Covid-19: The day Ely Cathedral closed its doors

Canon Jessica Martin

Canon Jessica Martin, who was featured in 'Anglican Women Novelists'. Jessica writes a chapter on the detective novelist Dorothy L. Sayers. - Credit: Ely Cathedral

"Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth." 

Part of Psalm 46 and the inspiration for reflection on the pandemic as seen through the eyes of Canon Jessica Martin 

March 18, 2020, was the day on which, for the first time in several hundred years, the cathedral did not open.  

No verger unlocked its doors and gates 

No one came to pray early in the morning, or to participate in communion. 


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No young voices drifted out from the song school 

No schoolchildren streamed in for assembly or learning activities 

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No visitors came to light candles or gaze upwards to paintings or carvings, glass or stone. 

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The paths and lawns, the car park and offices: all were empty.  

I went in to the cathedral once that week, fumbling with four unfamiliar locks, to collect some bits and pieces I needed in order to stream worship from home.  

The quiet was like the quiet after it has snowed.  

There were leaflets on the desks, advertising the events and services that would not now happen.  

The whole great building, usually so intensely inhabited and tended, visited and prayed in, resonating with the sounds and emotions and needs of its people, was heavy with silence.  

It had its own presence, massive and patient.  

The cathedral was not intended to be empty – of course not.  

It was made to be prayed in, lived in, worked in. 

It was, and is, in a great variety of ways, a community building.  

Its empty space then had something in common with railway platforms in the depths of the night. 

Or the empty streets of our cities in the spring of that year. 

Or the face of one’s beloved asleep – child or parent, friend or spouse.  

Its stillness showed its lineaments with particular power, the recollected prayer of 1300 years on that spot hanging like dust glittering in the light from the windows.  

There was time to take in, to contemplate, what it was built for. 

Homage to the majesty of God, the maker of all, the poet who spoke the universe and it became.  

I am glad and grateful that we are praying there again, that this morning ten of us shared the broken bread of communion.  

I’m glad people are beginning to come in to look and to pray, to reflect and to mourn, to wonder and to be still. 

I hope, though, that we don’t become too busy to notice why it was built, or what for.  

It speaks of glory, and of suffering.  

It speaks of the presence of the God whose hanging weight anchors the world even as it drives the breath from his own lungs.  

It speaks of the dance of making, of new birth and of remembrance.  

And to receive all this, we have to be still. Life will get busy.  

These last few days, I think I have been busier than at any time since the pandemic began.  

But our call is to step aside, to kneel in homage, to wait on God’s approach.  

God’s silence, fierce and patient, shimmering with energy, waits also on us. 

‘The air is not so full of motes, of atoms, as the Church is of mercies’, wrote the poet and priest John Donne in the Christmas of 1624. 

He added that ‘and, as we can suck in no part of air, but we take in those motes, those atoms; so here in the congregation we cannot suck in a word from the preacher, we cannot speak, we cannot sigh a prayer to God, but that whole breath and air is made of mercy’.  

Now, of all times, we have a place at the foot of the cross, in which to be still.  

In the presence of our God, dying and rising, the very dust of the air, the dust of which we were fashioned and to which we will return, is made of mercy. 

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