The shortest day of the year unfolded, unintentionally, as a meditation on our connection to God via a city break in Liverpool.
In the morning, we went to the great hulking Anglican cathedral — which lours over the city from a high point overlooking the River Mersey and the Irish Sea.
The longest cathedral in the world looks more like a power station than a house of god from the outside. Over the entrance, there’s a sculpture by Elizabeth Frink: a thick-limbed, stolid, “human” Christ. Inside its massy walls, the force of a kind of muscular Christianity is astonishingly real. Designed at the height of British imperial power, even the massy walls seem to ripple with confidence. It’s a huge space, yet it was bustling with life. A school was practicing for its winter concert with the sound system cranked up, and girls in leotards were skipping down the aisle. There were guides gossiping and Chinese tourists snapping pictures. With the hubbub, the space held excitement. The soaring ceiling, the stunning stained glass, perhaps, or the dedication to detail carved into the fabric of the building itself — even the radiators and lightswitches.
After coffee, we took a ride way out to the suburbs, where we said the prayer for the dead — “magnified, sanctified, be thy holy name” — over the graves of my partner’s grandparents. A biting wind whistled between the headstones, some now smashed. Pale sunlight filtered through the leafless trees. The place was neglected, muddy, empty. It should have felt sad. But it didn’t. The bleak little cemetery was invigorating. We thought of all the families who had come to this city, worked, made lives, and yes, buried their dead. They had escaped persecution and famine to get here to safety and build the future.
In the afternoon, we returned to the middle of town and climbed the wide concrete steps that lead up to the Catholic Cathedral, an extraordinary brutalist structure, built in the mid-60s. From the outside it’s a concrete spaceship, soaring, scary — but within the huge hulking frame is one of the most intense sacred spaces I have ever been in — correction, the most intense modern sacred space I have ever been in.
Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral is round with a plain white altar at the centre of the vast room, which, when we were there, was lit through glorious blue stained glass. In contrast to the Anglican Cathedral, this space was empty and hushed. Above the altar a giant glass lantern soars heavenward. So the round, light-filled womb connects through a glowing portal (above the head of the presiding priest during service) to God.
The erection and decoration of both these buildings was a communal act of faith. By working on a corner of the altar, or a pane of stained glass, or a stone gargoyle, or a marble tile a craftsman participated in this act of faith. These are two of only five cathedrals erected in the 20th century in England — and they stand, regarding each other, at either end of Hope Street.
The street’s name is a “coincidence”, but, in fact, the ecumenical tradition in Liverpool is strong. The Catholic cathedral is a Taurus (consecrated on May 14) and the Anglican is a Scorpio (October 25) — opposite signs, of course. So Hope Street would be on that axis of Taurus-Scorpio, stability and transformation, beauty and power.
It was midwinter day that we spent so much time thinking about being human here on planet Earth. Mercury had turned retrograde just before meeting Pluto — a time, certainly, to think about history, even very distant history. The round church led me to think of the round mound at New Grange in Ireland, a neolithic site that’s a similar diameter; a site where, it would not be too fanciful to imagine some of the ancestors of present-day Liverpudlians probably worshipped.
Human beings worked together to make these places — and maintain them — because they have faith in the future.
At midwinter, the Sun is at its lowest, but on this day, the sun shone, beaming light into the heart of a church shaped like a flying saucer, lying lambent across the graves, lighting up Hope Street.