Monday, January 28, 2008

York Minster

I had a walk around York Minster yesterday afternoon. A very intersting experience for an atheist, I have to say. I find ecclesiastical architecture simply mind-blowing: the scale of it is incomprehensible. How on earth could they have conceived, planned and built something as monumental as places like York Minster or Lincoln Cathedral?

The reason we went yesterday was that the nave was completely emptied of chairs. This happens only once a year, apparently, and we wanted to see what it was like as it should be, not with row upon row of plastic seats. It was truly incredible. The space is astonishing, with its long, narrow nave and the massive, high roof. At one point, the sun even came out and obligingly started streaming through the stained-glass windows. Quite beautiful.

So, you say, it must be described as an awe-inspiring experience, literally so, in the traditional use of the expression? Well, yes and no. Undoubtedly, the majesty of the building itself could be said to be awe-inspiring, but I have to be honest and say I got absolutely no sense of spirituality from the place. And that, entirely, is down to the way it appears to be managed.

It is certainly not helped that there are tourists like me wandering all over the place, taking photos, chatting, laughing. If I were religious, I feel sure the spirituality of it would be the most important element: a chance to be at one with and connect with the Lord. How can that be done amid the melee of tourists?

And what struck me most forcibly was what they are doing with the building. All over the place there are inscriptions in stone - on the walls, on the floor, even on steps. There is no logic to it; they feel almost like graffiti, they feel like an imposition on this wonderful old building. These are stones which were laid centuries ago and, at some stage, someone has decided to carve an inscription into them to commemorate someone who gave money in 1930 or who dies in 1789 or whatever. These things are everywhere. Every corner seems to have some sort of memento mori, some sort of testimony to a life lived. I can't quite put my finger on what is so objectionable about this, but I think it is to do with the transience of individual life against the spirituality - and I use the word intentionally - of the human species per se. It feels to me as though there is no logic, no wider mission, no common understanding in what is being done. It is just individual moments that are recorded, in seemingly random positions for no logical reason. It cheapens the place. It gives it the feel of a municipal hall that has been put to many uses over the years and hasn't been treated with the respect it deserves. I came away feeling sad for the place. It deserves better custodians.

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