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

Sunday, 31 May 2015

Seasons of Durham Life: May

In the Deanery garden we have a bellwether to signal the seasons as they turn: a glorious beech hedge. In autumn it lingers green when the trees go gold and red. When it finally succumbs, its crinkly dead leaves hang on to their moorings until a sudden explosion of green displaces them in late spring. It's always the last survivor of winter as if to say to daffodils and bluebells, don't get your hopes up too soon. Wait for me. I'll give you the cue to trust that summer is on its way. 

The liturgical cycle has its own way of telling us that 'summer is icumen in'. The Rogation Litany in procession offers prayers for good harvests, especially for the poor, a memory of the Jewish Feast of Weeks that marked the early ripening grain and looked forward to reaping its full harvest in the summer. Ascension Day marks the 40th day of the Easter season with a joyful celebration of Christ's reign over all things. This year I preach at the Durham churches' open air service in the evocative and beautiful ruins of Finchale Priory, a few miles downstream from Durham where the hermit Godric came to live and pray the solitary life 900 years ago. The big wide sky above our heads speaks of both a hermit's solitariness in a remote place and the heaven that is the central metaphor in the Ascension story. It should be a warm balmy May evening. Instead it is grey, windy and bitterly cold. I  keep the sermon short!

Whitsunday or Pentecost feels like a forgotten church festival. No longer married to a bank holiday (though they coincide this year) 'Whit' means no more than the last weekend of May. On this last day of Easter, the church and its ministers are decked in brilliant red to recall the fiery gift of the Spirit. At evensong we go in procession to the Galilee Chapel to say our final prayers at the Easter Garden by the huge stone rolled away in front of the empty tomb. We shout our concluding alleluias and extinguish the Paschal Candle for the last time. 'Ordinary time' is here again.

Except not quite in Durham. For Whit Monday 25 May is the festival of St Bede the Venerable, another high day in our calendar with more festivity, music and incense. His shrine in the Galilee is one of the holy places in North East England, like St Curhbert's at the other end of the Cathedral. But unlike Cuthbert, Bede did not belong here to begin with. He had been buried in his own monastery at Jarrow 20 miles away in 735. But the Saxon monks of Durham wanted him, not just for his legendary wisdom and holiness but because it was mostly thanks to Bede's writings that the world knew anything at all about Cuthbert and his heroic sanctity. So in 1022 a monk of Durham went to Jarrow, became a member of that monastic community, and having earned the trust of his brothers, lifted Bede's precious relics one night (I imagine it was done under cover of darkness) and brought them back to Durham where they have been to this day. This practice of 'sacred theft' was not unknown across medieval Europe. It was seen as a way of 'helping' a saint find the place where he or she was destined to lie. Go to the Abbey of Conques in South west France, for example, where Sainte Foy's relics travelled a lot further than Bede's. But I can't help having an uneasy conscience about him when I show Jarrow people his tomb.

What else has the merry month of May brought? For students, exams. While we feel for them, we don't regret the peace and quiet that descends on university cities during the exam period even if we pay for it with riotous celebrations when it is all over. For the tourist industry, it is the start of the high season. The Cathedral is thronged with visitors day after day. Our several hundred volunteer stewards do a magnificent job welcoming them at the door, putting a human face on this majestic but - to some - intimidating building. May and June are big Saga months for the more mature visitor (not an ageist remark: at 65 I am now in my second Saga decade). But there are also lots of school groups on visits organised by our own Education Centre whose enthusiasm in helping youngsters enjoy, understand and respond to the Cathedral is truly inspiring. 

And May has brought a much anticipated gift to the Cathedral Chapter: three new members, two lay, one ordained, all of them women, who fill the empty places vacated by colleagues who left Durham last year. It is very good to have the Chapter table fully populated once more after several months. The Cathedral's governance is secure. And I am proud that our Chapter gender balance puts us in the forefront of cathedrals in terms of equality. 

I am writing this May blog on the last day of the month, this year Trinity Sunday. The long 'green' weeks of the Trinity season stretch far ahead across high summer and into the autumn. For us, that will mean retirement and the hard task in September of saying farewell to this holy and beautiful place with its rich communities of wonderful people. It suddenly feels a lot closer. I feel a sigh coming on. 

And yet.... The advent of summer is always a rich time of gifts. And while the order of time runs its course in this our last Durham summer, God's mercies endure for a lifetime. And with them, precious memories and great thankfulness. 

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