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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Sunday, 8 February 2015

Seasons of Durham Life: January

After the excitements of Advent and Christmas, January is quiet, like the frosts and mists that steal up on the peninsula in midwinter. I ought to have had time to write this January blog during the month itself. But it got overtaken by other things: writing that I'd not had time to finish over Christmas, large Cathedral matters I had to give time to. And our minds and prayers have been occupied by what has been happening beyond our shores, terrible events in Iraq, Syria, Nigeria and elsewhere.

Here in Durham, we have had a tragedy. Winter took its toll on a student who fell into the icy black waters of the River Wear in the small hours of a January morning. Durham's river banks are lovely beyond description, but they are a trap for the unwary who don't know the topography. In the dark, they pose hazards that have taken their toll on no fewer than three young student lives in the past 14 months (and nearly took a fourth just last week). The Cathedral owns sections of the river banks, though not where this latest drowning took place. In an intimate city like this, any grave incident makes you stop and think. We have been talking with the University, the Police and the Local Authority to see what needs to be done to make sure no-one else loses their life in a place of exquisite beauty. It was a shocking reminder that even beauty has its dark side.

January feels like 'ordinary time': gentle and steady. No-one affects to like January very much. But in the Cathedral it is still Christmas until the feast of Candlemas on 2 February. So there has been light and colour to enjoy. During these forty days, the crib has been in position, as have the Christmas trees under the Victorian Scott Screen. At Epiphany, we celebrate the revealing of the infant Jesus to the world and develop the rich theme of how something so tiny as an infant can have significance for the entire cosmos. Incarnation makes me think of Hamlet: 'I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space'. It goes on 'were it not that I have bad dreams'. Epiphany feels like a season of good dreams, imagining our world as it would be if this infant King reigned, with all its wrongs righted and tears and pain brought to an end.

Our development project Open Treasure continues through the month. The cloister buildings are enveloped in scaffolding. Behind, mostly invisible, we are treated to bangs and thuds and the whine of machinery as the contractors continue the long and noisy job of preparing these ancient buildings to house our wonderful treasures such as Cuthbert's cross, the Durham Gospels and three copies of Magna Carta. There is mud everywhere, and much of it finds its way into the cloister, the Cathedral and our homes. The chantier (is there an English word for a works site?) has eaten up precious parking space in the College, so visitors' cars get left in front of the Deanery gates, much to the annoyance of its occupants. But these are the trials of progress. Spirits are high as we see this great work move forward. By summer, the fabric conservation will be finished. College Green will return to its verdant normal, in time for the Chorister School to entertain its speech day guests for tea underneath the branches of the spreading beech trees.

Meanwhile, the days get longer, though ever so slowly at first. But there are snowdrops on the river banks and in the Deanery garden. The golden sunlight that illuminates the pillar opposite the Dean's stall at morning prayer around solstice time has gone for another year. It's a welcome sign that the sun is climbing back up the sky towards the zenith, and with it, the sap is rising in the trees. And in our spirits, I trust. Ready for Lent when it comes in February.

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