SEE US IN A NEW LIGHT
The Belly of the Cathedral
The Very Revd Geoff Miller, Dean of Newcastle, writes…
I suppose visitors to Cathedrals (as to many churches for that matter) have always liked to climb towers and discover mysterious under crofts. I’ll leave the former for another day but this morning I turned by the Great Organ and took the awkward few steps down into the depth of the old charnel-house under the Chapel of St George. Perhaps surprisingly, at least to the modern visitor, this crypt Chapel did not begin its life below the ground, rather the city grew up around it. The old histories tell us that when it was re-opened in November 1824 it was full of rubbish and old human bones; and at the east end a delightful roundel window was discovered blocked up. The window’s five delicate tear shaped mouchettes frame a charming vista of St George’s Chapel above. Some think it was once a chantry chapel, perhaps dedicated to Catherine, others say that in its day it was secret confessional. Either a place of prayer literally among the dead for the dead or a cavern of sins stuttered to ancient priests, who knows? This Chapel has guarded its secrets well!
Today it smells of damp and sewers, for it cannot fight off the water trickle down to the river below. Sadly, at present we don’t use it much. For some time, last year our delightful (and very skilled Conservator) spent weeks chipping off the old distemper to try and help dry the place out. We got used to hearing the rhythmic thud of the chisel as ‘Debs’ (my cheeky nickname for the Conservator) persisted in her work as we prayed above in St George’s Chapel. Like a belly-bagpipe-drone from the deep it kept reminding me that there are secrets and mysteries in the murky depths of us all – aren’t there? I can still hear the thud in my inner ear as the liturgy progresses.
An old Bishop once reminded me that most people have skeletons in the cupboards of their past and that they are best dealt with by ‘squirting grace through the keyhole’. I think he had a point. Too many people live like the demoniac (Mark 5:2) among the tombs, preferring to wallow (and occasionally wail) rather than letting Christ do his work of liberation. And the rhythmic metronome of guilt and shame sometimes allows us no peace or comfort. Yet this damp mysterious place has held a different attraction for me. When I first came to be at the Cathedral our Friday Eucharist here in the Cathedral’s belly, Bread and Wine shared in the dank and dingy vault were a precious testimony to grace and its gentle but powerful presence in the depths as well as in the heights.
I recall a wonderful story told by Paul Tillich in his collection of sermons ‘Shaking the Foundations’:
‘In a Polish town during the Second World War some local Jews hid from the Nazis by living in the graveyard amongst the tombs. It was the only place of safety they could find. In one grave, a young woman gave birth to a son. The Rabbi wrapped him in his prayer shawl and held him up to the world. ‘Surely,’ he cried, ‘This must be the Messiah. For only the Messiah could be born in a grave.’ Lord, we yearn for your amazing grace to be borne among us in the deepest, darkest parts of our lives and our world.