The Dean's "twice a week" blog is published on Tuesdays and Saturdays. Links to monthly archives of the blog are provided at the bottom of this page.
17th January 2017
One of the near neighbouring coffee shops of the cathedral, Established, on the corner of Talbot Street and Hill Street, made it into the top 50 UK restaurants for breakfasts, in a special guide created by the Guardian last Saturday. Its description of Established as “raw concrete, beards, MacBooks” is much as we would see it, and, whilst few of us may breakfast there, it is a lunch or coffee place of choice from time to time. Not cheap, but reliably edgy.
Speaking of immediate neighbours reminds me of the many things that are happening close to our boundary: the transition in the diocesan office, for one, dividing the administration of Connor and Down and Dromore that have remained united for decades. The (now) two diocesan offices have been closed for two weeks since the Christmas holidays and are open again since yesterday.
Then there is the ongoing progress of the new University buildings that are growing rapidly in height and dominance in the area. This development will be enhanced by a newly-laid-out “Cathedral Gardens” taking up the old Buoys’ Park and Academy Street, which is set to disappear. Just to add to the mix, there are new plans afoot to re-energise the Royal Exchange development, largely between Donegall Street and North Street, which will also, perhaps even more than anything else, impinge upon the Cathedral and this Quarter of the City generally.
Within five years, even within two or three, the area will look significantly different and St Anne’s will be affected by it all. The Cathedral Board has much to contemplate, with changed days and many opportunities to face. There is much coffee to be drunk; many prayers to be said; crucial transition to be planned.
14th January 2017
One of my Christmas presents was a strange book entitled “Voices from the World’s Edge”. It is a collection of the work of a number of Irish poets that have spent at least one night on Skellig Michael and have produced some work as a reflection upon their time there. It is a fascinating book that I am certain that I will read again and again for its insights are much wider than the specific focus of its attention.
Part of the overall plan of the work was to allow to settle into our minds, as we read the individual thoughts, the questions that surround the human occupation of this sparse and exposed rock in the isolation of the Atlantic Ocean a few miles from the south-west coast of Ireland. It was occupied for 600 years (yes, 600 years!) by a continuous series of Christian monks. Why? That impressive fact alone is as hard to absorb and accept as it is to contemplate the ‘why?’
The themes that come through are to some extent natural enough. They revolve around the limitations of a place like it; the paring down to essentials that many of the Christian desert dwellers accepted as part of their path to an entire focus on God. The freedom from distraction comes with an acceptance of the extremes of Skellig Michael, also means abandoning oneself from the opportunity to be helped when in need of it.
The visual effects are played with by the poets: the expanse of the sea and the harshness of the rock; the number of the steps and the fact that many are cut into almost vertical rock-faces; the starkness of the few buildings and the dangers reflected in these things are all there. The sounds of the sea birds and the wind and the waves accompany everything too.
Underlying it all is the questioning, which one of the poets describes graphically as like the constant beating of the waves upon the rock-faces of the island, but there is also the frank amazement and respect that anyone, let alone a whole series of men (and at least one woman) could spend their lives in prayer in such an inhospitable place.
Many who visit this rock feel changed by the experience, and of those, quite a few hold a compulsion to return, making the often rough sea trip in the hope of landing and climbing to the place of occupation once more. I have never been. Maybe one day…
10th January 2017
It was lying near the low water line on the beach, a speckled limpet shell that was patterned with a camouflage of radiating chocolate-coloured splodges – a tortoiseshell limpet. Not uncommon in northern waters, but attractive and eye-catching nonetheless. The racing waves with black-clad surfers were more obvious, but close-up or far-off sights were all part of the beach walk in winter.
Church life is a run of close-ups and far-aways too as we look to the new start of the psalter once again – beginning with Psalms 1, 2 and 3 yesterday morning, 4, 5 and 6 in the evening, and with a new book to read first thing: the opening of the Gospel according to St Mark. But, much less immediately, the bookings for next Advent and Christmas have already started and so the year slips by and the life and work of the cathedral records and reflects its comings and goings.
The far and the near were apparent early on this morning too when in the dark I put out the glass and food-waste boxes for collection today. A bird, a robin I expect, was singing its heart out, whilst feeling (as I was) the colder wind that is bringing the possibility of snow for later this week, yet the more obvious sound was that of the traffic in the near distance – and more or less ever present.
Ever present for the psalmist this morning will be those who pursue him to tear him to pieces like a lion (Psalm 7 verse 2). he concludes that such will always be with him, but that God will be his defence, and to the righteousness of God he will bear witness. Psalm 8, even more familiar, be recited too at 8.10 a.m. and its recognition that human beings have been made by God “little lower than the angels”, gives a more positive reflection of our worth and position as having ‘mastery’ over the works of God’s hands. What fearful responsibility. How poorly we manage it; in the little things as well as those that are much greater.
7th January 2017
There is a magnificent old witch-hazel in perfect bloom at the end of Lennoxvale at the moment, with another smaller version on the south side of Fisherwick Presbyterian Church. The blossom is described as having ‘strap-petalled’ flowers, as they are formed of fine ribbons. They are delicately scented, and the most common variety has deep golden-yellow flowers. We had a specimen in the rectory at St John’s Malone when we were there, and successive incumbents and their families looked out for it flowering for Christmas. We were rarely disappointed. For Epiphany the witch-hazel should be in its full glory, as are those in south Belfast for this festive season.
Tomorrow the Feast of the Epiphany is to be celebrated two days late, but with the choir back and, in the afternoon, the installation of canons. This is an important occasion for us, especially as Mark will be installed as canon-treasurer and take his place formally in the Chapter. David Humphries, whose connection with St Anne’s is long and dedicated will be installed again, this time as a Connor canon, and Gareth Harron, rector of Holywood continues a close connection that the cathedral has with that parish. At the service there is also to be the dedication of a newly hand-made music stand for the use of the Master of Choristers.
At home the kings arrived in the stable yesterday morning with camels and gifts (they have been walking down the hall for the past three weeks, ready for the final spring from a chair to the manger, whilst I heard from one office (not the cathedral’s of course) that the crib is already away, with the figures being tossed into a box with the depressed abandon of those whose “Christmas is over”. There can be no doubt that for the Church, though the year moves on and we are swiftly at the baptism of Jesus and the call of the disciples, that the miracle of the Incarnation is with us to stay, and the crib, by tradition remains until Candlemas (2nd February) when we recall the infant Jesus being presented in the Temple.
3rd January 2017
The crescent of the Moon and below and to the right of it, Venus, were bright last night, with Mars a dull flickering a little up on the left, appeared at the climax of a sunset that was amongst the finest of the winter. We had left Portrush, as so often on a Monday, with thoughts of the work of the coming few days, and in the dying light of the afternoon. Magheracross parking area beyond the Whiterocks was our last stop, and we walked towards the setting sun with Donegal beyond and the East Strand before us. Rooks and jackdaws congregated in characteristically aimless flight seeking an evening roost, and a raven sedately circled unconcerned.
While leaving this foreground, our eyes saw the sunshine catching the white line of the waves and the satin-finished mirror of the wet sand. Two lads, hurling themselves at the incoming tide to keep circulation going, were in the sea in shorts – not a wet-suited New Year swimmer to be seen – but these guys jumped the waves, or tried at least, in the cold, invigorating sea, as they jiggled around and played up to the audience of amazed admirers. Returning to the car, the sun low across the fields behind us, I paced out our strong shadows on the tarmac at at least 30 metres, then glancing up saw faint light through far-off cloud showing forth the Mull of Kintyre.
Travelling back to Belfast, the traffic not too bad, the light never entirely went, even though the sun itself disappeared before Ballymoney. So clear was the sky that the afterglow seemed for sometime to grow in intensity, with colours from the palest lemon to the grey and blues illuminated by the fading sunbeams from below the horizon. The salmon-pink, almost red, glow, that we most commonly recognise as a sunset sign of good weather to come, was nearly gone, as the black buildings and trees showed themselves against the yellow remains of the sun that would be waking those on another shore.
My New Year reading has gone from Annie Dillard to Ronald Blythe to John F. Deane and back again: from Tinker’s Creek to the Essex/Suffolk border to Achill Island. Careful observation links them to the world that is changing and in all their days made them move with the lives that they observed – and observe. We talked of NewYears in the past, of famous walks and reminiscent thoughts; of hopes and fears; of the bright memories of what we want to hold for ever, yet know that we cannot. The bright shining of Venus near the moon was like the star of Bethlehem bringing the Epiphany to mind and its message of Christ’s showing forth to the world.
A passing year, that has seen such unexpected developments in the world, recalls us to the positives of change and the need to seek the fresh path that leads to the fulfilment of dreams that cannot be realised without sacrifice. Light fades in our eyes and we look towards a new dawn; Christ is the inexpressibly true light that not only enlightens us, but is, in himself, inexhaustible and eternal. Dwelling in the changelessness of Christ is what gives us the hope and strength to face our own new beginnings.
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