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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

26 April 2019

Malcolm Guite hears a gasp in Norwich Cathedral

I WAS in the vestry in Norwich Cathedral, preparing to speak at a Holy Week service, when the deacon came in and said “Notre-Dame is burning.” We had two minutes to go before our own service — time for a prayer, but no time to check the news — and out we went, processing down the long and beautiful nave under the vaulted arches and into the resplendent beauty, the forest of stone and light, which is a great medieval cathedral, to set it ringing again with the prayer and liturgy for which it was built.

When, in the intercessions, the deacon said that Notre-Dame was on fire, and asked for prayers for the firefighters and all the people of France, there was an audible gasp, a physically discernible wave of sympathy and shock as the congregation of one cathedral felt, and knew in their hearts, what it must be like for the congregation of another.

People glanced up at the delicate stone tracery, the intricately carved roof bosses, as though to reassure themselves that they were all still there. Then we entered into the mysteries of the eucharist, with its anamnesis of death and resurrection, of catastrophic loss and astonishing renewal.

Our Gospel text that evening was St Luke’s account of Jesus’s looking down over Jerusalem with tears in his eyes, already foreseeing the tragedy of destruction, not one stone left on another. I led a reflection on those tears, drawing on my poem “Jesus Weeps”:

Jesus comes near and he beholds the city
And looks on us with tears in his eyes,
And wells of mercy, streams of love and pity
Flow from the fountain whence all things arise.

And, on that evening, I had the sense of how, in Christ, God enters deeply into our tragic condition, weeping with us, not only for the loss of those we love, as he wept for Lazarus, not only for our moral calamities, which he has come to redeem, but also for our communal and civil losses, when not one beloved stone is left on another, and so for the people of Paris.

The next evening, we gathered again, relieved to know that, against all expectation, so much of the stonework and, miraculously, the rose windows had survived. Our focus that evening was the cleansing of the Temple. Here was a much-needed counterpoint, a deep reminder of the true purpose of every sacred place.

Much has been written of Notre-Dame as a cultural icon and rightly so, but it is primarily, as Jesus said of the Temple, a house of prayer. And the extraordinary thing is that, even as fierce clusters of flame grew and blossomed up the spire, even as that spire fell, the response of the crowd kindled and flowered into prayer, as people raised their hands, and sang hymns. Flames leapt from arch to arch and the house of prayer burned, but prayer itself leapt from the building to the streets, from the stones to the people.

Whatever becomes of our mortal houses, or even of these mortal bodies, prayer itself will burn the stronger. “Destroy this Temple and I will raise it in three days,” Jesus said, to the great scandal of those who keep the outer stones; but Easter proved him as good as his word, and the temple of his risen body, which is our real house of prayer, will outlast even the greatest cathedral.

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