This is the ceiling of Carlisle Cathedral. The city of my birth, the place of my artistic awakening. This is where I had organ lessons, sang in the choir, and occasionally played the organ for services. It is a magical place in my memory box. Although small, thanks to Cromwellian thugs, and somewhat unprepossessing from the outside, going in is like entering a jewel box. It has been cared for and furnished by two of the 20th century’s most judicious church architects: Charles Nicholson and Stephen Dykes Bower. In a recent book on Dykes Bower, the architectural writer Anthony Symondson describes Carlisle as the least spoilt of England’s ancient cathedrals. The ceiling was originally painted in the 19th century, and was brought to vivid life in 1969/70 under Dykes Bower’s supervision. I remember Evensong being sung accompanied by the occasional interruptions – amusingly welcome to the tittering teenager – of the craftsmen at work above the temporary false ceiling. On this page there are some more examples of Nicholson and Dykes Bower’s work at Carlisle.
We all have these memory boxes. For my daughter and sons, I suspect, they are things of which I don’t wish to know too much. We are well served by our memory boxes when we draw on them and their place in our development in order to fortify us for the here and now – when we can look on them with satisfaction and realize how well they have served us and nourished us. They become idols when we put them on pedestals and think that nothing will ever match up to them. When we judge the rest of life against them, and find it wanting, we are letting them destroy us.
These ‘awakenings’ tend to occur in our youth when we are most impressionable, when we are in our physical prime, and when our hopes and dreams are as yet intact. They shape us for ever. We all know people who live on their memories and bore the world with them. We know people who live through their children’s youth in order to try to recapture their own. We may even have done this ourselves until we saw the error of our ways. This is idolatry that leads to abuse. Given that our memories always embellish past reality in one way or another, these idols are always false.
I see people in churches objecting to anything that changes their memory boxes. This is at the root of objections to redecoration, to the moving or removal of pews (a late invention in church terms), to changes of any description. They too are making idols of their memories, idols that fly in the face of reality. I struggle with wanting to rekindle the emotions that Carlisle Cathedral evokes in me. I return there in the flesh with trepidation, for I know that it will not be as I remember it. When I am tired, or feel attacked, or plain depressed, I echo the psalmist’s ‘Oh for the wings of a dove … far away would I roam’ – to Carlisle, and to the discovery long ago of the glory of English cathedrals.
But not the cathedrals of now with their heritage-industry and welcomers and self-justifying boards showing how they are ‘relevant’ to the life of the city (surely the point of the spiritual is to lift us out of the humdrum?). It’s the cathedral of ‘then’ to which I would return, to the womb where my mind was opened to art, music, colour, liturgy, comradeship and a sense of belonging. To beauty and delight, in fact. For a boy brought up in the drab 1950s in a drab farming village where you didn’t count unless you were knee deep in cow dung and cared about soccer and cricket, this was truly a glimpse of heaven.
Jesus says a great deal about not living in the past. He tells his disciples not to flog a dead horse. He tells people not to bother about the dead, but to work for the living. We in the church are very inclined to ignore these commands of the Master. We idolize the past just as we idolize our memory boxes.
Make no mistake: we need our memory boxes. Long may we have them. But let us never insist that they be imposed on other people. Let us never use them to oppress, to abuse, to stifle, to fly in the face of reality. Let us never allow them to take hold of us so that we become blind to life in the here-and-now.
Heaven knows, it can be difficult.
I am a Christian living in America, and I stumbled across your blog after doing a google search on when “memories become idols.”
It sounds SO petty, but I learned the other day that some taped recordings of me as a baby and child (I am 25 yrs old now)…(recordings of birthdays, dance performances, and other special moments) are now gone forever…and I was devastated! My life has undergone quite the upheavel recently and I find myself clinging more tightly to memories from my past.
If you have any more words of insight to share, please do.