Devon's Spiritual Places, third extract

By Contributed in Local People

Writer Nick Pannell has just published Devon’s Spiritual Places. The book explains his search for God in an ancient landscape, and took six years to research and write. The result describes his emotive journey through the wild and beautiful places in our county. The Mid-Devon Advertiser has been lucky to obtain seven signed copies of Nick’s book, and readers can enter a competition in this week’s paper.

Below is the third extract from his book. The final extract will be available tomorrow.

HERE MIGHT I STAY AND SING

Buckfast Abbey: Some journeys are worth taking just for the welcoming hug.

I’m on the road from Paignton to Buckfast Abbey, one of Devon’s great religious sites, for a rendezvous with a friend whose company I seek above all others.

It’s a pretty ride. After Totnes the road follows the course of the Dart as it tumbles down from the moors over weirs and rapids.

It’s early morning and the crowds which flock to the abbey during the tourist season have yet to arrive.

I park easily and stride the gravel path towards the abbey, a magnificent building bathed today in morning sun and on other days I may have stopped, taken a picture or two, and admired the setting. But today I’m not interested in architecture (inspiring though it is) but an engagement I’ve no wish to delay.

I enter the nave of the abbey church and the hushed solemnity slows my steps.

The foundations rest on 1,000 years of history and this is no place to hurry. It took the builders 30 years to resurrect the building in the early years of the 20th century after 500 years of ruin, stone raised on stone with simple block and tackle.

There is rhythm to the life of the abbey that defies the pace of modern life, like a back eddy in the swirling flow. Many come to Buckfast Abbey for religious retreats to recover the cadence of a calmer life.

In the spirit of a pilgrim approaching his destination, I descend the nave, the arches and choir stalls framing the high altar.

In the side aisles I glimpse the Stations of the Cross, the narrative of Easter, set in Romanesque niches. I know this place, I’ve been coming since I was 14 years old, and anticipation grows as I reach the transept.

Beyond a new light shines and there I see him, arms outreaching, waiting to embrace me. A few more steps and I’m in the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament before the finest stained-glass depiction of Jesus of Nazareth I know as teacher and friend.

His gaze draws me closer as if he’s spotted me in a crowd and has beckoned me nearer. I am now within an intimate circle, dimly lit, seated before him.

The only sound is of running water from an interior fountain and I imagine a timeless place, a simple Galilean cave or dwelling, where 2,000 years ago he would have sat with his followers talking about the Kingdom of Heaven.

We meet, not in a physical sense but as family, too long separated, reunited with smiles and joy around a table, renewing conversation and companionship.

There’s a banquet prepared. The Jesus of the Buckfast chapel sits before a table set with bread and wine. There is hospitality here and acceptance, a place already reserved.

Lines from scripture come to mind like half remembered tunes. ‘Come to me all who are weary...’; ‘Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink’. I recall the Broadclyst holy well, the August heat and the cool water running freely. I drink deeply.

Then I sense the warmest of embraces, a hug more meaningful than any words, enveloping and protective. It is the hug which greeted the Prodigal son on his return to his father’s house after years away. The journey is over and a relationship restored. I feel a rucksack of worldly care lifted from my shoulders and I feel safe.

Now the attention of the Jesus of the Chapel of Blessed Sacrament falls solely on me. Sometimes our connection with Him can be like a poor Skype signal, the image wobbles and disappears but here the face of Jesus is steady and assured, the vast 26ft stained-glass window turning daylight into a glowing tapestry of colour.

Outside the sun is climbing high above the pinnacles of the abbey tower, bleaching the stone work. Inside the sun’s power is melded by the artist’s hand through prisms and facets to create the figure of Christ at the sacramental table, in deepest blues and purples.

Outside the world hurries on to the next appointment, but here time has stopped – the metronome paused – His presence my only reality as lovers engrossed become oblivious to those around them. Jesus – the Alpha, and the Omega, the beginning and the end – and me together in a Devon chapel in the glow of eternity.

As the hymn writer rejoices:

‘Here might I stay and sing,

No story so divine,

Never was love, dear king

Never was grief like thine.

This is my Friend,

In whose sweet praise

I all my days

Could gladly spend.’

‘Grief like thine?’

The words linger, changing the mood like a cloud moving over the sun, and I look again into the face of Christ searching for understanding and in those deep red eyes I feel the conversation moving on, the scene widening. I see too the gaze of the suffering servant, the man of sorrows, betrayed and executed on a barren hilltop far from home and enjoined still in the pain of the world.

Jesus shines in the tranquillity of a Devon abbey but he looks too on the bombed city, the torture cell and orphanage. Are those eyes red with tears?

And I sense the intimate circle I have joined growing, new seats occupied. Hands join with mine – rough hands, broken hands, tiny hands – an expanding fellowship across language, creed and colour no building can contain.

The small chapel of the Blessed Sacrament now has the atmosphere of an expectant stadium His universal church gathered together beyond the dimensions of any roof. We are all here, with our own experiences of the divine star, drawn by personal invitation and united by his embrace.

Come eat… come drink, the banquet is set.

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