I went down to Nelson for a long weekend, and on Sunday after a visit to a the Centre of New Zealand we walked up to the cathedral, just because the weather was good and it was nearby. I’ve been to the park there several times before but never inside the cathedral itself; I’ve never had a reason to.
It’s nice inside. There was a sort of playpen-thing right as you walked in, and then a lot of war memorial plaques on the walls and some arched stone columns and an altar of sorts, I guess–I don’t know what Anglicans call the bit where the preacher (pastor? priest? ) stands, way at the front.
There was a small labyrinth painted on the floor, off to the side, so I followed it for a loop or two. There was a candle-holder sort of thing near it, with one burning candle in the centre, and a pegboard where people could thumbtack written prayers.
The candle-holder, I got. I’ve been to Europe and visited various duomi in various cities and they have pleasingly medieval candles with a lot of drippy wax and usually a money-box. It’s all very atmospheric and sort of spooky. You light one for someone, for something; you manifest an interior desire externally. Anglicans are pretty close to Catholics, right, so why wouldn’t they have candles? The fee for this one was a gold coin, just like a sausage sizzle fundraiser outside a Bunnings Warehouse.
Somehow I struggled a bit more with the prayer pegboard. What would make you do that, I wondered. Why would you write something like that where everyone could see? What would you get out of that? In my church youth group long ago we use to pray aloud for each other and ourselves, and for a while after that I would still tell people I was praying for them. People said that to me a lot at Mom’s memorial service, and I just heard it as “I am thinking of you with compassion and I care about what happens to you and I am sorry for your mindbendingly huge loss.” I was glad for it. It was nice to hear.
But those handwritten prayers—who’s meant to read them? God? Why not just pray to God in your head, or with your friends, or with your priest or whatever if you felt the need to say something out loud? Forget about externalizing the internal: why publicise the private? What happens when you write something down for strangers to read as they walk idly up and down the corridor, sweaty from their morning walk up a local hill, noting the architecture and the historical significance of the names of the dead on the walls?
“God, my brother took his life six years ago and we still miss him every day.”
“God, help me find work.”
“God, please let us find a house.”
One was written in Japanese and had a little drawing of what looked like a Hello Kitty. One had clearly been written by a kid and said “I pray for everyone to have enough to eat every day.”
Another one was written in very small letters and filled the entire scrap of paper. The writer was alone in New Zealand and missed their family and friends and didn’t know if they’d made the right decision to come here and everything was so confused and they didn’t know what to do, God, they just didn’t know what to do, they weren’t sure about anything anymore and what were they supposed to do, God, I mean everything was fine, people are starving, they had it good in the grand scheme of life, but what were they supposed to do?
I was crying really hard by the time my friend came over from walking the wee little labyrinth in the corner. I grabbed for a candle and he quickly popped a gold coin in the box because I didn’t have one; I was going to take one anyway, which is surely against the whole idea of lighting candles in a cathedral. There was a little sign there, something like ‘This light is the words I cannot say, the prayer I cannot pray,” something like that, and that made me cry harder. “I don’t even believe in any of this anymore,” I thought, wiping my eyes as I lit it and melted a bit of wax to keep it in its place, where it wobbled and flickered. I didn’t stay to see if it caught hold, I just turned around and walked through the empty pews: out the wide doors into the late afternoon’s winter sun.