Hi! This was originally two separate pieces but I have combined and synthesized them. Let me know what you think!
The sensation of time is different from the keeping of time. Time can seem to contract or expand to our liking, but the sun will rise and set with reassuring consistency. I was reminded of this truth while exploring Durham Cathedral and Melrose Abbey, two very different houses of worship that have reacted to the marching of time in very different ways.
We entered the hallowed hall and were immediately overtaken by the opulence. The vaulted ceilings towered over us and stained glass in every color dazzled our eyes. Durham Cathedral is a feast for the senses and the spirit. The ancient house of worship was built between 1093 and 1133 AD (Durham World Heritage Site) and has remained standing and active through the centuries, watching the rise and fall of empires with a removed steadiness.
One poster lists the name of every bishop, dean, and prior for the church-1000 years of history on a sheet that I can cover with my hand. Staring at this sheet, I wondered who all of these men were (because it took many centuries for the church to catch up with egalitarianism) and whether they enjoyed their vocation. Seeing 1000 years of history in such a small space made me feel I stood outside of it all, observing the passage of time from a divine vantage point.
Melrose Abbey was founded in 1136 and used as a monastery until 1590 when the last monk in residence died. (Historic Environment Scotland). It was there that I saw this faded gravestone and was overwhelmed by surprising questions. To my knowledge, the stone reads “In memory of David Wayness who died June 4th… aged 51 years”. Knowing that he had half a century of life doesn’t have as much impact without knowing the era. He could have led a long life in the 1600s or a short life two centuries later. Furthermore, knowing the length of a life doesn’t say anything about the quality of it. I wonder if he was respected in his community, if he felt fulfilled in his vocation or secure in his faith. The faded year is a symbol to me, and David Wayness lives on adrift in my memory. The sensation of time is different than the keeping of time, and this experience reminds me that time is an anchor, grounding us within space and providing a context.
I saw the list of names and years, and felt a reassurance that the gravestone lacked. The gravestone had a name and some information, but no anchor in an era. These names were all anchored into eras of history, and one could assume they were pious people if they worked in a church. Both images evoke awe and reverences but the poster offers comfort where the gravestone evokes a wistful pity
For the majority of my life, I’ve held cemeteries at a distance, being respectful if I must visit them but avoiding them as much as possible. I would not call myself superstitious, but I shudder at the idea of treading on another’s resting place, and I respect that there may be some lost souls about. However, the experience at Melrose showed me that cemeteries are good places for reflection and philosophy, and I no longer need to approach them with fear or hesitation. I present myself as a humble student of the past, honoring those who came before me.
Back at Durham, the Shrine of St. Cuthbert was set up with kneelers and candles and a little prayer inscribed into a plaque. I knelt and offered a prayer of gratitude, but what really awed me was the stained-glass window to the right of the shrine. A nearby poster reads that the window was commissioned in 2012 in honor of Sara Pilkington a college student who died of a mysterious heart condition. One died in 1104, the other in 2012 and I knelt in reverence to both equally. The fresh loss of Sara did not make her any less worthy of respect and adoration than the enduring memory of the saint. Both were humans, both were blessed children of God, and both are remembered with honor, no matter how much time elapsed between their lives,
After a while, I became overwhelmed with the holy power of the interior, so I decided to climb the tower, which ended up being an equally holy experience. When I got to the top, my breath was stolen by the wind and the incredible views. While the cathedral itself has remained mostly unchanged, the centuries have drastically altered the surrounding landscape. In place of wild fields, houses and cities and roads have risen. Civilization has steadily crowded into sacred land and turned up the volume but still Durham stands,
I sat with a friend at the top of the cathedral, listening to the bells chime the quarter-hour, and pondered the sensation of time. My friend commented that “the sensation of time is different than the keeping of time.” We were only eleven days into our semester at that point and it already felt like we had been gone for at least two months, so I felt this dissonance on a very raw level. Sitting on the top of a building that was older than I could comprehend, I began to gain a marginally increased understanding of the wide margins of time and how my minute life fit into the grand stained-glass window of history.
After the shrines and the views, I was ready for some music and quiet reflection. I heard faint strains of a timeless classic hymn and followed them to a private communion. I lurked outside the service until the female service leader invited me in. I stayed in the back for a few minutes and listened to her wisdom on the Gospel of Luke and the exemplary life of St. Cuthbert. Listening to a woman preach the word of God allowed me to anchor myself in the present day and witness the effects of time on the interior of the church.
The sensation of time is different than the keeping of time, Both of these monuments have been able to bear the weight of centuries and display it proudly, allowing us to see the past through the lens of the present and revere the constant fluctuation of time.