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The Texts - John Constable

The Books Of The Dead

The chantry chapels - barques for their Bishops' afterlife voyages; their souls borne up by Masses sung in their name - defying gravity, stone carved to lace, to cloud, emulating that Egyptian feather of Truth against which all hearts are weighed.

William of Wykeham secure in his place, his chantry in the reconstructed nave.

Cardinal Beaufort's is set beside St Swithun's shrine, his effigy laid out in scarlet coat and Cardinal's cap, ready to blag it at the Pearly Gates, to face down Peter the Doorman with his strict dress code: 'I'm with Swithun.'

Bishop Gardiner, as ever, covering his bets. His splendid chantry with its frills and flourishes, and, set into its base, his cadaver effigy. A symbol of humility, perhaps as an afterthought, borrowed from Bishop Fox, who preceded him:

'Jesus, Jesus! It's me, Stephen, the Gardiner! They're hacking off my head to purify your holy name.'

Bishop Gardiner, problematic as ever: his effigy decapitated by Cromwell's troops; his chantry but recently consecrated.

But who is to judge? Who is to measure? Beaufort's brazen trumpet blast, burning the Witch of Orleans. (Joan of Arc is here too, arrayed in golden armour, sword in hand, resolutely ignoring her false judge.) Yet they say he owned a daughter born out of wedlock, even provided for her in his Will...

Gardiner's monumental dithering between Rome and his King.

How do we measure them against Richard Fox, the old, blind Bishop crouched in silent prayer - the place of his chantry consecrated by his living presence and so, in death, his tangible absence?

Against the unrecorded hours of all the Bishops whose names and dates and skeletal Lives may contain or conceal who knows what lost conversations with the living God or acts of Compassion for the disregarded poor.

Or against the names bound in the Regimental Books of Remembrance. Or the names cut in stone with chisel, knife or nail.

Or this holy hole into a world, a faith more ancient, more present in the grease of all the nameless hands that touched and smeared this stone arch, fumbling for a blessing, for healing, some dint of comprehension, leaving only this intricate patina:

'We who were here and now are gone.'

Who's to say? When we're up before the Judges, and they ask:

'Did you ever profane the name of thy God (or Goddess)

Or covet thy neighbour's Trophy Bride... '

When our best friend with the sad jackal eyes leads us in and through to the Weighing Of The Heart...

When every bit of excess baggage tips the scales, to plummet heart and soul into endless night...

Who's to say...

Whose heart will beat



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