Bricks • Mortar • Imagination • Words

The Texts - John Constable

The End of Time

I go up St Katharine's Mount to pray in her Chapel - to find it gone.

Nothing but a clump of trees and a maze cut in the turf, like a great serpent coiled in upon itself. I do not know how it got there, when it was cut, or whether it was put there just for me, for the penitential journey I'm making - so I make it anyhow, following the twisting, turning path to the centre, and then all the way back out again.

That calms me enough to try skirting the hill, moving clockwise around the old earthworks. I look out over Twyford Down and remember how I came in from there, on my Pilgrimage, only? only I have lost all track of time.

I see the valley of the Itchen laid out before me, with the Hospital of St Cross on the far side of the water meadows. There's a barge moored among the reeds. In the marshy ground between two streams, a gang of men are digging a pit. Others are working in pairs, carrying bodies off the barge and throwing them into what looks like a mass grave. A stray dog circles the pit, barking and chasing off the carrion crows. The black birds flap lazily away, only to land on the far side. A voice in my head says: 'Plague-pit valley.'

I remember the stories I'd heard as a boy, when the Black Death was in Winchester, when traders would leave their bales of wool outside the West Gate and take the coins that were left for them in jars of vinegar. But something tells me this is another vision: of a future when the plague will return to ravage our City. I close my eyes tight and, sure enough, when I open them again, the water-meadows are deserted save for the barking dog and the smoke from a spent fire by the stream.

My mind is reeling, boiling. There's the seed of a thought, which I'm fighting to weed out before it can take root in my mind, because I know I won't be able to make any sense of it - that these Plagues, past and yet to come, are God's punishment for some Sin, some crime against Creation, some betrayal of His Covenant that will be enacted in some yet more distant future.

I smell betrayal here. I don't know whether I tracked it in with me, like dog-turd on my boot, or if it happened out there, or is yet to happen, in the delta of drovers' tracks and the Road To Hell that Death cut through them.

I remember how I came here, and saw the gash in the Earth, slicing through the old tracks. I remember thinking how I carried within me the dancing spirits of Twyford Down, bringing them in to revive and renew the City. It occurs to me now that some ancient spirits have taken refuge here, in Winchester and its Cathedral, and that these spirits are resisting the change I bring.

I clamber down into the water-meadows. The sun breaks through the clouds, lighting up the stream; the weeds unfurl in the current like green and purple hair. I head back to town by St Cross and Wykeham's College grounds, clutching at a world that seems to slip and stream through my fingers.

I'm walking upstream, the cut of the river on my right, flowing faster here, boiling and bubbling white as it surges over the weir; the City Wall to my left, gleaming with flints cannibalised from the Roman wall. I go up as far as the old bridge, where Swithun is said to have performed a miracle, mending the broken eggs of an old woman with a basket. The thought occurs that this is the Great Work, to which we are all summoned, the work of mending and making whole.

Because I know in my heart, without needing to see it in my mind's eye, that even now, inside the Cathedral, vandals are smashing the statues and stained-glass, with hammers and swords and the bones of Saints. And that all that is damaged may be repaired, but will never be the same, will forever bear the scars of what was done to it. That the tides of Pain and Loss and Death will keep flowing into the Cathedral, leaving the flotsam and jetsam of little lives in their wake. And that some of us - Brother Godwin, the Prior, even the vagrant Brother Benedict - are called here to do service, patiently gathering up the wreckage, piecing it back together, imbuing it with new meanings.

I walk the path bounded by flint stone walls that leads into the back of the Priory. And again I stop, by a water-garden I have never seen before: a pond framed by brick walls, and, on the far side, half-hidden among the bushes, the marble head of Christ, Redeemer.

Benedict stands by the water garden, alone under the stars, hearing the sound of the rushing water, seeing the pond-weed turn in slow spirals, smelling the autumn musk - hearing, seeing and smelling it with my senses.

And in my body he walks up the flint-walled passage, his boots echoing on the flagstones, through the arched gate and on to where the Chapter House once stood, where Canon Flora Winfield is waiting to greet him as their new writer in residence.

And I saw the Sun burst through the great West Window,

Gathering the limbs torn by ribbons of light.

And the breath of the Holy Spirit blow in from the East,

Prickling the hairs on the neck of the blushing altar boy.

The ghost of William Walker the diver,

His face framed in his helmet like an icon.

Saw the shining tiles rise up

To flutter like butterflies among the chantries.

Humming spheres and wheels of fire light up the night sky.

To the faithful they wear the faces of Angels.

Sarah the Organist pulls out the stops,

Building a new Cathedral in the Astral.

All of us remade in Bodies of Light

Out of our broken remains.

Returning and coming forth by day, by night,

In the living breathing shining Body of Christ.

Then let the Lord of whatever Unearthly Powers

May dwell in that Holy Hole

Receive the lost soul, who was once shut out,

And grant him his Wayfarer's Dole,

And let all that is shattered

And scattered

Be gathered, and healed,

And made whole.

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