Received wisdom had taught me that virtue was its own reward, until my local supermarket taught me otherwise. A simple system of points per purchase enabled them to reward the virtue of loyalty with a two-for-the-price-of-one holiday break in Dorset at a hotel with a sauna, a Turkish bath, and an indoor pool. The short break was primarily designed to placate my body that had grumbled its way through the vigours of a three month diet imposed by my doctor. However its better half was ‘surprised by Joy‘ when, by accident rather than design, I wandered into Sherborne Abbey immediately after the full English breakfast promised by the brochure.
Even my body paused momentarily from relishing what it had received to enjoy something of what raised my soul above itself. I had heard of Sherborne Abbey before, and had been told it was worth visiting. I had also known that St. Stephen Harding had been brought up there before moving to Molemnes from where he founded the Cistercian order at Citeaux, but nothing had prepared me for the overall effect of this ‘not so little gem‘. St. Stephen would never have seen the glory of what Sherborne Abbey finally became because it was only after a fire had destroyed its interior in the early part of the fifteenth century that it was re-decorated in the perpendicular style. It was the first complete church to be decorated in the new English style that I had first seen at King’s College Cambridge when I was a schoolboy.
I had just finished reading D. H. Laurence’s description of the glories of Lincoln cathedral in ‘The Rainbow‘ that had made me look at church architecture for the first time with new eyes. Through those eyes my soul began to soar with the magnificent vaulting and find an architectural and spiritual satisfaction that made me vow to visit all the great gothic cathedrals of England. It’s a vow that I have still not fulfilled but recently renewed thanks to Sherborne Abbey.
A friend whose daughter had lapsed from her faith despite an excellent convent school education, had that faith restored when as an undergraduate at Cambridge she attended evensong in King’s College chapel. The combination of the solemnity with which the service was conducted, the unique sound of that incomparable choir, and the sheer transcendent beauty of the chapel helped raise her soul. It soared with the magnificent perpendicular vaulting to rest in some incommunicable way with the One for whom that masterpiece had been built in the first place. The great gothic cathedrals were meant to raise hearts and minds to the transcendental majesty of God and at the same time make you aware of your smallness, weakness and unworthiness so that you could be led on to the true prayer of humility that ‘He who is mighty’ could do great things in you.
But the new perpendicular style that was England’s greatest gift to European architecture induced a further response that is essential to any authentic Christian spirituality. Added to the awe-inspiring transcendence of God that was embodied in these great medieval masterpieces, was a sense of wonder at the beauty of God embodied in the delicate soaring splendour of the new perpendicular style. Now the humble heart could not only be moved by awe at the transcendent majesty of God, but by love at His unsurpassed beauty, to experience something of the height and depth and length and breadth of Love that surpasses all understanding.
I hope you don’t think I’ve been trying to promote the material and spiritual benefits of loyalty to your local supermarket, because quite frankly there aren’t any. For the person who, unlike me, is prepared to shop around, disloyalty pays far greater financial dividends as any price watcher knows from experience. But I would like to thank my local Supermarket for unwittingly providing the means for a holiday I might never otherwise have taken, and for a profound spiritual experience that made me renew the vow I’d made all those years before.