About Me

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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Thursday, 29 January 2015

A Dean's Dozen: 12 Years living and working in a World Heritage Cathedral

Just over one hundred years ago, in 1912, a book was published with the title The Story of the Deanery, Durham, 1070-1912. Its author was George Kitchin. He had been dean since 1894. He was the author of works on, among other things, Francis Bacon, John Ruskin, the history of France, and Winchester where he had been dean before Durham. He was a friend of Lewis Carroll who had photographed his daughter. He was the last Dean of Durham to have oversight of the University, and was its first Chancellor.

His book on the Deanery was his last, and he never lived to see it published. It is a striking, large-format volume with many photographs and drawings, an invaluable record of the Deanery as it was in his day. While well researched, it does not pretend to be a work of scholarship. Rather, it is his tribute to a house he loved. In the preface, he describes himself as a passing hermit-crab who must soon leave this shelter he has enjoyed for rather longer than my own decanal 12 years. He says that he wants to ‘express my own thankfulness for being permitted to dwell in this shelter for an old man’s last days. The record of the ancient chambers makes the past live again and will, I hope, be an inspiration for all who may hereafter have the good fortune to live in this Deanery.’[1] So it has proved for this dean. My only regret is that I did not get to revise the book for its centenary in 2012, for there is a great deal about the Deanery that Kitchin did not know about that is now revealed, including the miraculous 15th century wall painting in the entrance hall, what was once the Prior’s Chapel.

My subject in this lecture is Living and Working in a World Heritage Cathedral. I begin with the Deanery because the ‘living’ part of the title belongs there, as does much of the ‘working’ too. It is a relatively little-known part of the World Heritage Site, so I hope you will allow me to say something about my own experience of living there before I broaden the perspective to take in the more public and visible aspects of my role. In both, I want to try to reflect not on the built heritage itself, wonderful though it is, so much as on its interaction with human buildings, the symbolism and meanings it holds for us. I want to explore how in my experience, heritage functions to enrich and shape not only the lives of the people fortunate enough to inhabit it, but more specifically, the mission of the institution to which this acropolis is home, this Cathedral at the heart of this peninsula.

It is not the first time we have lived in a house that warrants an entry[2] in Pevsner’s Buildings of England. In the 1970s we occupied the medieval Hall of the Vicars Choral in Salisbury Close, so we had some experience of the interface between heritage and human living. Indeed, you get to know a building’s personality in a unique way when you begin to fill it up with children. Here in Durham, with children having long flown the family nest, we share the historic Deanery with student lodgers in the eyrie upstairs, and Godiva the cat. And, it seems, a visitant. This genius loci, whoever he is (and I am reliably informed that it is a ‘he’), makes himself known mostly to women on the north side of the house where it looks out on to the Chapter House. He is benign, but even I have known doors close and lights be switched on or off when I have known for certain that I have been alone in the house. Who is to say what guests these old buildings entertain unawares?

The Deanery was short-listed in a Country Life article in 2003 as part of a quest to find Britain’s oldest continuously inhabited house.[3] It was reluctantly disqualified on the grounds that before the Reformation, the Prior’s Lodging was not strictly speaking a private residence. But the evidence of hundreds of years of continuous occupancy is indeed one of its features. When I show visitors round, I tell them that every century from the 11th to the 21st has left its mark on the building. This is not the place to linger on the details which are a lecture in themselves. However, it is worth mentioning the contribution modernity has made to this, one of England’s greatest clergy houses. Dean Waddington had converted the medieval library into a Victorian gentleman’s study complete with fitted bookcases, tall sash windows and his own heraldic achievement above the great fireplace. For centuries deans still slept in a Tudor tester bed in the famous King James Room, so-called because the Scottish monarch had occupied it during his southward progress on acceding to the English throne in 1603. Kitchin’s book has photographs that record the house as it was at the turn of the 20th century with its heavy over-furnished late Victorian and Edwardian interiors. The biggest transformation to happen after his time was Hensley Henson’s introduction of the colourful Chinese wallpaper that adorns the solarium, the room in the Deanery that everyone remembers, which Dean Spencer Cowper had converted from medieval solar to fashionable salon in the mid-18th century. The story is that Ella, Henson’s wife, found the prospect of living in this vast and dreary Deanery unsupportable without colour. This the solarium abundantly provided. On sunlit days I doubt there is a more beautiful room in North East England.

The imminent arrival in 1974 of Eric Heaton as Durham’s first modernising Dean launched large-scale alterations to the Deanery. The Priors’ Hall was separated off for use for Cathedral use though it is still legally a part of the house. A new internal staircase halved the time it took to get from one floor to the next. A striking new entrance was created by George Pace with a spiral castellated stairway and a new front door opened up in the west wall of what had once been the Priors’ Chapel where there had once before been a door. The magnificent 15th century paintings were uncovered on the north wall of the chapel, together with evidence of 13th and 14th century decoration and an array of medieval graffiti which continue to be recorded and studied today. The tantalising glimpse of the Virgin Mary’s skirts at the east end of the series tells us that there are more paintings that have yet to be exposed. In this period the interiors were extensively modernised for 20th century family living. Finally, in 2011, we dedicated the Chapel of the Holy Cross in the 13th century undercroft, a beautiful space with a Cistercian feel to it, lovingly furnished by local Durham woodworker Colin Wilbourn. Hensley Henson had created a chapel there in his day, and the Cathedral choristers famously slept in it during the war because its stone vault offered the best air-raid shelter in the College.

All this gives you a sense of the Deanery’s art and architecture. But what is it like to live there? You may not think this is worth lingering on: your home is your home, whether it is a medieval building in a Cathedral precinct, a Victorian vicarage, a 1930s detached house or an Edwardian villa in an elegant suburb – to summarise the clergy houses we have lived in for the past 40 years. However, if you are interested in the interaction between the built environment and human life, how we have configured our surroundings and how they to some extent configure us, then it is worth reflecting on the experience of living in such a remarkable house as the Deanery. Furthermore, because the Deanery is attached to the cloister and therefore to the Cathedral itself, living and working in the Deanery is almost an encapsulation, and maybe also a metaphor, of how I have experienced the Cathedral too.
The first thing to say is that like George Kitchin, I am not sure that even after 12 years I have fully taken in what it is to live in a house such as the Deanery. The experience of putting on hat and coat by the wall-paintings, answering emails in a grand Victorian library under its mellow 15th century ceiling, chairing meetings in the King James Room surrounded by portraits of deans from the 16th to the 19th centuries, watching TV against the backdrop of 13th century lancet windows with evidence of Islamic-inspired decoration, walking to evensong along the length of a rococo-gothic corridor created above the space where the original monastic dormitory latrine drains ran, celebrating a family Christmas in front of a big homely fire in the priors’ solar – I could go on and on. The chief thing, I know, is never to take any of this for granted. To occupy such surroundings is to realise the need to be more present to them, pay attention to their artistry, their memory, and indeed their spirituality. You should not live in a house such as this without becoming more of a contemplative, someone who in Thomas Hardy’s words ‘used to notice such things’. This is part of what I call ‘inhabiting’ the house.

I do not want to leave you with the impression that it is always straightforward to occupy a part of the nation’s heritage. It belongs to many more people than simply the family who live there. A deanery or a vicarage is always to some extent not entire your own, but you feel the sense of guardianship when it wears its history so palpably on its sleeve. Then there is the price you pay: the easy conveniences of modern living. In winter, we (and I include Godiva the cat in this) scuttle from one warm space to another along long, unheated corridors. The wifi won’t penetrate the great medieval walls beyond the office. Mobile phone signal is patchy because of the way the bulk of the Cathedral just yards away vastly distorts the aether like a huge star influencing space-time in general relativity theory. If you forget that your freshly laundered pyjamas are in the airing cupboard in the undercroft, it is 53 steps down and up again from the bedroom. If you burn the toast, the ultra-sensitive smoke alarms go off and the fire brigade is outside before you can say mea culpa. When the west wind blows fiercely, bits of sandstone drop off the eroded exterior like meteorites, sometimes outside the front door where people go in and out. I could go on. Life in a medieval deanery is nothing if not eventful.

There is one aspect of life in the Deanery that is almost (not quite) unique in England. This is its physical attachment to the Cathedral itself. When people who don’t know Durham ask me where I live, I often reply that it is in an end-of-terrace or semi on the south-east corner of the cloister. This is architecturally the case, despite the Deanery’s character as a medieval manor house complete with hall, solar, chapel and library all constituting the required piano nobile. This means that the Dean of Durham lives not so much above the shop as in it. This has its convenient aspects: I can be in my stall for matins and evensong in less time than it takes to get to the College gate, let alone to the shops. What is more, I have a dry decanal foul-weather route to prayer while my Chapter colleagues are exposed to wind and rain on the way across the precinct into the cloister. But it also raises questions about where ‘work’ space ends and ‘personal’ space begins; inevitably, the boundaries are porous much of the time. The medieval priors who once occupied the house would not have understood the concept of ‘personal’ or ‘private’: there was no such thing when a Benedictine community lived together under rule. Every parish priest faces the same dilemmas if his or her house is close to the church and perhaps connected to it by means of a dedicated path through the church yard. So the ‘attachment’ of the Deanery to the Cathedral symbolises something that is deeply embedded in the concept of vocation: a dean belongs to his or her cathedral in an inalienable way, tied to it by an inviolable umbilical cord.

And this leads me on to what is perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the ‘living’ dimension of my title ‘living and working in a World Heritage Site’. This umbilical connection to a sacred space, that is, the Cathedral, has affected the way in which I have felt about the Deanery. In a sacred space, behaviours are modified, calibrated to what is appropriate to a place dedicated to encounter with the divine, this mysterium tremendum et fascinans as Rudolph Otto famously called the ‘idea’ of the holy. To be architecturally, psychologically and ethnographically connected to a shrine like Durham Cathedral poses questions about the meanings attached to this house, the symbolism it carries. It speaks to the soul, fertilises the imagination.  But the paradoxes are even sharper than that. For one thing, the north side of the house where benign presences have been felt and reported, stands on or near the site of the place where Cuthbert’s coffin may have been placed from 1093 to 1104 when the new shrine, sanctuary and quire of the Romanesque cathedral were being built. If this is right, then plausibly the house holds a memory of being inhabited for a while by a saint, indeed, for the same length of time – a dozen years – of my own occupancy. In its more recent history, the present hallway and PA’s office occupy what was once what was once Prior Melsonby’s Chapel, as I have mentioned in connection with the wall paintings. It was probably Thomas Comber, the dean installed in 1691 to replace the nonjuring Denis Granville who had been ejected in the Glorious Revolution of 1689, who is said to have ‘improved’ the Deanery and converted the obsolete chapel into living quarters[4].

So the dean and his family live, not adjacent to a sacred space, but to some extent inside one, or the memory of one. Where the chapel once was, family and guests come in and out. My PA works on her computer and manages the Dean. Upstairs, the family entertain, relax, watch TV, enjoy a late night whisky, shower, bathe, dress, undress and sleep. Too much information, you may say. But it raises interesting questions about the interface between sacred and profane, especially when it comes to the functions associated with a bathroom situated in what was once a place of prayer. Sacred memory and secular reality intersect intriguingly. I don’t want to become obsessive about this, but I do believe that an important aspect of heritage is the honouring of memory. How to do this responsibly and well is a question has never been absent from my mind for very long. It’s one dimension of living and working in this World Heritage Site.

Let me turn now to the Cathedral itself. Here again, as with the Deanery, I want to reflect on the personal experience of ‘living and working’ in Durham Cathedral and how my own persona has been to a great extent shaped during these dozen Durham years.

I have been fortunate in the ecclesiastical buildings I have worked in over four decades of public ministry. I was ordained 40 years ago this June beneath the Romanesque chancel arch of St Andrew’s, Headington in Oxford. Then followed six years in the Close at Salisbury where, in addition to lecturing in Old Testament studies, I was an honorary vicar choral at the peerless 13th century Cathedral. After this came five years as Vicar of Alnwick in Northumberland, a sturdy late-gothic building near the Castle, complete with ducal emblems on the capitals of the elaborate chancel, and a mini-bastle above the sanctuary, a look-out against Scots raids from the north. I then enjoyed eight years at Coventry Cathedral as Precentor and Vice-Provost, followed by another eight as Dean of Sheffield. Thence to Durham. All fine buildings of many different epochs and styles. If you know your geology you will recognise in this list more than 30 years of sandstone of various hues, from the lovely pink-red of Warwickshire to the blackened millstone grit of South Yorkshire, and the golden but friable sandstones of Northumberland and County Durham. When it comes to cathedrals, I am wholly a sandstone dean. I have a distant memory of finely-wrought limestones in the south. But I am now a habitué of the north of England’s rougher-hewn sandstones: always beautiful to look at, always responsive to the changing seasons and the shifting light, always lovable; but there is no denying the conservation challenges they pose. More of this towards the end.

I first visited Durham in 1966 as a schoolboy applying to read maths here. Out of the recent experience of having been baptised a Christian, I was awed by the Cathedral, even on that bleak November day under the kind of sullen, steely sky the North East does so well. Could I have even entertained the thought that my future lay here? Hardly, given that on that first ever visit, I managed somehow to walk right round the Cathedral without discovering St Cuthbert’s shrine. Perhaps after 12 years here it is time to own up to this extraordinary and shameful omission. But in my defence, there is something ‘apart’ about the feretory, like a little Farne Island set in the great sea that is the 13th century Chapel of the Nine Altars. In 2003, I asked to be installed on St Cuthbert’s Day, and perhaps this went some way towards saying sorry to our saint.

As we know, the Cathedral, the city, the University would not be here were it not for the travels of Cuthbert’s Saxon community who arrived on this rock in 995 and erected the first shrine to house the relics of their saint. In my book about the Christian heritage of this part of England, I described the Cathedral as the ‘mystic heart’ of the North East.[5] I believe this to be true as a matter both of history and of what I have called sacred geography. On reflection, there is another more personal level of meaning in this phrase in that I have discovered how the Cathedral is the ‘mystic heart’ of my own spirituality and Christian identity.  I don’t mean this to sound like the kind of purple prose clergy resort to in the pulpit. I mean that any great building has the propensity to mould and shape the people whose life and work is intensely focused on it or in it. When the building is a sacred space like a cathedral, church, mosque, temple or synagogue, then its symbolism, history, memory and a great deal else becomes enfolded in those people’s worship and prayer. Some of it is conscious, as in the worthy if undistinguished hymn ‘We love the place O God / wherein thine honour dwells’. Much more, I suspect, is subliminal, unconscious. A lot of it has to do with our psyche, the Jungian ‘soul’ where the archetypes reside and which is the seat of our projections and transferences. A cathedral is heavily freighted with symbolism for everyone in a thousand different ways. When it is Durham Cathedral, and when the core of the job entails being present at the twice-daily prayers in addition to the countless other engagements in and around the building every day brings, you will see why I use this elevated language. And living as I do in a Deanery whose northward, westward and eastward prospects are all dominated by the huge bulk of this immensely powerful presence, it is understandable that it comes to shape the life of the person who is the head of its foundation.

That phrase ‘mystic heart’ focuses on what Christian discourse calls ‘spiritual formation’. In this building that is beyond words when we try to capture what we love about it, this formational dimension of the cathedral is one of its charisms, a gift of grace. It touches all of us for whom it is our place of work. For example, when I sit down as I always do with the cohort of choristers who are leaving us at the end of their time in the choir, I ask them what effect the building has had on them. What comes across is that it has become something extraordinarily precious to them. There is much that is hard for them to leave behind at the summer choir farewell service, but the prospect of losing the easy familiarity with a great building that they have come to feel at home in is one of the aspects of this, and of course it symbolises so much else that this rite of passage represents for them. For me as dean, this ‘mystic heart’ has shaped my practice and language of prayer in the ways that have been prominent in the long spiritual history of Durham: the intense discipline of Saxon Christianity as embodied by Aidan, Cuthbert and Bede; the ordering and patterning of human life according to the Rule of St Benedict that was followed here throughout the monastic centuries; and the catholic Anglicanism of the post-Reformation settlement especially as it was lived out by Durham’s greatest bishop, John Cosin. It is not that these aspects of spiritual ‘character’ were not already present when I came here as dean. But they have all become a lot more explicit, better understood, and I hope more intelligently integrated into this particular person’s life as a Christian and a priest of the 21st century.

I want to say something about liturgy in Durham Cathedral. As in all great Romanesque cathedrals, you find in Durham a sense of ‘massive enclosure and strong verticality’.[6] Whereas the gothic cathedral, inspired by the Abbé Suger’s vision at Saint Denis and embodied in the Chapel of the Nine Altars, is a casket of light that embodies heaven itself[7], Romanesque suggests the fortress, a place safe from the assaults of demonic principalities and powers. In some places, Romanesque churches provided a safe place where people could gather for protection against threats posed by a human enemy closer at hand: ‘half church of God, half castle ’gainst the Scot’. The ancient right of sanctuary at Durham was an example of this protective function. This ‘defensive’ character of Durham serves to demarcate its sacred space with particular clarity. This is why, I think, the Chapter of Durham has always been careful to protect the church from inappropriate use: the idea of the sacred may be more generously defined now than in the middle ages, but it always carries the danger of violating it, consciously or unconsciously. To the Chapter, charging visitors for admission would imply such a compromise. This is why, in my time, we have not wavered in our resolve to maintain free access to what is not, after all, our space but God’s.

Worship is a kind of theatre, a Wagnerian Gesammtkunstwerk or ‘total art form’ in which dramatic action, words, silence, music, colour, space and audience interact in a way that is always unique to a particular time and place. If you asked people why they worship at the Cathedral, many would speak about the character of the building itself as the setting for liturgy. ‘The place is almost as much the thing as is the play’ says one writer on theatre design. He is wholly correct but for the word ‘almost’[8]. The Cathedral was built by Benedictines whose central vows focused on the words stability, obedience and conversion of life. You would expect their church, constructed when English Romanesque had reached its maturity, to embody those values. So the sense of solid enclosure echoes the change of attitude and aspiration implied by crossing the threshold into the sacred space; the hierarchical structure of the west-east axis from Galilee and font to bishop’s throne, high altar and saint’s shrine speak of obedience; and the huge drum piers and stone vault of stability and permanence. This, at least, is the way I have come to ‘read’ the church not as an architectural masterpiece so much as a building replete with many layers of spiritual value and significance.

It’s impossible for me to do justice to the ways these insights have touched me personally. But here are a few themes. First must come the divine office, celebrated twice daily in the monastic quire every day in the year. We occupy Bishop Cosin’s stalls each weekday morning and evening, just as the Priory monks gathered in the same place during the Benedictine centuries. In the evening the office is sung by the Cathedral choir. I can’t stress enough the significance of this thousand year continuity of prayer. It has been broken only once, when there was no Cathedral foundation during the Commonwealth. People sometimes ask me what I think is the most important thing I do as Dean. My answer is always: the lead the Chapter and community in its rule of daily prayer as the head of the Foundation. And if there is one gift that I can barely contemplate living without after these decades of cathedral ministry in four different places, it is choral evensong.

Daily prayer on weekdays is often an intimate occasion. You may be surprised to think that prayer as an intimate community of laity and clergy is possible in a great cathedral, but it is. And intimacy is a word I use to describe how I have become more familiar with it, even at large-scale acts of worship. For example, I have got to know the 14th century Neville Screen that separates the sanctuary from the shrine quite well through presiding at the high altar at close proximity. It is likely that the greatest of high medieval architects Henry de Yvele built it: for the Nevilles, only the best would do. There are angels carved into the Caen limestone that were spared the destructiveness of the 16th and 17th centuries. One in particular, right in the centre, has a seraphic smile that I have come to love. I love the way the light plays on the nave vaults in midwinter at the Sunday eucharist, and the pillar above the Precentor’s stall that glows with a golden light at matins on sunny solstice days.   I love the symmetries of the Cathedral that are palpable when you stand at the nave altar at the intersection of all three axes in the crossing and sense that you are at the still centre of an extraordinarily dynamic building. I love the great liturgical processions up the central nave aisle, particularly at Advent, Christmas, Epiphany and Easter, or at the Miners’ Gala Service and Matins for the Courts of Justice, when the piers and high vaults suggest a noble avenue of great trees with their canopy spread out above. I love the screens that mark thresholds that we cross on our long march from west to east, the journey that recalls the pilgrimage to the shrine and that speaks of the spiritual journey from our beginnings at the font to the vision of God at the high altar and shrine. I could rhapsodise about stained glass and floors and textiles and sculpture and much else. I think you will get my meaning. 

However, there is a shadow side to everything. When your work is almost wholly bound up in an institution with a high public profile, when its building is emblematic (I do not say iconic) to millions of people across the world, I can experience the Cathedral as demand as well as gift. I think every dean will say the same, but not all deans live in umbilical connection with their cathedral I have talked about, or are faced with its profile rearing massively and sometimes darkly up just outside the kitchen window. I need to analyse what I am and am not saying about how this ‘mystic heart’ exercises a pull on this dean that he does not always welcome. It is to do with its thereness. It never goes away. Its requirements are never ending: it is insatiably greedy in its hunger for money, resources, time, energy, engagement. Your commitment to it has to be all or nothing. I say to myself: this is like Christian discipleship itself. If it is worth giving yourself to it, you don’t hold anything back. It is for life. It is life.

The history of Durham tells us that this mighty Romanesque cathedral was not always welcomed as a benign presence. To the Saxons, it represented the naked power of the invader, erected as it was in the brutal aftermath of the Conquest. Its defensive position next to the Castle reinforced the message of political hegemony, a Northern clash of civilisations. The hitching of St Cuthbert’s ensign to this mighty Norman battleship was a shrewd political move and in time had the desired effect of winning over the Saxons to accept the new regime. But I doubt that the Saxons ever loved it. We can confidently say, given Cuthbert’s reported unwillingness to be buried even on Lindisfarne, that he would have been baffled if not profoundly dismayed at the idea that he would be entombed in the Norman Cathedral. What it later became for the Counts Palatine (as we should call the Prince-Bishops) simply reinforced the distance Christianity in the north had travelled from its simple beginnings on Iona and then Lindisfarne.

To my mind, this history of ambivalence is a necessary corrective to an unduly romanticised notion of Durham Cathedral. Necessary, because we are not true to buildings, including cathedrals, if we do not acknowledge the less endearing features of their history and name their darker aspects. To the Saxons, the Cathedral represented a power and control which there was no negotiating. In the high middle ages and well into the industrial period, the Cathedral’s enormous wealth was perceived as alienating and even corrupting. To the Scottish prisoners incarcerated inside it in the winter of 1650-51, left there by Cromwell’s troops to make do without food, drink, fuel or even rudimentary sanitation, it was a terrible place of hunger, disease and death. I am not saying that these memories should unduly colour our perceptions today. But when William Blake said, famously, that ‘joy and woe are woven fine’, this is as true of places and buildings as it is of human life. There are tears in things as well as joy. And sometimes, the Cathedral can seem to re-exert a more primitive kind of power, a more insistent and uncompromising demand, over us who inhabit it than our millions of visitors and pilgrims perhaps imagine. It is especially important that we who worship and work in cathedrals should not collude with rose-hued fantasies about them. Whatever else it is, Durham Cathedral must be a place of truth. Without personifying it, I believe that only when we are in an entirely honest relationship with it can it perform this heart-work of shaping human and Christian character.

This experience of living and working in a World Heritage Site has helped to shape my thinking about the place of heritage in today’s world. A dean has to give a great deal of time and effort to his or her Cathedral as part of the nation’s heritage. You have to love your cathedral for its fabric, architecture and art as well as for its community, its liturgy, its music, its outreach and everything else it represents. If you don’t relish this task, if you don’t care for ancient buildings, if you see them as a distraction from the church’s mission, don’t become a dean. Trust me.

In Durham, I have wanted to lead the Chapter and community in asking the question, how can we make much more of the outstanding heritage we have in this cathedral, whether its medieval buildings and spaces, its incomparable library and collections, its music and arts, and, intangibly, its history and significance in the development of Christianity in the North East? During the past 12 years, we have, I believe, added to the ‘legacy’ in ways that I hope will prove not only important but enduring. In terms of the ‘heritage’ you can see, I should highlight the Paula Rego painting of Queen Margaret of Scotland that stands by her altar; the window given by the Friends in memory of Bishop Michael Ramsey, representing the transfiguration of the Lord; the Pietà by Fenwick Lawson which, although it has been in the Cathedral for many years, has now been bought for us, thanks to the Friends; the Lama Sabachthani crucifix in the north quire aisle by Kirill Sokolov, the Deanery Undercoft Chapel of the Holy Cross, the nave choir stalls, the Laus Deo organ and the Lenten and ‘New Creation’ hangings and vestments. All these are motivated by the belief that the church needs to speak to today’s and tomorrow’s generations in the discourse of the present as well as the past.

Meanwhile, conservation of the fabric has continued throughout this time, and will increase significantly in pace as we follow through the latest quinquennial inspection report by the Cathedral architect. As every dean will tell you, it is like painting the Forth Bridge. The job is never done. I could say much about that; and I could also speak about less tangible heritage that has added to the Cathedral’s mission: the girls’ top line in the choir, commissions for new choral music, putting Cuthbert back into the legal title of the Cathedral five and a half centuries after Henry VIII had summarily excised it, the return to the library of medieval manuscripts and early printed books that had been lost at the Dissolution. There has also been a spate of books and writings about the Cathedral culminating in the great volume just published that will be the definitive survey of its heritage for decades, Durham Cathedral: history, fabric and culture.

But one development has dwarfed all the others. It was with the prospect of the Lindisfarne Gospel Book visiting Durham in 2013 that we embarked on the development we have called Open Treasure. The aim has not been simply to open up the marvellous claustral buildings and display some of the best artefacts we have to exhibit. It has been to try to say something significant about what it has meant to be Durham Cathedral in past generations, and in the present. In an era that is increasingly distanced from organised religion, baffled and often alienated by what it represents, and not well informed about even the simplest aspects of Christian belief, we need to present ourselves as more than simply a place of heritage. We could put it this way: the challenge is to identify and interpret the ‘intangible assets’ of this piece of Christian heritage, the values which are to do with the religious character of the Cathedral as a living, working, breathing building: who and what this community of faith has been, and is now, and aspires to be in the future. This, briefly, is Open Treasure. We have already reconfigured the beautiful undercrofts where the restaurant and shop are housed. The monastic dormitory, the great kitchen and a new gallery linking them are being transfigured as we speak into exhibition spaces that will take our guests along a timeline that will present our heritage as best we know how. You will see for yourselves when they open to the public in 2016.

So why this extraordinarily costly investment into heritage? In a perceptive essay, the former Dean of Christ Church Oxford considers the relationship between religious faith and heritage.[9] He warns against three abuses of heritage. First, heritage can be used to tell a story selectively, editing out those aspects of it that are ambiguous or with which contemporary concerns and attitudes are out of sympathy. This has been a particular challenge to us at Durham where we have tried to interpret our remarkable religious heritage intelligently in a secular age and persuade (successfully) the Heritage Lottery Fund and other agencies to support us. Then heritage can obscure the ‘sheer pastness of history’ so as to make it accessible and marketable. It can be presented in a nostalgic way that may reassure the public but which also obscures its truth. What I have learned at Durham is that the past is indeed another country where they do things differently. The Benedictine period, and still more the Saxon era of St Cuthbert, are worlds that it takes a great deal of intellectual effort and spiritual imagination to envisage. We should not cut corners, nor think that in all respects these pasts are to be imitated by us today. Thirdly, Lewis warns against the innate conservatism of attitudes to heritage that require it to be for ever fixed in the form in which we inherited it or imagine it once to have been. The presumption against change, especially in a heritage asset as prominent and universally loved as Durham Cathedral, is a complex matter when the building also represents a faith that is always renewing itself, as the history of the building itself evidences.

A sacred building is of course very much more than a physical edifice. It is a rich cluster of symbols, metaphors, meanings, transferences and projections. It holds value for people who may never worship there or anywhere, yet who are responsive to its complex human, aesthetic and spiritual texture. It is, in the proper use of the word, ‘iconic’, a physical entity that is ‘written’ into not only a particular landscape and cultural environment but on to the hearts and souls of human beings. It is a sacramental quality, a ‘mystery better articulated by poetry than rational argument.’[10]And as John Inge says, this can never be fully described or analysed: ‘places have a “personality” as a result of people’s interaction with them…. As with a human personality, [it] will defy analysis.’

The opportunity, for all of us who care for our spiritual heritage, is to cherish this uniquely precious symbol that is not only extraordinarily beautiful, and not only indispensable to the history of the North East, but is, as I have said, its mystic heart. It is not the building and its environment, but the inhabited entity and the experience of the people who come here that make it a living part of our heritage. It belongs to us all. And when the time comes for me as dean to move on from this hermit-crab’s shell I have occupied for a dozen years, it will not belong to me any less than it does now. If I have learned one thing in my time here, it is that the World Heritage Site is a gift for life to treasure, to honour and to love, and to go on ‘inhabiting’, if not in the way I have been privileged to during these wonderful twelve years, then always, till I die, in memory, imagination and thankfulness.

[1] Kitchin, G. W., The Story of the Deanery, Durham, 1070-1912, Durham 1912, 9-11.
[2] Pevsner, N., revised Williamson, E., The Buildings of England: County Durham, London 1985, 206f.
[3] Goodall, John, ‘As Old as the Halls’, Country Life, 28 August 2003, 38ff.
[4] Hussey, Christopher, ‘The Deanery, Durham’, Country Life 26 November 1938, 526ff.
[5] Sadgrove, Michael, Landscapes of Faith: the Christian heritage of North East England, London 2013, 61.
[6] Seasoltz, R. Kevin, A Sense of the Sacred: theological foundations of Christian architecture and art, London 2006, 120.
[7] Male, Émile, The Gothic Image: Religious Art In France Of The Thirteenth Century 1899, ri New York 1958.
[8] MacKintosh, Iain, Architecture, Actor and Audience, London 1993, 4.
[9] Lewis, Christopher, ‘Christianity as Heritage’, Theology CVII/835, 2004, 30ff.
[10] Inge, John, A Christian Theology of Place, Aldershot 2007, 85-6.

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Praying from the Abyss: the Holocaust and the Hebrew Bible

A week today we shall observe Holocaust Memorial Day on the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz on 27 January 1945.  So I should like in this lecture to offer some reflections on the Holocaust from the standpoint of an episode of ancient history that is one of the major defining events in the Hebrew scriptures.  I am aware, of course, that Holocaust Memorial Day is designed to be a commemoration of all acts of genocide in the modern world, such as for instance the Armenian Massacre, Cambodia and Rwanda.  But I focus on the Nazi era for two reasons.  The first is purely personal, as I shall explain presently. The second is that I am an Old Testament theologian, not an historian.  My interest is in how historical events shape human experience both collectively and personally, and how that experience is reflected upon, and becomes embedded in the stories people tell, especially the discourse of religious faith.  We do not perhaps immediately turn to ancient history to illuminate the recent past and our contemporary experience.  Nevertheless, I believe we have much to learn from it as I shall try to show this evening. 

Some of you may have read Eva Hoffman’s acclaimed memoir Lost in Translation published in 1989.  The title was stolen by the well-known film of that name which tells a different story – about different people and a different situation, that is, though the theme is related.  That theme is exile in a strange land and the consequences of being far from home, with the loss of what is familiar, the heightened significance attached to memory, the reconfiguring of the landscapes of the mind, and the need to become a practitioner of ‘translation’, meaning not simply acquiring a new spoken language but, at a far deeper level, learning entirely new rules about how human beings interact and relate to one another.

 Eva Hoffman was born in Poland just after the end of the war.  Her Jewish parents had been victims of the holocaust who had lost family members in the death camps.  They were among the few survivors of a once flourishing Polish Jewry.  While Eva lovingly describes her childhood in Cracow as ‘paradise’, her parents decided, like many of their generation, that there was no future for them in Poland.  Unlike most of their contemporaries who went east to the newly established State of Israel, they emigrated westwards to the new world to make their home in Canada.  For Eva, leaving her beloved homeland and learning to make her way in an alien country was traumatic in the extreme.  She describes a dream she had a few days after arriving in Canada.

            I’m drowning in the ocean while my mother and father swim further and further away from me.  I know, in this dream, what it is to be cast adrift in incomprehensible space; I know what it is to lose one’s mooring.  I wake up in the middle of a prolonged scream.  The fear is stronger than anything I’ve ever known…. I try to calm myself and go back to sleep, but I feel as though I’ve stepped through a door into a dark place.  Psychoanalysts talk about ‘mutative insights’ through which a patient gains an entirely new perspective and discards some part of a cherished neurosis.  The primal scream of my birth into the New World is a mutative insight of a negative kind – and I know that I can never lose the knowledge it brings me.  The black, bituminous terror of the dream solders itself to the chemical base of my being – and from then on fragments of the fear lodge themselves in my consciousness, thorns and pinpricks of anxiety, loose electricity floating in a psyche that has been forcibly plied from its structures.  Eventually I become accustomed to it; I know that it comes and that it also goes, but when it hits with full force, in its pure form, I call it the Big Fear.[1]

 As I read that, I have to conclude that this is more than simply a frightened response to endings and beginnings.  It has all the hallmarks of what we now call the experience of the holocaust survivor, in her case of the second generation.  This is the inherited memory of the ordeals either or both parents underwent during the Nazi shoah.  It was not recognised until comparatively recently through psychoanalytic engagement with children of survivors that such memories could be transmitted to the next generation, often unconsciously.  This ‘colouring’ of life is frequently described as an unexplained shadow that haunts existence.  And if second-generation trauma is not restricted to the holocaust (for the memory of any terrifying experience, particularly if endured for a substantial period of time, may well be inherited by children), the events of the shoah undoubtedly provide the most extreme instance of it in the history of the past century.

I recognise something of Eva Hoffman’s story in myself.  My mother was born into a prosperous middle-class Jewish family in Düsseldorf.  Her father owned a thriving business in the town.  He had fought for Germany in the Great War and was proud to be an assimilated Jew in a civilised and flourishing nation.  They were liberal Jews who observed Passover, did not eat pork and would not have been seen shopping on Yom Kippur, though they did not attend synagogue regularly.  They loved what Richard Wagner called in Die Meistersinger ‘holy German art’: it was a cultured home full of books and paintings and music.  The 20th century was for them a time of optimism.  Then came the rise of Hitler.  Like most of their family and friends in the Jewish community that time, they did not at first see in Nazism more than a temporary aberration from the historical values of a great nation, a fit of madness that would soon exhaust itself. 

Almost too late, they realised that they must act to save themselves.  Thanks to the intervention and generosity of my grandfather’s cousin Wilhelm Levison, the eminent medieval historian who fled his professorship at Bonn to come to Durham in the 1930s and spent the rest of his life here, my mother’s brother Karl Leyser, who himself became a distinguished historian of Ottonian Saxony, was able to leave Germany and continue his education in England.  My mother followed in 1938.  My grandparents fled to Holland, leaving behind family and friends most of whom ended their days in Auschwitz.  After the invasion of Holland, they went underground, being hidden by an amazing family in Edam.  In 1945, my uncle who had joined the Black Watch drove his tank into the town square of Edam, and calling through his loud-hailer asked if anyone knew the whereabouts of his parents.  My grandfather died shortly afterwards, broken by the war.  But my grandmother lived on to a great age, first in Holland and then in this country where she exercised a profound influence on all her grandchildren, particularly the one who is speaking to you now. 

It did not dawn on me at once that the Holocaust was part of my own formation.  My mother had married my father in 1947.  He was an Englishman she had met during the war.  He was a disenchanted Anglican who had discarded churchgoing along with short trousers and model railways.  He regarded religion as a principal cause of human division and conflict, of which the war was a recent instance.  Any vestigial faith my mother might have had was shattered by the experience she had lived through.  So I grew up in a home in which religion was not to be spoken about other than with disparagement: at best as an irrelevance, at worst, as malignant.  But we did not speak much about the Holocaust either.  It was not one of those ‘secrets in the family’: it was simply too painful.  At times the spectre of anti-semitism would come up, and I was reminded by my mother that as a child born to a Jewish mother, I was myself Jewish according to rabbinic law and while this was not something to make too much of, neither was it to be forgotten. 

It was only as I became a teenager and a Christian, that I became curious about my family’s story and my own identity.  Even now, I can only say that at best it is work in progress.  For instance, I was not expecting when I first drove my family through Holland on holiday in the 1990s how moved I would be to find myself in the country that had taken in my family when they needed asylum and kept them safe.  Similarly when I helped lead a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in 2000, and we visited the Holocaust Memorial Yad Vashem, I was not anticipating that I would be incapable of speech in the face of what overwhelmed me there, particularly the memorial to the millions of children who perished at that time.  I think it was only then that I began to understand three things.  Firstly, that I was a ‘survivor’, and that it was really rather extraordinary that I was alive.  Second, that the personal history I have been describing was for me a participation in the fragility and dislocation that so often emerge as the dark heart of things in a broken world, Eva Hoffmann’s ‘Big Fear’.  But third, that we must never succumb to despair and that tragedy must always purify our vision.  If it does not do this, if it does not lead to a more just and humane aspiration for life, then the last word will have been uttered by all that is evil and destructive.  This is why Holocaust Memorial Day is important. 


At Yad Vashem, fugitive pieces of ancient history began to coalesce as a narrative with profound meaning for our times.  That history, enshrined in the Hebrew Bible, is semitic rather than classical, but like the classical historians, its writers demonstrate remarkable insight into the nature of history not simply as the chronicling of uninterpreted events (which is not history) but as carrying meanings.  The locus classicus of this is the way in which they tell of the cataclysmic crisis that overtook the nation of Judah in the 6th century BCE, the exile in Babylon.  The narrative is easily told, and those of you who have visited the Babylon exhibition at the British Museum will have no shortage of images to furnish your imaginations at this point. 

What we call the ‘Fertile Crescent’, stretching north-westwards from the Persian Gulf up valleys of the Tigris and the Euphrates and then southward down the Mediterranean seaboard was the cradle of a succession of great civilisations in the ancient near east.  Like the Hebrews (and unlike the Egyptians), these cultures were semitic.  The Babylonian empire was at the height of its power by the middle of the 6th century, having supplanted its Assyrian predecessor with the destruction of its capital Nineveh in the year 605.  In the arid conditions of the near-east, land-hunger for the acquisition of productive terrain was the driving force of every imperial power.  At the other end of the Crescent, the small kingdoms of Israel and Judah, divided since the end of the 10th century, were increasingly vulnerable.  They were not only squeezed between competing hostile hegemonies, the Mesopotamian empires to the north and Egypt to the south.  There were equally hostile natural environments that hemmed in its scarce, precious resources: the desert to the east and the sea to the west.  The northern kingdom of Israel had succumbed in 721 when ‘the Assyrian came down like a wolf to the fold’ as Byron graphically put it.  Judah struggled on, surviving the onslaughts on its cities by Sennacherib whose siege engines are so graphically depicted in the marvellous Assyrian relief sculptures in the British Museum.  But the days of the Assyrian Empire were numbered.  In Babylon, always a source of trouble, the powerful Nebuchadrezzar acceded to the throne in 605, that year defeating Egyptians at the Battle of Carchemish and thereby placing the entire Fertile Crescent under within his influence.  In 597 he captured Jerusalem, installing a vassal king and exacting tribute.  A decade of futile attempts on the part of ineffective Judan kings to foment rebellion culminated in a final, catastrophic invasion by Nebuchadnezzar’s forces in 586.  The land was overrun, its cities ruined, Solomon’s temple at Jerusalem destroyed, and a large proportion of its population were deported. 

As an experience of physical suffering, the exile was not the most extreme event in the history of Israel.  The persecution of Jews under the Hellenistic Seleucids, notably Antiochus Epiphanes four centuries later was far more brutal, more like the Holocaust in what it did to thousands of human lives cut short without mercy.  But I want to suggest that the exile did have a similar psychological, emotional and spiritual impact on the nation.  This history defined them irrevocably, just as the Holocaust defines Judaism today.  I mean more than that the events of the 6th century became embedded in the long history of an ancient people.  I mean that its effects in fashioning the identity, culture and self-understanding of the Jewish community were permanent.  I think that there are maybe only three such decisive ‘kairos’ events in the history of Judaism: the exodus, the exile and the Holocaust.  

So we need to consider what exile meant for the people of Judah.  Three institutions had been crucial to her identity.  The first was the land, understood to have been her inheritance promised to the patriarchs and the goal of her long march out of Egypt and across the wilderness under the leadership of Moses.  The second was the monarchy, inaugurated in the time of David to whom an unending dynasty had been pledged through an eternal covenant.  The third was the temple built by Solomon according to divine command, the locus of divine presence and blessing, of which the Davidic kings were the guardians.  All three had been removed at a stroke.  So central had they been that it was inconceivable that the nation’s identity as the people of Yhwh could continue in exile with no land of their own, no monarch and no shrine. 

This sense of loss and desolation is quintessentially captured in one of the best-known Psalms, 137:

By the rivers of Babylon – there we sat down and wept
when we remembered Zion. 
On the willows there
we hung up our harps.
For there our captors asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’[2]

It is not the last time in history that the oppressor requires entertainment by the oppressed.  Yet no taunts will evoke a song out of exiles.  ‘How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?  Instead, they lay upon themselves the solemn duty always to remember their homeland, sealed with an oath:

If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand wither!
Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy.

What this psalm testifies to is more than a kind of bereavement that is incapable of healing.  It is that exile has opened up a black hole, a singularity, at the core of a people’s identity.  There are no precedents for this experience, no road-map by which to travel a this wholly unfamiliar landscape.  So we are not altogether unprepared for the vicious curse on the enemy with which the Psalm ends:

            Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites
                        the day of Jerusalem’s fall,
            How they said, ‘Tear it down! Tear it down!
Down to its foundations!’
            O daughter Babylon, you devastator!
                        happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us!
            Happy shall they be who take your little ones
                        and dash them against the rock!

 The thread throughout this important Psalm is the word ‘remember’: ‘there we wept when we remembered Zion’; ‘let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you’; ‘remember, O Lord, the day of Jerusalem’s fall’.  There is a profound theological and spiritual dynamic here that recalls the ancient Passover ritual in which the Hebrews ‘remembered’ their Egyptian captivity and how their deliverance from it was the result of God himself ‘remembering’ them. 

Among many other texts of exile in the Psalms and prophets, Psalm 74 gives a graphic account of what the invader has inflicted on the holy place.  After a twofold plea to Yhwh to ‘remember’ his people and ruinous Zion once his dwelling place, it continues:

            Your foes have roared within your holy place;
                        They set up their emblems there.
            At the upper entrance they hacked
                        The wooden trellises with axes.
            And then, with hatchets and hammers,
                        They smashed all its carved work.
            They set your sanctuary on fire;
                        They desecrated the dwelling place of your name, bringing it to the ground.
            They said to themselves, ‘We will utterly subdue them’;
                        They burned all the meeting places of God in the land.[3]

It is not simply the depredation and destruction wrought by the enemy, but the apparent abandonment of the covenant community by God himself that is so bitterly felt.  ‘We do not see our emblems; there is no longer any prophet, and there is no-one among us who knows how long.’  The prayer culminates in a desperate plea to a god who is perceived as not only absent but unable, or unwilling, to take action against the enemy:

How long, O God, is the foe to scoff? 
Is the enemy to revile your name for ever?
            Why do you hold back your hand;
                        Why do you keep your hand in your bosom?

At this point the psalmist reminds himself of the sources of his faith, how God is the mighty creator who subdued the mythical monsters of the primordial deep so as to effect creation.  Therefore, he is able to conquer the enemy too.  But there is a constant undertow of hopelessness.  There is another twofold plea to God to remember the havoc the enemy has wreaked, for where there had once been peace, now the ‘dark places of the land are full of the haunts of violence’.  ‘Do not forget the clamour of your foes, the uproar of your adversaries that goes up continually.’  They are not the peoples’ enemy only.  They are God’s.  

Let me consider one more text of exile.  Psalm 89 is one of the most important of the Psalms in that it appears to have undergone several adaptations in its long history. It seems to have originated as a hymn of praise to God, to which a celebration of the Davidic dynasty was added later, making it one of an important group of Psalms known as the ‘royal’ psalms.  This section lauds God’s promised faithfulness to David and his descendants ‘for ever’, describing the king as God’s son and firstborn, from whom it is impossible that God’s favour could ever fail.  But later still, during the exile, another psalmist adds a powerful and poignant section mourning the loss of the precious monarchy that had been the inalienable sign of divine presence and favour. 

            You have renounced the covenant with your servant;
                        You have defiled his crown in the dust.
            You have broken through all his wall;
                        You have laid his strongholds in ruins.
            You have removed the sceptre from his hand,
                        And hurled his throne to the ground.[4]

Like Psalm 74, this rehearsal of catastrophe turns into the prayer of desperation.  ‘How long, O Lord?  Will you hide yourself forever?  How long will your wrath burn like fire? 

But the remarkable thing about this psalm is that it is prepared to contemplate the unthinkable, that with the collapse of the Davidic dynasty, God’s covenant with Judah is effectively at an end.

            Lord, where is your steadfast love of old,
                        Which by your faithfulness you swore to David?
            Remember O Lord how your servant is taunted…
The psalmist cannot say what future awaits the people.  It seems as though all hope and possibility is striped away in this bleak historical moment.  But there is an acute insight into the psychology of exile in all these texts.  When everything else is stripped away from them, all that is left to exiles is the power of memory.  In one sense it is nothing: ‘how can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?’  Without the institutions that defined religion, faith was no more than a cherished memory.  The literal definition of nostalgia is ‘aching for home’ and in that technical sense this Psalm is deeply nostalgic for an era that had vanished for ever.  Yet in another sense, memory is everything, especially when it is collectively harnessed and externalised through ceremony and ritual.  It preserves identity and confers it on succeeding generations.  For Israel, undergoing the desolating experience of exile, this meant returning to the primitive sources of faith and nourishing them so as to preserve the essence of what had defined them as the people of the covenant.  So the seventy years of exile saw the birth of diaspora Judaism marked by visible signs of faith among a community in dispersion: devotion to the holy books of the Torah, the beginnings of synagogue worship, and circumcision as the sign of the covenant engraved like the tablets of the law on the flesh of human beings.  The exile of the 6th century was to prove the most fertile period in the entire history of Judaism.

As the 6th century neared its end, so did the Babylonian Empire, bloated with its own power and wealth, unstable at its core.  Another world power had already entered the stage of the Fertile Crescent.  This was the legendary Persian Empire led by the charismatic Cyrus, one of history’s great military tacticians.  In 538 BCE Cyrus took Babylon and designated himself, according to a contemporary inscription, ‘King of the world, great king, king of Babylon, king of the four rims [of the earth]’.[5]  He proclaimed himself a liberator both to the Babylonians, restoring pre-eminence to their god Marduk, and to their vassal states by permitting them to return to their homelands and rebuild their shrines. ‘May all the gods whom I have resettled in their sacred cities ask daily Bel and Nebo for a long life for me.’[6] 

One of these communities was of course the Jewish people in exile.  At this time they were being fortified by an unnamed prophet we call the Second Isaiah because his peerless oracles have become attached to the earlier utterances of the 8th century prophet Isaiah of Jerusalem.  Second Isaiah read the signs of the times accurately.  He saw in Cyrus ‘the Lord’s anointed’[7], a claim even more extraordinary than Herodotus’ epithet ‘father to his people’: extraordinary when we consider that to a Hebrew, the phrase ‘the Lord’s anointed’ or ‘messiah’ was reserved for the kings of Israel and Judah[8].  In this oracle, God gives Cyrus the vocation ‘to subdue nations’ and ‘to strip kings of their robes’, that is, to de-throne the powers in order that God himself may be seen to be sovereign so that the exiled community might be returned to their home and rebuild their broken institutions.  There would be a new exodus, a second long march to freedom like the first but more glorious, for which God himself would prepare a mighty highway, levelling the mountains, shattering defensive walls and himself leading the people back to the Zion neither he nor they had for one moment forgotten. 

This prophet did not naïvely believe that Cyrus the Persian was somehow an anonymous Jew.  ‘I call you by your name…., though you do not know me.  I am the Lord and there is no other; besides me there is no god.  I arm you, though you do not know me’.  In the history of religions this is an important statement for its unequivocal monotheism (the doctrine that there is only one god and that the pantheon of deities in Canaanite, Egyptian and Babylonian religion have no real metaphysical existence).  A consequence of this is the unambiguous conviction that historical events are determined by a divine hand, what theologians call providence.  I am saying that the prophet could see, in the political strategies of Cyrus, the work of God.  That strategy was based on the shrewd observation that vassal states were more compliant and productive when they were in their own land rather than exiled.  So in the 530s, many of the exiles returned to Canaan and began to rebuild the temple.  Many, but not all: some of the best educated and most influential Jews remained in Babylon where, following Jeremiah’s advice, they had settled and flourished, and had learned to speak the new language both literally and metaphorically, realising that Judaism could not only survive but prosper in the new environment of strange lands that had themselves become familiar.

The new (or ‘second’) temple proved something of a paradox.  It was the natural fulfilment of three generations’ hopes and longings, attended by expectations of a powerful divine epiphany such as had graced the dedication of Solomon’s temple five centuries previously.  It was confidently predicted that the second temple would result in the whole world acknowledging Yhwh’s supremacy: ‘the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together’[9].  This symbolised the problems of return.  Who and what were this people reinstalled in their land, yet now without a king, and with the ties that had once irrevocably connected them to the temple fatally unravelled by the exile?  Tomorrow, now that it had become today, was not what had been hoped for.  One narrative tells how some of the elderly who had remembered Solomon’s temple wept when they saw the new one, so inferior was it to the glorious building whose memory they had carried with them for three score years and more.  (In this city we have our own unique instance of a temple’s remembered glory in the Rites of Durham written in the 1590s - through his tears we might almost say - by a very old man who had possibly been a young professed monk or a novice in the 1530s in the last days of the Benedictine Cathedral Priory, who writes lovingly of the church as it had been in those distant times, now stripped of its glory.) 

A faltering economy and an uncertain vision of the future were compounded by tentativeness in religious faith that had become habituated to the abrasion of exile and did not easily transplant back into the soil of Canaan.  Many of the post exilic writings testify to what sociologists call ‘cognitive dissonance’: the effect of failed expectations on how a community understands itself, the stories it tells and the ambitions it harbours for the years ahead.  It is hard not to conclude that the Jewish community remained metaphorically in exile even when it had been reinstated in its historic homeland.  And just as the Hebrews in the wilderness wondered in their desperate ordeals of hunger and thirst why Moses had ever led them out of Egypt if it had come to this, so it would have been natural for the question at least to be whispered when it was observed how those who had remained in Babylon continued to flourish: should they perhaps have stayed there?  Was the return a terrible mistake? 


Let me return to the Holocaust.  It seems to me that there are a number of themes in the history of the exile that are important in the way we appropriate and interpret the events of the 1930s and 1940s.  Here I am inevitably speaking as a person of faith within the Judaeo-Christian community, but I should like to think that some of these concluding reflections have universal value, whatever our own religious faith or outlook on life.

The first theme is the importance of memory.  ‘Lest we forget’ is a noble aspiration for the nation when it stops to focus its thoughts and recollections on Armistice Day.  But it is essential if the human race is to be genuinely humane.  Without it, the Jewish community could not have survived the exile, whether it was through remembering a past when all seemed well, or the memory of a cataclysmic event that almost destroyed the nation.  Every community and every individual is kept alive by the faculty of memory.  Memory is the golden string we hold on to in the dark labyrinth of existence so that a story can be told.  Without it, we are dissociated, helpless in the chaotic seas of meaninglessness.  Eva Hoffmann’s book charts the luminous power of her memories of Cracow as life-saving in the new world.  The stories of the death camps, both from those who perished and those who survived, testify to the supreme importance of memory. 

So we in turn must remember those who were the victims of the Holocaust and remember the evil that was inflicted on them.  It is a form of ‘bearing witness’, the phrase that is now used to describe what is required of visitors who go to Auschwitz, Yad Vashem and other places of memorial.  And although I am a Jewish man for whom the Nazi genocide is a personal as well as a global tragedy, we must not forget the homosexuals, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the gypsies and those who courageously attempted to resist Nazism: these too were its victims.  Memory is not an infallible defence against the awful possibility that we may repeat these horrors in another age: the genocides of the post-war period are evidence of that.  But Holocaust Memorial Day is a symbolic act of anamnesis that pulls us out of ignorance or indifference into solidarity with the victim against the oppressor, with the truth against the lie.  Through such rituals, attitudes and motives can be scrutinised and their dark side redeemed. 

The second theme is the inevitability of lament.   The shocking conclusion to Psalm 137 offends our wish for resolution, the happy ending.  If we are Church of England people, we will not wish to hear the choir utter such violent screams of vengeance at Cathedral evensong on the 28th evening of the month: it violates our wish for everything to be ‘nice’. 

Yet we should perhaps examine ourselves here.  For one thing, literature and piety flourished in the death camps, as if the inalienable human urge to practise creativity was itself an act of defiance in the face of extinction.[10]  What is more, poetry and art provide coherence and meaning, if not solace, at times of bewilderment, despair, shock and outrage.  They help order chaotic worlds and create solidarity.  This recognition that disorientation needs to be articulated if a new orientation is to be achieved is one of the functions of lament in ancient communities, whether the sorrow is public or personal.  The Psalms I have quoted are among a large class of Hebrew poems in the Psalter that scholars call ‘laments’.  Some are laments of a suffering individual; others, like these three, are laments of a whole community.  Some of these, like our Psalm, include terrible imprecations against the enemy who has done such wrong to the innocent.  In the Psalter, these are not in fact curses at all. They are prayers that God may put right what is wrong; that he may restore ethical order to the chaotically amoral or immoral world in which such wrong can happen.  We are not surprised to learn that Psalm 137 came into its own in the USA at prayer services following 9/11. ‘Its mix of mourning, rage, imprecation and petition reflected the anguished mix in the souls and hearts of many persons as they mourned that terrible destruction and cried out to God.’[11]   So it is not only justifiable but required that we stand with the victims of the Holocaust in imaginative empathy and make their screams of pain or defiance our own.  Only when we dare to express passion can we truly engage in compassion for victims and protest dispassionately against injustice. To do this, we need the literature of suffering such as the laments to provide us with words we would not dare to invent for ourselves.  This is why the register of lament needs to be kept alive even in our contemporary society.  It is powerfully cathartic, if we use it wisely.

The third theme is the persistence of exile.  The Babylonian invasion was a catastrophe because Judah did not believe it was even a possibility.  She had taken, or mistaken, the teaching of the prophets and the rituals of temple worship to mean that Jerusalem was inviolable, and that Yhwh would guarantee the security of the temple as his eternal dwelling place.  This shock to an easy theological system was not quickly assimilated.  But once the insight had entered the bloodstream of Judaism that nowhere was uniquely sacred and divinely guaranteed, the astonishing consequence began to be absorbed that everywhere was the place of divine presence and therefore the possibility of worship.  We could call this a  kind of secularisation. (Saeculum means ‘world’: so etymologically, ‘secularism’ does not mean per se an anti-religious standpoint, only that faith has come to be practised ‘in the world’ as well as at the shrine, a vital coming of age for every faith tradition.) 

But the corollary of this was the growing sense, not always conscious, that Judaism would for evermore be ‘exilic’ and ‘dispersed’ in character.  The return did not change this as we saw.  Holocaust survivors like Eva Hoffmann speak of their disorientation in a world where things do not stay in place, where surface readings of things will often be wrong and not to be trusted.  So she speaks of being ‘lost in translation’, for exile is a state of mind and can never be sloughed off like some un-needed, discarded skin.  It’s akin to the experience of Great War soldiers who having survived the trenches found that their return home to bewildered families and friends perpetuated the sense of being in a strange land with its own alien discourse.  Perhaps the disorientation and lassitude of so much of contemporary Europe owes something to the legacy of the Holocaust.  It would be odd if this darkest singularity in our history did not scar the psyche of our continent.

The fourth theme is the necessity of hope.  The exile proved to be the crucible not of despair but of expectancy.  Perhaps we see in the Psalm a community peering into the abyss.  But their gaze did not rest there.  Somehow, hope was re-born, the belief that life could begin again.  Where did this hope come from?  Its roots were the belief that life was purposeful and not random; and in that coherent meaning lay the seeds of the future.  Eva Hoffmann draws on the metaphor of triangulation in her book.  She says: ‘we need to triangulate to something – the past, the future, our own untamed perceptions, another place – if we’re not to be subsumed by the temporal and temporary ideas of our time.  Perhaps finding such a point of calibration is particularly difficult now, when our collective air is oversaturated with trivial and important and contradictory and mutually cancelling messages.’[12]  One implication of this is that it is not enough to live only in the past, the present or the future.  Each of these offers temptations to which whole societies can rapidly succumb, respectively nostalgia, hedonism and fantasy.  Triangulation means reading the landscape as accurately as we can by establishing reference points of trustworthiness from where a chart or map may safely be drawn.  In a postmodern age that suspects ‘grand narratives’ this is peculiarly difficult.  But the key idea is trust, not certainty.  The first triangulation to the summit of Mount Everest did not get the height quite right, though it was perhaps ‘good enough’ for the time.[13]  Perhaps Holocaust Memorial Day can keep alive in us the need to triangulate frequently as the landscape shifts, sometimes seismically, so that we can read it in a way that is ‘good enough’ for us to be responsible citizens who live by and promote the values of justice, integrity, compassion and truth. 

To acknowledge our own homelessness in this new millennium when we face so many threats may paradoxically be to begin to find our home in it, learn its language, realise its possibilities and recover hope.  We do not need forever to be ‘lost in translation’.  Napoleon said that a leader is a dealer in hope.  If I am asked what I believe my vocation as Christian priest is for, publicly, I often say that it is to keep hope alive.  But leadership can be a chimera, an illusion that all is well when it isn’t.  Today Barack Obama has taken office as President of the United States.  The hopes surrounding him are positively messianic: many see in him a new Cyrus, the anointed of the Lord who will lead us back from exile.  We wish him well, not least an incumbency free from the illusions that have corrupted so many leaders in history. 

But what matters for hope is what we all do next as societies and individual men and women, however well or badly led we are.  It is a summons to action to each of us: not simply understanding or awareness, much as those things are important, but commitment to act in pursuit of a kinder, more just world.  As James Burke famously said, evil triumphs when good men do nothing.  This much the history of the Holocaust teaches us.  It requires of us that we consider the awful possibility that we might be complicit in genocide simply through the consent of silence or choosing not to know what we ought to know, or not knowing that we know it.  The cry ‘never again!’ which greeted the appalling shock of realising what had taken place in Auschwitz-Birkenau, Dachau and Belsen is an imperative to us all.  So it is impossible that we should ever forget it. 

January 2009

[1] Hoffmann, Eva, Lost in Translation, London 1989, 104.
[2] Psalm 137.
[3] Psalm 74.4-8.
[4] Psalm 89.38-45.
[5] Pritchard, J. B., Ancient Near-Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, Princeton 1950, 316.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Isaiah 45.1ff.
[8] E.g. Psalm 2.2
[9] Isaiah 40.5
[10] Berben Paul, Dachau 1933-1945: The Official History, Brussels 1975, 175.
[11] Brown, Sally & Miller, Patrick D., Lament: Reclaiming Practices in Pulpit, Pew and Public Square, Louisville, 2005, xvi. 
[12] Hoffmann, op cit., 276. 
[13] Keay, John, The Great Arc, London 2001, 7-8.