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Sunday, 21 February 2021 23:04
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The Shrine of Saint David: restoring a sacred focus


Most English cathedrals now demand an entrance fee, which might be regarded as a form of non-violent mugging. At least we haven’t stooped that low in Wales yet.

I have visited the Cathedral of Holy Etchmiadzin, the sacred centre of Armenian Christianity, three times.
On the first occasion I was overawed by the atmosphere of the building, the splendour of the liturgy and the haunting quality of Armenian religious music. At the heart of the cathedral is the Altar of Descent where, according to the historian Agathangelos, Christ himself appeared to Saint Gregory the Illuminator, the Apostle of Armenia. Hence the name of the Cathedral: Etchmiadzin means ‘Where the Only-Begotten Descended’. In front of the altar are a Cross and a Gospel Book. I knelt down and kissed them, following the example of the crowds of Armenian pilgrims.

My second visit was rather less numinous. I had been busy examining the breath-taking collection of khatchkars (cross-stones) in the Cathedral gardens, when I noted an excited crowd. They were heading towards the path that leads from the Residence of the Catholicos (the head of the Armenian Apostolic Church) to the Cathedral. I had seen on the local television news the previous night that a group of Iranian Shi’ite Islamic scholars were visiting Armenia as part of an attempt to cement the relationship between the two countries. They were now visiting Etchmiadzin and the Catholicos had invited them to observe the
Armenian Liturgy in the Cathedral as his guests. He was now escorting them there.

The combination of bearded Islamic scholars with their white turbans and flowing robes and Armenian vardapets (celibate doctors of theology) with their Mount Ararat-shaped cowls and impressive copes was so improbable that I pushed my way through the throng of spectators to get a photograph of them. I succeeded to get one that included a smiling Catholicos Karekin himself. Unfortunately by doing so I must have attracted the attention of a couple of local pickpockets, who clearly recognised a dim and distracted foreigner when they saw one. As I followed the procession into the Cathedral a stocky Armenian suddenly blocked my way, while his companion niftily lifted my wallet. After which I found it very difficult to focus on the service.

One shouldn’t be too hard on the Armenians. Crowds (and cathedrals) attract thieves in every country. A friend of mine had his best umbrella purloined in Llandaff Cathedral (he wrote to the then Bishop to complain), while the former Dean of St Davids warned me never to leave anything around in our Cathedral as it was sure to disappear. I’m told it’s even worse in England, where another acquaintance was mugged at knife-point during a mid-week Communion service in a highly respectable church.

Everything was made up for by my third visit to Etchmiadzin Cathedral. I was treated as an honoured guest. It helped that I was in the company of Baroness Caroline Cox, who is regarded by Armenians as a national heroine and living saint (it is said that the Armenian Patriarch of Jerusalem has put in a bid for her bones after her death, to be displayed as relics in his Cathedral - fortunately she’s in robust health at the moment). I was given a chair in a place of honour next to Catholicos Karekin’s splendid mother-of-pearl encrusted throne. The service, though very long by our standards, was like heaven come down to earth. The only drawback was the bewildered Church of England clergyman sitting on the other side of me, who kept on whispering, “What are they doing now? What are they doing now?” After an hour or so I got tired of giving explanations and hissed (with shameful lack of Christian charity) “I’m sorry, I haven’t the faintest idea.”

My pilgrimages to Holy Etchmiadzin brought home to me the importance of having a particular focus for prayer and devotion in a holy place, particularly a cathedral dedicated to a country’s patron saint. In Etchmiadzin that function was clearly fulfilled by the Altar of Descent, with its links to Saint Gregory the Enlightener and Christ. Was there something or somewhere in St David’s Cathedral that could carry out the same function? The answer would soon come from a project initiated by the new Dean, the Very Reverend Jonathan Lean.

Visitors to St David’s Cathedral sooner or later find themselves in the Holy Trinity Chapel behind the High Altar. There they discover a mysterious wooden casket, protected by a metal grille. The contents of this reliquary have been the subject of considerable disagreement over the years. That Dewi Sant was buried at St Davids seems beyond question. That the community which he founded was later the subject of devastating Viking raids in the second half of the eleventh century is well documented.

Gerallt Gymro (Giraldus Cambrensis), that would-be successor of Saint David whose ambitions were repeatedly thwarted, refers to a period when St Davids was left desolate for seven years and became so overgrown that it took a determinedly devout cleric seven days to cut his way through the thorns and brambles to reach the patron saint’s tomb.

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