We go to Bristol City quiet a lot. Our favourite place to walk is along the rejuvenated docks area and then up towards the University. We have great fun exploring the side streets, absorbing the history that oozes out of the ancient houses and filters up out of the cobbles too.
For some strange reason, though, we never visited the marvellous Cathedral. We passed it often enough and stopped to admire the beautiful architecture on many occasions, but we never actually went in.
The reason we went in this time, I’m ashamed to say, is because the heavens opened up and raindrops the size of duckeggs made us scatter in search of shelter. And the Cathedral was the closest building with an open door.
But what a wonderful surprise! First thing to hit you is the whisper of tranquillity, the peace, the enormous space that seems completely filled with some sort of tangible holiness that you can almost touch.
And it screamed history! Plaques on the walls in memory of soldiers and dukes who fought and died in 1140, around the time when Robert Fitzhardinge founded the Abbey of St. Augustine. The Chapter House and Abbey Gatehouse are actually still there - imagine! After such as long time … they don’t build stuff like that anymore, I can tell you.
We spent ages just reading the inscriptions on the flagstones that were hundreds of years old and told brief stories about a time when the English language used a long f instead of an s, and it was all thee and thine and trice, forstooth!
We found a tiny garden at the end of a passageway that was a little oasis in the middle of the bustling city, and a tiny café that sold excellent coffee. It’s amazing that the minute you sit down you realize your feet are pulsating with the pain of standing around for so long, but it was a beautiful place and the pain was worth every throb …
Finally, on the way out, I noticed another archway with another few steps leading down to a private chapel, so I decided to take a quick look. Like numerous others that we’d seen that day, it had a small alter and the statue of some knight or other lying on top of a tomb, and a big glass window that threw a kaleidoscope of colour into the room.
It was when I turned to go that I noticed the little table beside the door. Old and battered, it was barely standing on spindly, chipped legs. But what caught my eye was the child’s school jotter lying on the top of it, all dog leafed and crinkled from use.
Curiosity made me flick it open, and I was immediately mesmerised by the sheer volume of requests for prayers that filled every page. I was fascinated - strangers asking strangers to pray for them, to pray for their particular problems. A problem shared is a problem halved … and an involuntary lump came to my throat!
Dear God, help my husband who had been diagnosed with cancer.
Lord, look with kindness on my daughter who’s fallen in with a bad crowd and is into drugs.
Lord, please help my son …
I couldn’t help but read them, visualising the torment that must have been in their soul when they wrote in this little book, took the time to write in this little book, took the time to ask, hoping that strangers would read the requests too and add momentum to the prayer.
I turned another page and saw the spidery, awkward scribble of a child …
Lord, please look after my Mummy, they say she is dying …
I couldn’t read anymore. My eyes had clouded and I felt the lightest touch of something on my cheeks. I wiped it away quickly with the back of my hand and hurried on out to where Jennifer was sitting on a pew in front of the alter.
She looked up and smiled, and I saw the look in her eyes as she glanced curiously at the front of my shirt.
It was a blue shirt, the kind that shows up every spatter of whatever lands on it. I glanced down. There was a scattered pattern of wet spots all down the front.
Before I could explain Jennifer nodded and took my hand.
“I know,” she smiled. “I read them …”