Bill Bryson said that Durham Cathedral had his vote for “Best cathedral on Planet Earth”. Nathaniel Hawthorne called it “grand, venerable, and sweet, all at once”. It is the most beloved building in the UK and not just among the faithful. A UN World Heritage Site, it is visited by over 500,000 people from more than 50 countries annually. One of those people some years ago was me, on a glorious Sunday when I was living up the road in Newcastle. I have felt deeply attached to Durham Cathedral ever since.
Two recent books are a valuable aid to appreciating what Durham Cathedral has to offer. I am giving them some promotion here because I have personal connections to both of them that make them special to me and because as small press books they could easily attract little notice, which would be a shame.
The first is by my friend the Reverend Professor Chris Cook. He is a remarkably learned man, having been trained as a psychiatrist and an addiction specialist as well being an Anglican Priest and theological scholar. “Finding God in a Holy Place” is his most personal and accessible book. You can think of it as a tour guidebook with two destinations in mind. As the title indicates, God is the first desired destination. Rev. Cook reflects in an engaging way on the paradox of Christians feeling they need to “Find God”, even though the religion teaches that God is everywhere. As he points out, believing in an omnipresent God intellectually does not necessarily map onto emotional experience, in which “The darkness may not be dark to God, but it can still seem very dark to us”.
The book’s second destination is Durham Cathedral itself. He adroitly links the book’s two destinations by vividly describing various places in the cathedral (e.g., the nave, feretory, Chapel of Nine Altars) and then describing what they may suggest for prayer, using many personal examples. I like that Chris isn’t dewy-eyed as the book moves along: He dwells for example on the experience of “praying on the margins”, as did the women pilgrims who had the uniquely painful experience of traveling across the world to see Durham Cathedral and then being denied entrance to Cuthbert’s tomb because of the sexism of the era. More generally, faith isn’t made out as easy or simple in these pages; there is allowance for doubt, confusion and stumbling in the dark in the quest for God.
Of course, the cathedral can also be appreciated for its historical significance and architectural splendor. These features are on display in the handsome coffee table book “Light of the North” by John Field, with photography by Malcolm Crowthers. This book gives a detailed and lively account of the evolution of the Cathedral over the centuries. It was produced a few years ago with the support of some of us in the Friends of Durham Cathedral, and would make a great holiday gift for anyone wanting to learn more about the cathedral and appreciate its dazzling beauty and fascinating history.