Home >> Volume 3, Issue 01

Carlisle Cathedral

Lee Evans

They worshipped here without electric light,
Amid the darkness we despise and fear—
The darkness we have hidden with the light
That dials of meters track and quantify.
And yet today we have so much to fear:
The cancer on the laboratory slide;
The sudden chest pain; terrorists disguised
As airplane pilots; being seen alone,
Without the status of a mobile phone.
But more than any fact or fantasy
We fear the Unknown that they worshipped here,
In this cathedral raised toward a God
Man’s image could not smother like a mask;
When darkness was a ray that fused the soul
With its Creator. There are those today,
No doubt, who kneel before that darkness still;
Perhaps are worshipping as we step in
And drop into the box a pound or two.

The window of Saint Wilfrid’s Chapel streams
With irresistible grace into our eyes,
Commemorating five young girls who died
Of scarlet fever in a six week span—
All daughters of the Dean. Each scene contains
An arum lily, for the child who walked
“Through the lily of the valley of death.”

The slabs of stone we walk on may be graves!
Perhaps if one came here a thousand times
One might exhaust the details finally,
Although I doubt it. Centuries of faith
Configured into art cannot be seen
In just an hour’s desultory tour—
And so we wander.

                     In between the choir
And presbytery, a large mirror stands
Adjusted at an angle that reveals
The vaulted ceiling’s golden stars and blue
Ascending firmament with bosses wrought
Of shields medieval; this is for the sake
Of satisfying those who seek for signs
Instead of their significance.

                     But what
Of those for whom this vault was raised of old?
For them it was no antique of the past;
And surely among them were some whose Souls
Ascended from their bodies, and beyond
All creatures to the uncreated truth. They knelt
On stone, without a heater or a pew,
And stood before the altar and stained glass
In prayer focused not on earthly things
Or even those of Heaven, but the ray
Descending through the sacramental signs
Into the humbled breast from whence it came—
For that is where the Kingdom is revealed,
Not outside, in the mirror of the world.

The votive candles flicker in their tiers
Beside the Brougham triptych, and a card
Displayed upon their stand reminds us here
Of what the Gospel teaches about light.
The altarpiece portrays the infancy
And passion of the Savior, yet it leaves
Him lying lifeless in the Cross’s shade.
(Move on from here if you would know the rest,
For all in this cathedral is a whole
And no one part an end unto itself—
But to the end that one should rise above
All mirror images, to seek the One.)
The East is where the Resurrection glows,
Where tracery curves round the Risen Christ
In glory; the high altar shines below,
A golden baldachino where the Host
Becomes that worshipper who sees beyond
The sacrament to what it signifies.

The labors of each month are carved above,
Upon the archway’s capitals; on one,
The month of February, by his fire
A peasant rests to warm his freezing toes,
And pours out water from his upturned boot.
The Puritans could not abide these things;
The wonder is they let them stand at all,
Instead of just demolishing the nave
And cloisters.

                     Many men refuse to See
Apart from faith infused by grace alone,
And not through what is wrought by human hands—
As though the great Creator of the world
Wrought not His works by means of every Mind
That yields unto the Light denied to none.

We turn to face that stained glass once again
Whereon the Blessed rise to Paradise
United in one body, yet diverse
As Nature’s lapsed creation, born anew;
While those who turn away unto themselves
Descend to outer darkness and a world
Of multiplicity and endless strife:
A modern world perhaps, with everything
That one desires at one’s fingertips--
Where inner darkness and the shrines of faith
Are mocked as ignorance and childish props;--
And everything is under Man’s command,
And few seek to know God as they are known.

The laws of time and space compel us now
To leave behind this place of worship, yet
Retaining it within us in a form
Accommodated to our separate minds.
A backward glance, as we move on toward
The Castle of Carlisle, displays to us
The transept of the Norman south: the bays
Remaining from Saint Mary’s Parish Church,
Where Walter Scott was married, Jacobites
Held prisoner, and the Border Regiment
Was built a chapel. Such an aggregate
Of History, Theology and Art!
The ages grow upon each other here,
Like geologic strata, from a Past
That cannot be conceived of: Just as we
Ourselves have grown from the abyss of Faith,
And marvel at that Darkness which is Light.