On Palm Sunday I was standing on the grass on the south side of the Cathedral by the statue of St Edmund. As I waited for the procession to begin, two small boys in matching sweaters and caps used their palm crosses as swords, scrambling round the humble saint re-created by Dame Elisabeth Frink.
I know more about the artist?creator of some of the most powerful religious sculpture of the 20th century, born in nearby Thurlow, Suffolk, and died aged 62?than I know of St Edmund, the martyred 9th-century king of the East Angles. What I love about Dame Elisabeth’s sculpture is that she breathed believable life into it. At the beginning of Holy Week I thought of death and life.
I leant towards my husband and in a muted voice asked if he’d read Charles Moore’s piece in The Spectator about Alice Thomas Ellis, who died the previous week. Mr Moore recounted a story she told in her column about a man who enters a jeweller’s shop and asks for a cross. He is shown a selection but does not see one he likes. Finally he asks: ‘Yeah, but haven’t you got one of them crosses with a little man on it?’
Ah, Alice Thomas Ellis, a Catholic convert who could be tender, dark, sardonic, ecstatic, but always unmistakably alive, exploring the dilemmas and triumphs of family life, the agony and peace of religious life. Charles Moore believes she welcomed her new after-life but I wonder if she would have liked to see out Lent, to exit from this world after Holy Week. Her life was ruled by the religious calendar.
I watched the billowing robes of the dean, canon and choir, the veiled cross held aloft, sheaves of palms waving in the wind, all against a backdrop of ancient graves. This commemorates the Lord’s entry into Jerusalem and the beginning of Holy Week.
When Easter arrived I was not ready. I had had what my father called a ‘lazy Lent’, taking on nothing?no commitment to study or prayer or good works?and giving up nothing: not alcohol, sugar or swearing. In fact, giving up stuff for Lent never counted much in my father’s eyes who considered it theological hogwash that encouraged postures of piety. But he would have been disappointed that I had made so little effort even to think during Lent.
Each year, for sheer pleasure, he would read Browning’s Bishop Blougram’s Apology which debated the choice between the life of doubt diversified by faith and the life of faith diversified by doubt. My pa believed that not using your head was genuinely sacrilegious.
In my defence, I would say it has been a tough year for the foggy believer. The religious Right pulls my spiritual rug out from under me with its fanatical blind faith, and never more so than when they crusade to re-elect the man who ignited this new holy war. And then there was the storm that claimed the lives of more than 200,000 people, a volcanic rage so tragic that even bishops confessed that sometimes they, too, grope in the dark for the ‘little man’ on the cross. And did we forget that 750,000 Chinese died in the Tangshan earthquake of 1976, that 30 million children under the age of five die each year? But I will stop. There is not room for the list of grievances and horrors that stack doubt against faith.
By Holy Week, enough scaffolding had come down so that we could see the new cathedral tower, a beacon of hope to lost and disillusioned pilgrims. On the farm, lambs were being born daily. Easter lambs. Agnus Dei. Easter is hope. Faith is the sense that our hope is not in vain.
This article first appeared in Country Life magazine on March 31, 2005.