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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

20 April 2018

Returning to York after a long absence, Malcolm Guite discovers the ancient city’s most sacred thing

AFTER an absence of nearly two decades, I found myself back in York, ensconced on an old bench, in the shelter of a parapet on the great medieval walls, smoking a meditative pipe, admiring the way a shaft of evening sunlight broke through grey clouds to illuminate the warm stone of the minster, and reflecting a little on the nature of time.

York is a place where you can’t help reflecting on time: its strange eddies, and its long perspec­tives; for the place is redolent of the past and yet keeps a living continuity with its foundation.

It seemed to me that time itself was less like an arrow flying swiftly past, and more like a gradual accretion of rich layers: layers of being; layers of action and passion, thought and feeling, piling up gradually over the same place, each layer leaving its trace, its record and pattern, like the layers in sedimentary rock, or the rings on a great tree. I felt that, far from flying or receding, time was simply deepening: patiently, quietly, accumulat­ing; that somehow all of it is always still there, still available.

My day had begun with a visit to the Jorvik Museum, which is vastly improved since my last visit; for now it includes a carved stone cross, whose combined Christian motifs and evocative animal figures witness in stone to the astonishing tale of how those early Anglo-Saxon Christians found courage to share their faith with the Norsemen who had been their enemies, and how that faith clarified and redeemed the haunting stories in the Norse sagas — stories of a God who hung on the world tree, a sacrifice to himself.

The real drama of that museum, though, is the way it takes you down through the diggings, down through the layers of time. You start out standing on a glass floor above the Coppergate, where archaeologists, digging down past the discarded clay pipes of the 18th-century, past Jacobean tankards and the old Tudor timbers, down past the debris of the high middle-ages, had uncovered, at last, the bare bones, the clean lines, sharp axes, and rune-written sword-blades of Viking York. Then, they take you down in carriages that are something like your own personal Tardis, to see a vivid reconstruction, with all the sights and smells of that magnificent dark-age settlement.

But it was not so much the morning as the early evening that had set me thinking about the many layers of time. For, before evensong in the Minster, a service which is itself a glorious thread of connection and continuity with the past, I had dipped down into the crypt, far deeper than the Coppergate diggings, where the remains of Eboracum, the Roman city, can be seen; and there I saw for myself the most sacred thing in York: a simple clay tablet from the first century, on which, 200 years before Constantine ever heard on the streets of York his call to empire, an anonymous Christian had scratched the chi-rho, the sign of Christ. That sign was made within living memory of the events of Easter, and uncovered only in our own time, in the very heart of England: the sign of our salvation.

I left York with the sense that there might also be signs of hope, even in the layers of my own life, waiting to be rediscovered.

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