been taken ill quite suddenly and although she had been cared for in hospital, her death was a terrible shock. They told me how their mother was everything to them. They could not imagine life without her. They had found some comfort through sitting near St Cuthbert, aware of being in a place that felt safe and good and that could contain their grief, aware too of the music wafting over them and finding it soothing.
They were glad when I asked if they would like me to pray with them. We stood by the altar at the shrine and said prayers of thanksgiving and commendation. I sensed Cuthbert’s presence, as if he was praying with us. Then we said the Lord’s Prayer. They joined in falteringly, tearfully, but that only made it more moving. Afterwards they both gave me big hugs as if I were a close family friend. They asked if they could stay in the shrine for a little longer.
One of the Cathedral’s most famous artefacts is the sanctuary knocker on the north door. It shows a fierce monster with a ring through his nose. It’s one of the finest pieces of Romanesque metal work in the country. In the middle ages, anyone being pursued for manslaughter could flee to the Cathedral and grasp hold of the knocker ring to claim sanctuary. They would be taken in by the monks and kept safe inside the monastery to give them time to prepare for the future. They would wear a gown bearing St Cuthbert’s cross. So to find two people needing help sitting inside his shrine recalled a centuries old tradition of compassionate sanctuary that has been offered here in Cuthbert’s name.
I have been a priest for 36 years, but I was touched by this meeting in a way that I can’t yet quite understand. Maybe I’m thinking much about my own ageing mother. Maybe I'm more aware of my own mortality now that I am near the end of my ministry. Maybe it was being in that particularly numinous place in the Cathedral. Maybe it was Cuthbert. Maybe it was the music we’d heard that evening. Lots of maybes: maybe it was a bit of all of them. Whatever it was, there was something profound about it for me, and that was to do with how God reaches out to us even in our darkest times and deepest needs. Especially then.
I know I shall always remember it.