ISM Travel Seminar to Durham and York
Benjamin Straley (MM-o '10; M.Div. '12)
Ed. note: This year, the ISM sponsored its first intensive cross-disciplinary travel seminar, this one designed to bring together music and theology students. The hope is to continue a pattern of these in the future for the ISM and other Yale entities.
The ancient monastic foundation still bustles with activity. Choristers processing back to school following rehearsal in the Cathedral. Photo by Robin Leaver
This spring semester, the ISM seminar had as its focus Durham Cathedral and its contributions to the legacy of Christianity in the north east of England. Led by Professors Robin Leaver and Bryan Spinks, students enrolled in the course travelled to Durham and York in March to do more in depth study of the topics discussed in the seminar, attending a host of lectures while still being provided much time for “hands on” experience and exploration.
One of the lecturers from Durham University, the Rev. Professor Chris Cook, described the never-failing actions of passengers on the train line that runs through Durham as they come into the city, heads inevitably all turning to take in the breathtaking view of the Cathedral. Our group was certainly no exception, for as the train approached on a high viaduct, all ground dropping away to reveal the Cathedral on its peninsula, nestled in a bend on the River Wear, our travel-weary eyes widened, and we began to understand the magnitude and importance of Durham Cathedral, along with what Canon Rosalind Brown calls its “seductiveness.”
Canon Brown, herself a graduate of Yale Divinity School, is responsible for the public face of the Cathedral's life including pastoral care and relationships with the wider community. She described the Cathedral as “a serious house on serious earth,” and noted how one cannot come in and make one’s own meaning of the place, for simply by entering it one becomes instantly aware that the Cathedral already has meaning all its own. Begun in 1093, the present Cathedral building was largely completed in only 40 years, partly in an effort to establish Norman political power in the north of England, and is one of the finest (if not the finest) examples of Norman architecture still remaining. It also functioned as a shrine for the tombs of St. Cuthbert and the Venerable Bede, which to this day draw thousands of pilgrims.
Given the initial raison d’être of the site’s existence, with the body of St. Cuthbert having been translated to Durham from Lindisfarne for protection during the Viking raids, it was appropriate that our first full day in Durham began by trying to reimagine life at the Cathedral as it was when it was a monastic foundation, on one of the Cathedral’s monthly Benedictine Days. After Morning Prayer, we were led on a tour by Michael Sadgrove, Dean of the Cathedral. Rosalind Brown then took us through the Rule of St. Benedict, and reflected on the many ways in which the life of the Cathedral community still pulses with the rhythm of Benedictine spirituality, given its work which ultimately still revolves around the Daily Office and Eucharistic worship.
Other highlights of the trip included lectures on the theology of music by Prof. Bennett Zon, a presentation on hymnology by J.R. (“Dick”) Watson, and a riveting lecture by Prof. Jeremy Dibble on English Church music in the nineteenth century. Aspects of Durham’s contributions to the music and hymnody of England were also examined, with our visit coinciding with the celebration of the music of Sir John Stainer. Other precious moments included viewing and handling fifteenth and sixteenth century manuscripts and liturgical books in the Cathedral Library, a small excursion to Lindisfarne (“Holy Island”), and seeing treasures and artifacts from throughout the Cathedral’s history, including the remnants of Cuthbert’s original coffin. What stood out for many of us, however, was the privilege of being near the tomb of Cuthbert at the east end of the Cathedral, (behind the High Altar) and the tomb of Bede in the Galilee Chapel which occupies the westernmost portion of the Cathedral. Alluding to the hymn derived from Cardinal Newman’s epic poem, “The Dream of Gerontius,” Rosalind Brown poignantly described the two saints at the two ends of the Cathedral as “wisest Love” (Cuthbert) and “loving Wisdom” (Bede). Indeed, in her lectures to us, Canon Brown displayed a singular gift for capturing images in poetic terms, which should come as no surprise, as she herself is a prolific and renowned hymn writer. Many of us were especially struck by her description of the Cathedral as a sursum corda in stone (“Lift up your hearts,” from the opening dialogue of the Eucharistic prayer). The Cathedral does indeed compel one to lift the eyes heavenwards, and with that, one’s thoughts. Chris Cook echoed this when he said in his lecture to us, “Holy places shepherd our thoughts, and lead them in a particular direction.”
At first, I felt that this was at odds with what Rosalind Brown had earlier said to us: yes, we cannot make our own meaning out of a place so steeped and sanctified in prayer and history as Durham Cathedral. Yet, in entering the space and allowing our thoughts and minds to be transformed, whatever meaning we have made of our own lives becomes inextricably linked with the meaning of the greater Christian narrative the Cathedral nave tells in stone and glass. With the Tree of Jesse window at the West end and Christ in Glory at the East end, and numerous saints depicted in the windows of the north and south aisles, one cannot help but begin to sense the place of one’s life as a mere thread in the rich tapestry which is the mystical body of the Faithful, that “cloud of witnesses” who have gone on before. And in evoking this Eucharistic reality, the Cathedral is most profoundly a sursum corda in stone.
This sense of one’s place in the present in relation to everything that has gone before became the way in which I started to make meaning of the course itself – for in covering everything from Anglo-Saxon origins to the contemporary scholarship of Bishop N.T. Wright and Dr. David Kennedy, there was necessarily a wide range of topics in the Seminar with sometimes very little to connect them. And yet, it is in all these parts coming together to make a whole that the legacy of Durham Cathedral has come to be what it is. For my own paper topic, looking at the hymn tunes of John Bacchus Dykes, a Canon of the Cathedral and Vicar of St. Oswald’s in Durham (famous for “Holy, holy, holy” and “Eternal Father, strong to save”), I was struck by the way in which he can be viewed in relation to past figures such as Cuthbert, who -- like Dykes -- was known for his peaceful and pastoral nature; John Cosin, who -- like Dykes -- sought to enrich and beautify the worship of the Church against criticisms from Puritans and Low Churchmen; and even the present Cathedral Canon, Rosalind Brown, who -- like Dykes -- creates new hymns to meet specific occasions and has done much for the national life of the Church while still exercising a pastoral ministry in Durham.
As future leaders of the Church, whether musician, priest, poet, or scholar, those of us who went on the trip came back with a better sense of the place our work occupies in the grand scheme of things, and why the mission of the ISM is so important. Like those scholars and artists we studied, and even the Cathedral building itself, we strive to make others aware of the presence of the Divine – of God – in whatever unique way our gifts enable us. Whether through sermon, musical offering, or scholarly endeavor, we stand on the shoulders of the wise and Venerable Bede, the scholarly and pastoral legacies of the many influential Bishops of Durham, and the music and prayers of the Cathedral’s worship life which has continued on a daily basis for over a thousand years.
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