By Mark Clavier
With the tenor bell summoning me out the door, I step onto the pavement of weather-worn stone to make my way into Brecon Cathedral for Morning Prayer. I live in an old almonry, parts of which date back to the Middle Ages when monks oversaw the priory’s care for the local poor. Much of it is now modern — by which I mean 18th-century — and it feels more like a cosy, country cottage than an austere home fit for monks. But I’m still regularly struck by the idea that generations of monks and then Anglican clergy have dwelt here, conducting their pastoral care to the people of Brecon with varying degrees of attention. Though they and their work are now largely forgotten, the almonry’s sheer existence as a home for the latest cathedral canon is testimony to the fruitfulness of their work.
As I walk to the cathedral across my front garden, I can see around me relics of that past. The flower beds are lined by flat, rectangular stones, each with a small nail hole at one end. These are remnants of the original cathedral roof, quarried long ago in the nearby Priory Wood. A roughshod drywall is composed of old dressed stone that must have been part of the now demolished cloister or vanished monastic buildings. There are even fragments of burial slabs that can no longer say anything about the dead men or women they once covered.
In a few moments, I’m through the narrow canonry and into the cathedral. Brecon Cathedral isn’t a large building by cathedral standards. It was originally built in 1093 by conquering Normans as a Benedictine Priory, and may possibly be situated on a much older sacred site, though they say that about everywhere in Wales. It was a statement as much about conquest and permanence as about prayer and devotion. Located just up the hill from the now-ruined castle, it would have served the purpose of reminding the local Welsh that both King and God were to be mediated through local Norman lords, the same message then being sent throughout the realm of the recently conquered English.
Almost all that remains of that original priory is its glorious font, decorated with a green man and striking creatures, in which generations upon generations of local people have been baptized and still are. The priory was never an enclosed place separated from the bustling life of the growing market town. It doubled as a parish church, as a sacred building where local men and women encountered the extraordinary presence of God.
That presence could be felt even more palpably after the building was redeveloped in the 13th century with as much of the new Gothic grandeur as the monks could afford. From then to the end of the Middle Ages, the priory must have been an almost continuous construction site, as parts were refurbished and updated. A great deal of that fabric remains, though with more than a touch of the Romantic interpretation of the Victorian architect Gilbert Scott.
Within this heavenly place, experiences both ordinary and momentous found meaning. Their memory is still visible in the burial slabs that pave much of the floor, the lavish memorials that line the walls, the tombs of great men and women who lie still in peaceful effigy, the faint echoes of the famous muster of longbowmen for the Agincourt campaign, and the countless small details that visitors overlook: mason marks, signs of Reformation destruction, and plaques commemorating soldiers involved in over 600 years of warfare.
I finally reach my destination, the small chapel dedicated to St. Keyne, one of the many saintly children of King Brychan Brycheiniog, after whom Brecon is named. It’s a lovely, holy space that originally functioned as a guild chapel for the local corvisers, or shoemakers — another indication of how the church was once the sacred heart of Brecon. The shoemaker guild, something like a workers’ union, would have cared for the space and paid a monk or priest to say Mass for them and the souls of departed family. Now it functions mainly as the place where we say our daily prayers when they’re not sung in the choir. As I kneel to pray, my eyes invariably fall to my left on the head of a medieval effigy of a long-forgotten man. I wryly note that he is the most assiduous among us in being present for prayers.
Prayers said, I stop to chat with my colleagues, including our hard-working facilities manager, always there to help our cleaner get the place ready for the day’s visitors. I’m almost always rejuvenated by the prayers — listening to the venerable words of Scripture, repeating the pattern of daily prayers, and reflecting on the day’s ministry, all within the presence of what elsewhere I have called “memory inscribed in stone.” It reminds me of how much deeper our faith runs than the concerns and anxieties of today. How easier it is to believe in the “company of heaven” when you can see their mementos all around you.
Saying my farewells to the others, I step back outside into the cathedral close. On most days, I’ve come armed with an excuse to walk into town, which invariably gives me an opportunity to stop to chat with local residents. Who knows what the day will bring? But walking in the footsteps of my predecessors amid the beauty of the Brecon Beacons National Park, I’m more than amply fortified for whatever may happen. I like to think that the prayers of my predecessors accompany me, perhaps also those of the forgotten men and women whose slab fragments now lie in my garden and of the man whose effigy greets us in St. Keyne’s Chapel. If so, then I’m as grateful for them as I am for that faith they have handed down to us today.