The Alchemy of Turning Darkness into Light

A text message the day before, signed in both names, gently confirms that H. and I are to go the the Castle museum entrance a few minutes before the ceremony.  

It's a grey morning but unusually mild for December.  We walk over the bridge leading to the Norman keep, where for centuries, those convicted of crime were hanged.  I've always had an uneasy relationship with Norwich Castle.  For one thing, I find its sugar-cube shape on the hill dominating the city rather ugly.  It lacks the charm of Durham Castle's irregular edges, or the Gothic feel of Edinburgh Castle.  There is something eerie about its bland squareness.  I first set foot in it about ten years ago.  I walked in, bought my ticket, caught a brief glimpse of a series of busts on display, and promptly and almost involuntarily dashed back out at full speed, overwhelmed with a totally unfathomable feeling of terror.  I couldn't account for my reaction, which seemed utterly irrational, so the following day, determined to act like an adult, I went back, bought another admittance ticket, and marched in.  I saw the busts again and, as I drew closer, saw that some of the faces had twisted expressions.  I read the signs and only then realised that they were the death masks of men who had been hanged. Men who had been murdered by legal means, by the laws of other men who thought their right to judge and punish was equal to that of God.  Laws that respond to violence with more violence, to evil with more evil, and to despair with more despair.

But this morning, I am here not to visit a museum that keeps the memory of fear and suffering alive, but to attend a wedding.  The Norwich marriage register office has recently moved many of its ceremonies from the beautiful building near St Giles to the Castle.  We are shown into the waiting room and are welcomed by the sister of one of the grooms.  With a broad smile, she introduces us to the other eight or so guests, although I protest I'll never remember everybody's name.  It's a small gathering but international.  English, Polish, French and Italian, among others.  The variety of accents all giggling with excitement at this happy occasion immediately dissolves my innate nervousness at social events and I mentally bite my thumb at all the Brexiteers out there.    

Photos are snapped in various combinations of family plus friends, then more photos, in case some don't come out well.  Everything must be done to immortalise the day and, especially, crystallise its happiness.

After a few minutes, the door to the ceremony room is opened by a tall, elderly lady with a kindly face.  H. and I give a little exclamation of pleasant surprise.  She reciprocates our grins.  "Did I marry you?" she asks. "I'm sorry, I can't remember but when people look at me like that, it generally means I've married them."

She squeezes my hand and hugs me with the tenderness of a dear old friend.

When the two grooms walk in, I am struck by how young they look.  I know they are both in their middle years and yet today, there is a youthful glow about them.   

They stand by the registrar's table.  Vows are exchanged.  For ever. There is a slight crack in the voice, a moment when tears are kept in check. When an overwhelming burst of gratitude, relief and unbridled hope fills the room.  Rings are slipped on fingers.  Gold, like sunshine.  Circular, like perfection.  Like timelessness.  

When the ceremony is over and names have been signed in the large book, the registrar comes up to H. and me, and tells us this castle has a special meaning for her.  "When I was fourteen," she says, "a friend and I came for a walk here one afternoon, to see if there were boys."  She gives a mischievous grin.  "But we got followed by two American G.I.s – it was at the time they were stationed here – and got scared.  So we walked up to two local boys and I said to one of them, 'Can we stand with you until the two G.I.s go away?' Well, I've been with him ever since.  We've been married fifty-seven years." 

And now, over half a century later, she officiates at weddings in this very castle.  "I love doing weddings," she says, and her beaming smile makes it clear that she does, indeed.

It truly is a Good Day.  Into this Norman castle, a building scarred by violence, fear and despair, these two beautiful humans who have just embarked on marriage are bringing love, kindness and hope.  And all of us in that room help shine some light where darkness has lingered for centuries like a sticky cobweb.  It's time to infuse joy and love into these tear-soaked Caen stones.  Little by little, one wedding, one promise to love and be kind at a time.  One beam of light, then another, and then another, until the shadows have faded away.

Scribe Doll

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Advent Carols at Norwich Cathedral

"We should get there at least half an hour earlier to get a decent seat."

"Half an hour!"

"Bring a book."

"I don't know... reading a book in church?"

"Other people chat before the service, which I find infuriating.  At least quietly reading a book doesn't disturb anybody else."

 

Convinced by my logic, H. stuffs a book into his coat pocket, while I slip the usual A4. brown, spiral notebook into my bag.

We are greeted at the entrance of the Cathedral by ladies and gentlemen who hand us an order of service with the usual, upstanding citizen smile of church wardens all over the country.

 

We notice a large proportion of seats in the nave being marked Reserved for Ticket Holders.  "So much for the democracy of the Church," I say out loud.  "Are we becoming as exclusive as King's College Chapel now?" I think that even at the Temple Church, which I regularly attended in London, and where every molecule of the congregation oozes a sense of almost aggressive hierarchy, seats were occupied on a first come, first served basis, whether you were a QC, a court clerk, or just me.

 

"I don't know if we're King's College Chapel," says an elderly gentleman with a Cathedral badge on his lapel, "but you can go beyond the organ screen, in the presbytery.  It's great to sit there."  He gives me a half smile to which I beam a sincere "thank you." 

We take seats in the second row of the Mediaeval presbytery seats, wide and with comfortable rounded backs to support you.

 

I peruse the order of service.  On the first page, I read: 

Since the effectiveness of the service partly depends upon hearing from a distance, you are invited, when standing, to turn to face the direction from which the sound is coming.

 

I remember reading this in last year's order of service too and, then like now, stifling a giggle.  I wonder if there is really anyone above the age of six months unable to work that out for him or herself, or why special authorisation is needed to turn your head towards the sound.

 

As the organ pours notes of Bach and Brahms into the air, the lights are switched off one by one, until we are plunged in a darkness disrupted only by the golden half-light of the outdoor illumination floating down through the arched windows and gently lingering on the stone pillars.  I hold my breath in marvel.  In the darkness the Cathedral seems to come into a life of its own, and find the voice of its history, of all the Benedictine monks that prayed here, eight centuries ago.  During that – sadly brief – moment of silence, I think I hear them gossiping, discussing theology, begging forgiveness, reading the Rule of Saint Benedict, or uttering a prayer to the Almighty.  

 

The clergy gather under the Advent wreath, the candles flames casting flickering shadows over their faces.  After the blessing of the light, they process past us to the West end of the Cathedral.  Last, walks the Bishop of Norwich, wearing a mitre.  I find myself wondering if he knows the ancient reason for the pyramid shape of his headgear.  The same reason why  in early churches, the altar was always beneath a dome.  The same reason why wizards' hats are traditionally conical.  A reason of physics.  Yet another piece of ancient wisdom that's been widely forgotten.

 

O come, O come, Emmanuel,

Redeem thy captive Israel (...)

 

My favourite Advent hymn.  There is something arcanely wise and full of longing in its tune.  I belt it out, hoping I'm not going off tune.  I haven't sung in a very long time, and my vocal cords feel somewhat stiff and uncooperative.

 

"... the Lord Jesus Christ be with you."

"And also with you," is the response printed in the order of service.  But I cannot speak those words.  I have never been able to.  They always sound so mundane to me.  Instead, I mutter under my breath, "And with thy spirit." 

 

I suddenly recall the religious fervour sometimes bordering on intolerance that I witnessed at my old Durham college.  Where many viewed "thee"s, "thou"s, the King James Bible and especially incense with frowning suspicion.  A college in whose Norman chapel the first Catholic mass since the Reformation took place in 1989, after much campaigning with the College Council.  I was at that mass, one of the majority of Anglicans come to support the triumph of our Catholic fellow students.

 

The voices of the choir are carried over from beyond the organ screen.  The rich voices of the men, the limpid, crystal-clear voices of the girls, and the vulnerable, moonbeam-like voices of the boys.  

 

Advent Sunday is when I give myself permission to start indulging in a Christmas activities, such as listening to carols.  Also when I start feeling the atmosphere of Christmas.

 

After the solemn blessing, the choir sing a Vesper Responsory.  Its melody is full of mystery and hope.  It spreads throughout the Cathedral and rises up to the fan vaulting.

 

As we come out into the cold, starry night, I realise that, unlike other years, I do not feel a sense of Christmas.  Not yet.  But as I look up at the starts shimmering like diamonds in the black-blue sky, I feel a sense of hope.

 

Scribe Doll 

 Please also read my piece about the Temple Church.

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