Monday, 1 April 2013

‘To grasp the heel of heaven’

Lighting the Pascal Candle before dawn on Easter Morning at Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Patrick Comerford

Another weekend in Lichfield has come to an end ... except that this was no other weekend; this was Easter weekend, and it was full of joy, full of hope and full of promise.

For the first time in almost 20 years, I was able to take time away from the busy-ness that so many of us become wrapped up in from Maundy Thursday to Easter Day, and instead to have the time and the space to think on the meaning of Easter, and to be fed spiritually by others when it comes to my own prayers and reflections.

Standing outside in the cold and the dark at the great west door of Lichfield Cathedral before dawn on Sunday morning, waiting for the Pascal Candle to be lit from the brazier, I was thankful that my Easter faith was first sparked in Lichfield, and that this place has been my spiritual birthplace.

Throughout the weekend, I was in the cathedral two or three times a day to follow the daily rhythm of prayer and liturgy as I had my spiritual batteries recharged.

Clutches of snow remaining on the grass in Vicars’ Close (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

But some of that spiritual recharging also took place during walks in some of my favourite quiet places around Lichfield, including Minster Pool, Stowe Pool, the Cathedral Close, Vicars’ Close, Beacon Park, up and down Beacon Street and in the country lanes around the Hedgehog where I was staying, including Cross in Hand Lane, Abnall’s Lane and the fields and farms west of the Western Bypass.

The three-hour Good Friday Liturgy included four reflections by Archdeacon Chris Liley, who is due to retire next month, and there was music by Thomas Tallis, Carlo Gesualdo, Tomás Luis de Victoria, John Stainer, William Byrd, John Sanders, Antonio Lotti and John IV of Portugal, sung by two choirs, Lichfield Cathedral Choir and Lichfield Cathedral Chamber Choir.

The Reproaches by John Sanders are particularly challenging in the solemn setting of a cathedral on Good Friday:

O my people, what have I done to you? How have I offended you? Answer me!

The words describe at length the good things God has done, and humanity’s response, putting Christ to death. Sanders set this narrative as a simple chant; saving his rich and excruciating harmonies for the refrain and draws on the Orthodox Trisagion for the response:

Holy is God! Holy and strong! Holy immortal One, have mercy on us.

The cathedral was full for those three hours, and it was moving to see how many people came forward for the veneration of the cross, draping it with lengths of red ribbon ad stopping in silent prayer.

The Beacon Street garden at Vicars’ Hall, a quiet corner near Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Early in the morning on Holy Saturday, the cathedral was being prepared, every corner was being cleaned, flowers were being arranged and furniture was being moved in a holy busy-ness preparing for Easter morning.

As we moved around the cathedral, we prayed for different tasks and different ministries that make the cathedral a place of welcome and a spiritual home for so many.

But everything came to a stop as Morning Prayer began in the Lady Chapel at 9.30, praying at different stages around the cathedral for those who were preparing the cathedral for Easter. At the Sacristy we prayed for vergers, servers and embroiderers. At the Flower Room, improvised at the Pedilavium, we gave thanks for the beauty of creation and for those who donated and prepared the flowers.

At the North Transept door, we prayed for those who come to the cathedral to pray, as worshippers and as visitors, and “for all who found in this place a welcome, friendship, fellowship and a spiritual home,” for stewards, guides, welcomers and greeters.

At the Crossing, we gave thanks for those who had built and adorned the cathedral in the past and continue to do so in the present, including the “Holy Dusters” as they sweep, clean and polish, all inspired by the vision of the New Jerusalem (Revelation 21: 1-2, 18-21).

We ended up in the centre of the quire, giving thanks for the “gifts of music and its power to lift us to grasp the heel of heaven,” and for musicians, composers, choristers, performers and bell-ringers.

Looking out onto the trees and countryside beside the Hedgehog on Stafford Road (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

The Easter Vigil began in the cold and the dark outside the Great West Door of the Cathedral. But as we read through the Bible stories about Freedom, from Genesis to the New Testament, the light slowly began to pour in through the East Windows, which are still filled temporarily with clear glass, and then down from the clerestory windows on the south side. The miracle of the dawn and the new light slowly but surely filled our morning, and the Gloria – silenced and unsung throughout the forty days of Lent – was now a delightful and glorious affirmation of faith.

Archdeacon Liley reminded us that the Resurrection faith is not about history, detail or drama, but about present reality, and that the Church is not simply for people like us or people we like, but for all, and its life depends not on what we say to one another but on what we do for others.

There was an Easter Baptism and Confirmation at the font in the North Transept where we had prayed about welcome less than 24 hours earlier, and an opportunity for all to renew our Baptismal vows and commitments.

As we moved to the quire for the Eucharist, the fire alarm sounded and the organ was silenced – the same thing happened at the end of the Eucharist at Pentecost last year ... it must be all that holy smoke.

Afterwards, we were invited back to the College Hall – once part of Lichfield Theological College – for Buck’s Fizz and to toast the morning.

The Mayor and Civic dignitaries line up at the Great West Door of Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

After breakfast back in the Hedgehog, we returned to the cathedral later in the morning for the Easter Liturgy at 10.30. The Eucharistic setting was Mozart’s Mass in D, sung by the Cathedral Choir, with the Darwin Ensemble Chamber Orchestra.

The Great West Door was open once again as the Mayor of Lichfield and Civic dignitaries as thy processed in for the Liturgy, at which the dean presided and Bishop Jonathan Gledhill preached.

The recessional hymn as the Easter Liturgy concluded, You shall go with joy, was written by a former Dean of Lichfield, Bishop Tom Wright, and he tune, Darwin Close, was written by the celebrated local composer Paul Spicer.

The vines have been cut back in the walled garden at the Hedgehog (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Throughout the weekend, there were opportunities to meet old friends too. On Good Friday, a Facebook friend went out of our way to say hello and to introduce herself and her husband, another Lichfield blogger. On Saturday afternoon, we had lunch with two friends I have known since my time in Lichfield in my late teens and early 20s – one even said with surprise she had never known why I had moved to Ireland ... she had not realised I was born in Ireland.

It was too cold to think of sipping Pimms in the evening outside the Hedgehog, and the cricket season has not yet begun. But there was a warm welcome everywhere.

In the grounds of Saint John’s Hospital, Lichfield, on Easter Day (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Before leaving Lichfield for the return journey to Dublin, we called back in to the chapel in Saint John’s Hospital, close to Lichfield City Station. This is where my faith was first nurtured when I was in my late teens in the early 1970s. More than four decades later, I am still returning to this spiritual home which has the power to lift me up “to grasp the heel of heaven.”

Toby jugs in a front window in Beacon Street (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

A pilgrim’s walks around Lichfield

Evening lights on Stowe Pool with reflections of Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Patrick Comerford

There are still clumps of snow in the fields around Lichfield, and parts of the Minster Pool at the Dam Street end below the Cathedral were still covered in ice yesterday afternoon.

But despite the lingering remnants of this cold sharp reminder of winter, I still took a few opportunities for walks that were good for both the body and the soul.

It is a brisk 20 or 25 minute walk from the Hedgehog Inn along Stafford Road and Beacon Street into Lichfield Cathedral, and we walked this route two or three times each way over the past few days.

Late one evening, as the evening lights were beginning to fade, before dusk turned to darkness, I walked from the cathedral around the edges of Stowe Pool, past Johnson’s Willow, Saint Chad’s Church and Stowe Hill, once the home of Richard Lovell Edgeworth and his daughter the writer Maria Edgeworth.

Traces of the setting sun in the evening lights on Stowe Pool (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

There we stopped to look back across Stowe Pool towards the cathedral and the houses of the cathedral close. Spring has still to bring full bursts of growth to the trees and their branches. There were handsome reflections of the spires and the trees in the pool water, while across the water in another direction there thin traces of pink and purple left by the reflections of a distant setting sun.

Stowe Pool was originally formed in the 11th century when a dam and mill were built across Leamonsley Brook near Saint Chad’s Church. The pool was an important fishery in the 13th century and was owned by the Bishops of Lichfield. The ownership of the pool passed to the city in the 16th century, and the original mill once owned by the Bishops of Lichfield stood until 1856.

Stowe Pool was taken over by the South Staffordshire Waterworks Company in 1856, when the reservoir was created to supply water to the Black Country. Ornamental trees were planted, a new path was opened along the top of the embankment, and the boathouse was built in the 1890s.

The reservoir has not been used for water supplies since 1968, and the pool was then handed back to the city. It is now a public amenity and is stocked with fish for local anglers. The pool is also used for water sports, including sailing and canoeing. The whole surface area of the pool is 55,000 square metres (14 acres), and the walk around the shoreline is 1.13 km (less than three quarters of a mile).

Winter still has a grip on Cross in Hand Lane on the edges of Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Back at the Hedgehog, we ventured just a little distance along Cross in Hand Lane, which is said to take its name from the cross pilgrims carried in their hands on the way to visit Saint Chad’s Shrine in Lichfield Cathedral and Saint Chad’s Well at Saint Chad’s Church, at the edge of Stowe Pool.

At the point where the original path of Cross in Hand Lane crosses the Western Bypass and leads back onto the junction of Stafford Road and Beacon Street, there are signs marking Two Saints Way, a project to create a pilgrims way linking the shrines of Saint Chad in Lichfield and Saint Werburgh in Chester.

Cross in Hand Lane … takes its name from the pilgrim route to Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

The project owes everything to David Pott, an experienced long distance walker. At an early stage, his dream was of a pilgrimage trail from Stafford over Cannock Chase along the Heart of England Way to Lichfield Cathedral and the shrine of Saint Chad.

Later, he learned about the pilgrimage route between Chester Cathedral and Lichfield Cathedral. Many pilgrims on that route would continue to Canterbury or even to Rome or Jerusalem. He then thought of linking Lichfield with the shrine of Saint Werburgh, using existing paths to create a revived pilgrimage route between the two cathedral cities.

The Two Saints Way ... makers along the road at Cross in Hand Lane (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

The discovery of the Staffordshire Hoard four years ago brought a new interest in Mercian heritage, and soon the project attracted support from people with links with Staffordshire University, British Waterways, local tourist boards, and the cathedrals in Chester and Lichfield.

Saint Werburgh’s Statue at the south west-corner of Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

I noticed yesterday, as the Easter celebrations were beginning to grow a little quieter around Lichfield Cathedral that Saint Weburgh is one of the many saints carved on the west front of Lichfield Cathedral. Saint Werburgh was the daughter of King Wulphere of Mercia and she became a nun in the Abbey of Ely, where she was welcomed by her aunt the abbess, Saint Etheldreda.

She died in the seventh century and was buried at Hanbury, but her body was later reburied at the Saxon Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, which was rededicated to Saint Werburgh and Saint Oswald in 907 and eventually became Chester Cathedral.

Monks from Chester later brought the cult of Saint Werburgh to Ireland, and Saint Werburgh’s Church in Dublin was first built in 1178. Of course, while Saint Chad came from an Anglo-Saxon background, he too had Irish connections: he received his early training under Saint Aidan at Lindisfarne and later spent some time in a monastery in Ireland.

I wonder whether the Two Saints Way has the potential to become England’s Camino Real?

For more about the Two Saints Way project, visit: