The Great Mother Of Exeter

09/11/2016 15:10

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We had a fire in Exeter. You may or may not have seen a couple of minutes of news about it somewhere. Nobody was killed; no one was even hurt; no pets are missing and it's all over now.

It destroyed the building believed to be the oldest hotel in England--the place where Queen Victoria's father, the Duke of Kent, was embalmed after he died in Sidmouth, on the Devon coast. The embalmer was offered money or a knighthood for his services and, probably very sensibly, decided on the latter.

But it's only a bulding, right? Nothing really important--apart from its importance to those who have lost their livelihood and their jobs. Oh, and the art gallery where the fire started has been destroyed and there's a lot of smoke-and-singe damage to surrounding buildings.

And yet...

The Royal Clarence Hotel is/was one of the buildings on Exeter's Cathedral Green. We have a beautiful 600-year-old cathedral--St. Peter's--described by the Dean as, "one of the great cathedrals of England, and one of the finest examples of Gothic architecture anywhere." And as the Very Rev. Jonathan Draper reminded me when I interviewed him for BBC Radio Devon last week, the Cathedral Green is the very heart of the city. That's not just because it has a load of great cafes and, even better, some grass or steps to sit on to eat a packed lunch, it's because of the church itself.

Whether or not you ever go into this magnificent cathedral to wander and gaze, to sit and contemplate or just to visit the shop, the old stone building holds the space around it as if it were Mother of this city and all who pass by here. It has stood here through century after century of love, hate, war, peace, worship, plea and thanksgiving; through the dissolution of the monasteries and the coming of the Church of England, holding a space for a God without boundaries far more than was ever probably known or understood by many of its clergy. That kind of enduring stability leaves its mark. Nowadays, for certain, it's a cathedral that feeds people spiritually, psychologically and physically.

And, when the Great Fire of Exeter was raging, it had to be shut.

Much loved seasonal events in the cathedral had to be cancelled--and although services were carried out in the Chapter House on the 'safe side' of the square, the foundation stone of the city was rocked, albeit temporarily. When people talking about the fire tried to put their feelings into words, even those who had never been into the Royal Clarence, were saying things like, 'it felt as though part of our own home was burning.'

Yes, the loss of the hotel was awful; but I think it was also the closure of the whole heart of the city that felt so wrong.

No matter whether you are religious, agnostic or atheist, the great old churches and temples of this world carry a powerful charge of energy from the centuries of prayer, of song and of silence that have been carried out there. Even now, most folk hush themselves when they enter an ancient church and take a moment to feel the echo of the ages.

So, to have our cathedral inaccessible, even if only for a few days, gave a strange feeling of emptiness to more than just the Christians who worship here.

Which, I think, is why we're all so delighted that the Emergency Services have said it's okay for Exeter's annual Christmas Market to go ahead on the Cathedral Green from 18th November. It will help to warm the cold hands of memory of an area that was suddenly a place of danger rather than a place of serenity and comfort.

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If you're thinking of Jesus turning over the tables in the Temple, or quoting, 'you cannot love God and Mammon' then you may not be as excited as I am. But I'm sure this is different; no one is cheating us over buying Temple tithes in order to be able to get into the building. This is a time of coming together and enjoying our differences.

This is a gathering of Europeans sharing artisan wares, yummy foods, beautiful objects which marks the official beginning of Christmas in Devon. The fires, the glow, the laughter and the beauty will warm the Cathedral Green and give fresh fuel to the light of the Great Mother who watches over us.

The market is also offering space to sell for those smaller shops that have been affected by the fire and its aftermath.

And who knows, some aching soul--of whatever faith or none--who is visiting the market may slip into the great cavern of silence, prayer and music that is our beloved cathedral and find a moment or two of deeply-valued peace.

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Couldn't resist putting this picture in--of the Chocolate Workshop stall. Please guys, this year, you have to make a chocolate teapot!

Click here if you would like to make a donation for those who have lost their livelihoods in the Great Fire of Exeter.

All photos copyright Maggy Whitehouse.

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