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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

18 May 2018

Contemplating Salisbury Cathedral’s spire, Malcolm Guite starts to see things from a different perspective

ON A bright May morning, just before the Church Times Poetry Festival was kick-started into life and motion by Canon Mark Oakley, I was sitting outside Sarum College, contemplating the astonishing spire of Salisbury Cathedral.

The Cathedral Close, unlike some, is not actually close at all, but spread out at a leisurely distance from the cathedral itself, so that one can see the whole edifice without obstruction, and the great building has room to breathe, to show all its proportions, and to feed the imagination.

The eye is inevitably drawn upwards to the spire, as the broad spread and foundation of the cathedral, with all its walls and arches, narrows and rises into that slender arrow: a great sermon in stone finally coming to the point.

And the point, where the stone narrows to nothing and disappears into the blue, is, of course, a sign, a sign pointing away from itself and all its achievements, upwards towards something utterly transcendent.

But, suddenly, I saw it all the other way round. I saw the tip of the spire as the beginning, as though the whole building started there, with a little gift of being, from out of the blue, and grew downwards and outwards from that tiny point, down to the broad walls, the deep foundations and welcoming doors, the accessible place of human community.

I suppose the whole place, and the faith that brought it into being, can always be seen both ways, is always both a receiving from above and a building-up from below; and, for a moment, I could see the two directions, the two movements, alternating, reciprocating.

These days after Ascension are like that, too: a pause in the midst of that reciprocal motion, poised between the great upward movement of the ascension that brings the resurrection to completion and climax, and the wonderful downrush of power and prayer which is Pentecost. This in-between time is the upward equivalent of Holy Saturday, that other expectant pause at the lowest point, between the deepest downward descent of Christ into hell, and the great uprush of resurrection. But, for now, all that drives the wheel of the liturgical year is suspended and still, before the explosion of Pentecost sets it all in motion again. We rest for a moment at “top dead centre”, as the motorcycle mechanics like to say.

I once did an evening class in motorcycle maintenance, and the teacher patiently explained to me that, for any fine tuning and adjustment of the engine, you must first find top dead centre: that point when the upward travelling cylinder has come to the very top of its range, and so its reciprocal cylinder is at its lowest; that point of poise and compression just before the spark plug fires and the great expansion of gases powers the cylinder down again to set everything in motion.

My attempts to find the exact top dead centre always failed, and I gave up on that course after a term, which is why I am waiting now for my bike to be repaired by a professional; but I am very glad that the liturgical year always finds top dead centre for me, and I draw breath before ergon, the action, the energy, the urge that is within the word liturgy, fires up again at Pentecost and gets us all moving.

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