Don and Wen, Photography, spirituality, Stuart France and Sue Vincent

Going West: A Wounded Church

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I had barely raised the camera to start photographing the interior of the great cathedral at St Davids before a gentleman approached and told me that I could not… or, at least, not without paying for a permit. Now, I know that these ancient churches cost a good deal to keep standing and pay for their conservation, but I have a problem with those that demand exorbitant entry fees before forcing a ‘no photography’ rule on unsuspecting visitors. Especially when they quote ‘copyright’ as the reason; I fail to see how something the best part of a thousand years old can still enforce copyright law.

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St Davids, however, is more than reasonable… no entry fee is charged, donations are at the discretion (and therefore within the means of) visitors and the photography permit costs next to nothing. I paid without a qualm and wandered around with my official ‘photographer’ badge proudly displayed on my chest… until someone kindly pointed out that I was wearing it upside down.

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Somehow, though, that seemed to fit. Little at St Davids seems to be quite ‘right’..at least not if you are looking for straight lines and accurate angles; the cathedral building bears the scars of a long and troubled life. Building began around 1181 and the Norman arches of the nave are typical of that period… each differently decorated with carvings. The ceiling would normally be vaulted stone, but between the collapse of the tower in 1220 and the damage caused by an earthquake damage in 1247/48, the fifteenth century wooden ceiling is kinder.

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Everywhere the scars of an uneasy past blend with the natural evolution of a great church over the centuries. The ghosts of older arches still mark the ancient walls above their more recent counterparts.

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Window embrasures seem to smile wryly at their displacement writing in stone and in warped and bent wood the story of a long and interesting life. Yet the church wears her age well, smiling serenely through her wrinkles, knowing they have been written upon her face by both sorrow and joy, tragedy and love.

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Many have passed through her embrace… kings and princes, beggars and saints. Some have remained, to sleep within her protection, others have left their shadow upon her walls. On one pillar in the south aisle, like a photographic negative, the spectral shade of a Prince still stands guard.

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Along the aisles, the great and good have their tombs. Many of them have lost their faces… most have lost their names, bearing only the carved initials and signatures of centuries-old graffiti, carved as if in some desperate attempt to leave a mark upon history by lacklustre lives. In some things, humanity changes little.

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Is it, I wonder, the only way some feel they are able to be part of the stream of time? It is the lettered, not the illiterate, who carve their names thus in such a place. Is it with advancement and education that dissatisfaction with one’s lot may begin to rear its head for those already insecure in their own skins?

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It seems a strange thing to me that it is those with enough of an education to be able to carve their names who choose to deface something long held sacred. Or is it perhaps some attempt to associate themselves forever with the sanctity of a holy place of pilgrimage? To some things, there will never be a single answer.

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Many feet have traversed these aisles over the centuries. In 1123, Pope Calixtus II officially recognised St Davids as a place of pilgrimage, and, given the importance of the saint’s shrine, decreed that two pilgrimages to St Davids were equal to one to Rome, and three pilgrimages to one to Jerusalem.

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Many rest here, adorned with the names of those who came to stand by their graves, yet whose own names have a place at the heart of Welsh history. The great and the good of history, about whom stories are still woven and told. Some of them wrote their name into the history books… some of them wrote the histories. People like Rhys ap Gruffydd, one of the most important princes in the history of the country, of whom Geraldus Cambriensis wrote that he was “a man of excellent wit and quick in repartee.”

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And Gerald himself, a scholar and one of the ecclesiastics who were excused from the Crusades to work on the building of the cathedral. Walking through the quiet aisles of this cathedral, you walk with ghosts and shadows of a past unforgotten yet whose stories have passed into myth and legend. The sense of history is alive here and whispers in wood and stone of the continuity of life. The same qualities that animate our own hearts and minds once carried these people through their days… from strength to ambition, from curiosity to simple faith. We are not so different today from how we once were. The scarred walls, for all their magnificence, serve to remind us of what we have in common with our ancestors… and each other… at a very human level. Most of us will pass faceless into history. What, if anything, remains of our individual stories will pass from fact into a telling more akin to fiction than to truth as we are remembered through lives and perceptions other than our own. The only lasting memorial we can leave is how we walk the earth and how we touch the lives of others. In that, every day, we change the world.

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