The Power of a Holy Place

17 July 2020

By the Very Revd Jonathan Greener

Our Cathedral in Exeter was built in the 14th century. Sadly we’ve never had a saint or a holy well to attract pilgrims. The shrines of the saints were an essential part of medieval Christianity. In a world of darkness and uncertainty, the saints promised encouragement and healing. To the average worshipper, God was distant, and the saints were the ones who knew the heights and depths of human existence, and who could sympathise with, and pray for, those still on earth. For cathedrals, shrines ensured both prestige and regular income. So not having a shrine in Exeter with the physical remains of a saint was unfortunate to say the least.

Nevertheless we have a long history of pilgrimage. On Wednesday of this past week, 15 July, we commemorated the 600th anniversary of the installation of Bishop Edmund Lacy (who moved here from Hereford), the closest we have to a saint, renowned for the power of his prayers. You can catch up with Wednesday’s service on our Cathedral Facebook page. After his death, all sorts of people came to seek Bishop Lacy’s intercession for healing. They left wax votive figures around his tomb: dolls, body parts – hollow, and made of beeswax. We had lost all trace of them, and then during the last war when the bomb fell on our Cathedral and shook Bishop Lacy’s tomb in the north quire aisle, out fell some of these ancient wax models. They are extraordinary, hugely precious, and kept safely in the Library and Archives: a relic of past prayers and medieval piety, but a visible witness to people’s trust in God’s healing power.

Try to imagine the excitement of stepping out of a grey medieval world and entering this vast holy space filled with glittering colours, jewels sparkling in the stained-glass windows, and polychrome painted stone work. Suddenly you are brought face to face with the Kingdom of Heaven. But that still happens nowadays, every day. Sadly the colours have faded a little, and modern regulations do not allow us to recreate medieval technicolour. But the beauty of the space, the longest gothic vaulted ceiling in Europe, the peace and tranquillity: they all touch people in unexpected ways.

A colleague in another cathedral sat down recently next to a man, who was crying. “I’m not a Christian,” he said, “but there’s something about this place that has really got to me.” Nearly 11 million Britons visit England’s 42 Anglican cathedrals each year, and such a reaction is not unusual.  Frequently people are ambushed by the atmosphere. A recent survey suggests that of those visitors, only 10% arrive intending to pray, but nearly half find themselves lighting a candle, or leaving a written prayer. And the overwhelming comment in the visitors’ books: “I have found some peace here.”

It’s why I’m so relieved the building is open again, since it does most of our mission for us. It continues to evoke emotions, to prompt prayers, to raise our gaze and our hearts heavenward, to enfold people in the love of God.

Of course we can all pray at home, and be just as committed. Of course, thanks to modern technology, we can bring our worship and our building into your front room. But there is something about this extraordinarily spacious holy place where prayer has been valid, that has a power all of its own that cannot be recreated at home. There’s something about standing in front of Bishop Lacy’s tomb that speaks more touchingly than watching him on TV. So do come when you can. But if you can’t, a virtual visit to the good bishop and his tomb is of course immensely worthwhile. And while you’re there, you may find this prayer helpful…

Almighty God,
whose servant Edmund Lacy drew many
to seek your grace and wholeness:
pour out your love upon your pilgrim people
who find you in this place,
that all may know the healing touch of Christ,
who brings us fullness of life;
for he is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen.

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