Monday, 12 March 2007

Church of the Holy Sepulchre (again)

In the absence of shouting Orthodox priests on my second visit to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre this morning (see yesterday’s posting under the same heading), I have made my peace with the place. Even at an early hour there were still a fair number of people about but the great majority of them were going about their devotions which not only allowed but encouraged me to do likewise. Thus I found myself on my knees in the tomb itself next to an unknown woman of, to judge from her headscarf, Middle Eastern origin. Her quietly restrained and immensely dignified weeping articulated more clearly than any number of words I might conjure up all that might possibly be expressed about such a moment. The veil between time and eternity was gossamer thin.

A similar concentrated stillness characterised the time I was able to spend in front of the three altars upstairs. Positioned side by side these are dedicated respectively to the Nails of the Cross, the Stabat Mater and the Crucifixion. As far as I could work out (from the décor) the first two of these are Catholic altars, while the third, illustated in yesterday's posting, is Orthodox. While such distinctions are, I gather, of continued intense concern to the authorities of these churches, I am happy to be able to report that such distinctions appear not to bother the faithful one little bit. I make this judgement after observing the manner in which those standing or kneeling in front of all three altars made the sign of the cross. As a mere Anglican I have often thought to follow Orthodox practice in such matters but I find I get myself in a muddle about where to go next and, such is my conditioning, it doesn’t ‘feel right’.

The stairs down from the three Golgotha altars are precipitous but I’m glad to say the only concession to issues of health and safety is a single hand rail. Indeed the (British) Health and Safety Executive would not be pleased on a number of counts. Pricket stands (of the Orthodox sand-in-a-bucket design) are surprisingly few in number. But this inhibits the candle-lighting faithful not at all and one sees candles waxed to horizontal surfaces any- and everywhere. To judge from quite substantial areas of blackened fabric – some looking quite recent – fires are by no means uncommon.

Which leads, more or less logically, to consideration of matters graffiti. The guidebook draws the visitor’s attention to the thousand upon thousand crosses painstakingly incised by medieval pilgrims into the walls of the staircase down to the crypt chapels dedicated to St Helena. Not commented on are the numerous, usually rather less beautiful more recent additions, particularly those on the glass or perspex sheets that protect vulnerable ancient stonework in the deeper of the two chapels where St H found the three crosses. Not for the first time I was left wondering how old does a piece of graffito has to be before it becomes interesting.

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