In Media Vita
Cathedrals have different personalities, none more so than those in England. Durham is chthonic, huge, Romanesque, crouching like a dragon on its high hill. Ely, also Romanesque, is on a mound in the fens of East Anglia. Its architecture is relieved by its famous lantern tower which projects light into the gloom. Salisbury is chaste, austere, a bit too self-consciously so. Canterbury, with its various levels and crannies is a bit of a hodge-podge, filled with light. Wells is graceful with its miraculous arch. But the only cathedral I know that has an 'air of suppressed merriment', as Marion Glasscoe says, is Exeter.
Exeter is one of the simplest in design, though its elaborately decorated west front might lead one to think otherwise. Inside it is symmetrical, divided by a screen with the organ on top. There's something about this lovely space, be it the minstrels' gallery, or the many-ribbed columns, or the acres of glass, that speaks of joy, of divine play, even on the most sombre occasion.
This past week I was there for the funeral of a dear friend who died just before Christmas. She was Orthodox, so there was a vigil the night before in the tiny 14th century leper's chapel on the other side of town that had been converted into an Orthodox church. The vigil was deeply moving, intimate, and for me the real leave-taking, far more so than the funeral the next day in the cathedral.
The Orthodox chants, the sense of leisure as we moved through the prayers, the unhurried waiting as people took their leave one by one while members of the tiny choir took turns reciting psalms—if only the churches of the West could understand and incorporate some of this contemplative leisure. In addition, the Orthodox liturgy looks death square in the face, one of its great strengths, even while it is lacing its mourning with a myriad of alleluias.
The funeral proper was in the choir of Exeter cathedral. My friend had been very active in church circles—Anglican, Catholic and Orthodox—so the congregation was sprinkled with habits and collars. The service, an extended version of the vigil the night before, was led by a clutch of Orthodox clergy, including Kallistos Ware, who had been a close friend, and who wept unashamedly through the entire rite. The Orthodox liturgy, with its balance of mourning and rejoicing fit perfectly into that glorious yet gentle cathedral space.
There was a gathering in the chapter house after the service; I wish I hadn't gone. While many of the congregation genuinely mourned and shared reminiscences, there were an equal number, if not more, who were there to preen and display. It made me feel rather sick. Human nature, I tell myself; be charitable. But really, it isn't human nature: human nature is something much more exalted. That sort of behaviour is rather the consequence of a series of choices.
'In the midst of life we are in death' and it isn't only the death of friends, the confrontation with our own physical death: it can also be a warning of the death of the spirit.