If you read my last blog you'll know that I've not been around in Durham for much of August. We have been in Haydon Bridge beginning to inhabit our new home and getting the feel of what life in 'retirement' may be like in this lovely village.
I think of August as a dreamy sort of month. It evokes glowing suns, afternoon heat haze, balmy evenings, and if the climatic reality is cooler and damper than this, an aestival chimera still lingers on in the mind. The year seems to be at its still point, finely balanced as if on an edge from which it's about to fall. It feels like a time of endings. Bank Holiday weekend is its final rite of passage. After Monday, it will be September, a lovely month, but indisputably autumnal. The nights will draw in and the day's warmth will quickly dissipate. The school year starts up again and the movement of the seasons gets back into gear. Soon it will be the equinox. August is a month to savour while there is still time: 'summer's lease hath all too short a date'.
I recently came across a poem called 'The End of Summer' . It's by the American poet Stan Kunitz. He speaks about how the year turns on a hinge even when the sky is still glowing azure, 'blue poured into summer blue'. The poet has a moment of recognition: 'I knew that part of my life was over'. That's especially the case as I contemplate the last month of my full-time working life that begins the day after August ends. A forty year era, a big part of my life, is coming to an end.
But what of the Cathedral in August? It's both busy and not busy (or should I say #notbusy?). The 'not' bit is that the schedule of formal commitments and business meetings slows right down. It ought to have stopped altogether in my opinion: only workaholic Cathedral chapters hold meetings in August, surely. This year, we had to break a rule and hold one in order formally to approve the annual report and accounts. But it's always a relief not to be chasing paper and answering hundreds of emails for one month of the year. It's the nearest we get to a corporate annual sabbatical. Wonderful for catching up, writing, preparing, pondering, woolgathering. And for getting round and spending valuable time with people whose paths you don't normally cross except at meetings and events.
The other side of this is of course that August is the peak of the visitor season. The Cathedral is thronged with families on holiday, guests from every corner of the globe, groups from cruise ships docking at the Port of Tyne, overnighters taking a breather on the way to Scotland and pilgrims following the path of our Saints. The Cathedral keeps late opening hours to welcome evening visitors. Our front-of-house staff and volunteers work their socks off. The Education Department runs activities for children. The Lego Cathedral team promotes our wondrous achievement in and around the Cloister. The Durham Photographic Society holds a summer exhibition in the nave. There are concerts and informal recitals. There's a wonderfully lively atmosphere in the church all day long. And if you want a quiet place to pray in, the Chapel of the Holy Cross is open every day as a cool, contemplative space that is kept silent for our visitors' needs.
And of course, the liturgy goes on day by day and hour by hour like a Christian prayer wheel. Visitors are sometimes annoyed, often delighted to find that their visit coincides with the daily midday eucharist or shrine prayers, pulpit prayers for peace and justice or choral evensong. And August brings a rich crop of local northern festivals. On St Oswald's Day, 5 August, we joined up with St Oswald's Church across the river to celebrate evensong in honour of the saint who was the midwife of the Northumbrian mission in the seventh century. The Blessed Virgin Mary, honoured with Catholic Christendom on 15 August, is one of the three patrons of the Cathedral along with Christ and St Cuthbert. On 25 August we honour St Aebbe, Prioress of Coldingham and a friend of St Cuthbert. And tomorrow is St Aidan's Day, another high day in the Cathedral calendar. And that's on top of the Transfiguration (6) and St Bartholomew (24)!
The Cathedral choir is of course on holiday but visiting choirs from the UK and all over the world spend a week in residence working extraordinarily hard to sing the eight choral services of the week, including no fewer than three on Sunday. Sometimes they have booked their visits three years in advance. Our visiting choirs love the experience of making music in this Cathedral and of living in such a beautiful environment. We do our utmost to make them and their supporters welcome so that they know how much we value their contribution to the liturgy.
Tomorrow we go back to Durham for September. There is a lot of sorting out and tidying up to do in the Dean's office. There is the round of final meetings to chair and farewell interviews with each of my senior colleagues. There are valedictory events both formal and informal. And then there is the last service of my Durham years and of all my years in stipendiary ministry on Sunday 27 September at 1530. I can't pretend to be looking forward to the deep emotions that will be stirred up within me: in some ways it's a day I wish did not have to dawn.
But I know that good farewells are important for those who leave and for those who are left behind. God will be in our bitter-sweet partings as he has been in everything else down the years. Life is always gift. The end of summer is a passage to the rich autumn harvest of the abundance of the year and the years. For all that has been, thanks. To all that shall be, yes!