Pop-up church avant-la-lettre

Hans Schaeffer

At the heart of the impressive objects the Durham Cathedral Open Treasury displays, is a fair number of remnants that are closely related to St. Cuthbert (c.634-687). The Treasury holds one special artefact, found in the Saint’s tomb. It is a remainder of the portable altar he used during his many lengthy journeys. As a Bishop of Lindisfarne, Cuthbert was torn between serving God in meditation as a hermit, and the Church in preaching and mission. He travelled throughout the whole of northern England and southern Scotland. Sometimes he would be away from the monastery for a month at a time. He became famous for his pastoral ministry, wisdom and the miracles of healing he worked.

The pieces of dark, nearly decayed wood at display in Durham for me were the most impressing of all the artefacts. It is as close as we can come to liturgies in far away and long forgotten local parishes, little towns, with perhaps just a few celebrants. These pieces of wood function as a trait d’union with an old tradition of pop-up-church avant la lettre. Just a small plank with five crosses, carved at the corners and in the middle, and a simple text as well, to celebrate Mass. That is basically what is needed to become the source for so many, much more elaborated and sophisticated precious relics of these times. St. Cuthbert’s monastery of Lindisfarne would later became famous for its beautifully illustrated gospels, among which the so-called Lindisfarne gospels now are the most well-known and treasured.

These simple pieces of wood, however, testify as loudly as these gospels of enactments of celebrations and the real-life circumstances in which they took place.

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