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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

02 June 2023

Returning to Ely, Malcolm Guite recalls previous visits that held spiritual significance for him

I RETURNED recently to my old haunts in Ely. I never cease to be astonished by the Cathedral, which you see from miles away, almost floating above the surrounding fenland, well deserving her nickname “the ship of the fens”. She seems to draw you towards her; yet, she does not dominate so much as grace the little city above which she rises.

Returning to Ely now, I call to mind the day I was ordained there, 33 years ago, and then my time as a curate at St Mary’s, and, after that, while serving in the diocese, my various returns to the “mother church”.

One such return was especially memorable. I was a team vicar in Huntingdon, and I decided to bring our youth group on a canoeing pilgrimage to the shrine of Etheldreda in the great cathedral. I thought that it would be interesting to make the journey entirely by water, as must have been done when the Isle of Ely was really an isle.

To give our pilgrimage some focus, the youth of the parish visited older parishioners, and asked them each to write down a prayer, which we would gather together and take to the shrine. We managed to beg and borrow enough canoes, and coax a parishioner to accompany us in their motor cruiser, as safety ship and provider of food and rest. We made our way, over several days, along the great Ouse, bearing our box of prayers.

When we arrived, at last, one of the canons came down to greet us, and we made our way in procession, up Fore Hill, and into the cathedral, entering, as I did at my ordination, through the little door set in the great west door, amazed, as I had been then, that such a small entrance could lead into such numinous immensity.

After our prayers had been said, we were taken, as a treat, right up into the roof space around the great octagonal lantern, and we gazed back on the winding waterways of our journey. Down there on the river, amid its twists and turns, and its high banks, our way had seemed an endless maze; but, up here, we could look back and see it all laid out in a beautifully patterned map. I hoped that that shift in perspective might give our youth an emblem with which to think about the journey of their lives; it certainly did for me.

At Etheldreda’s shrine, we told again her adventurous story, her escapes from dynastic marriage, her persistent quest for the freedom to pray and to dedicate her life to Christ, her true love. That story still inspires, and just recently I wrote this sonnet for Etheldreda (with a brief nod to Elizabeth Warren in the epigraph):

St Etheldreda
“Nevertheless she persisted. . .”

Abbess and Princess, lend us all your strength,
Your fierce determination to be free;
Free of those cold conventions which at length
Had tethered you as married property.
Still you persisted, you would not be held
From your first love for Jesus Christ your Lord
And from that free devotion which you held,
As bride of Christ, to dwell within the Word
And let Him dwell in you as mystery:
A secret place to bide and to abide.
You slipped away to Ely with the tide;
Your Pilgrim staff became a flowering tree,
Inviting men and women equally,
To keep a soul-space open, welcome, free.

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