Clare Martin writes about the story of St Ethelburga’s Centre, how symbols can sustain us, and how visionary imagination plays a crucial role in both personal and collective resilience building.
In a recent team meeting our Facilities Manager, Lou, walked us through all the procedures we have to follow to open our building to the public. We were all on zoom, and Lou was the only one who was actually at St Ethelburga’s. It was strange to see our beloved space this way, wavering in the background as Lou walked around talking into her Iphone. She explained how we could open the nave and tent spaces safely (keeping numbers low), where we would have to wear masks (in the hallways, because of ventilation issues), and which areas we’d have to keep closed. While our building can be used safely for events, it was clear that the upstairs offices are too small for us to use while social distancing, so her advice was that the team should continue to work from home.
I hadn’t expected anything different, yet I found myself, after this call, struggling with a sense of grief about not being able to go back. Catching those glimpses of the red cushions in the tent, the stonework in the hallway: it was like seeing someone you love from some new and unexpected perspective. Like seeing them with a face mask on.
‘It feels so peaceful here:’ I can’t count the number of times people have walked through the doors of St Ethelburga’s and said this to me. There’s usually a note of surprise. That’s because to get here, they’ve probably come up from the bowels of Liverpool Street station, strained their necks trying to see to the top of the skyscrapers all around, and lost all sense of direction in the heaving crowd of city workers who fill the pavements. People walk up this narrow path and find themselves in a garden with a fountain, and a Bedouin tent smelling of goat hair. It all seems so implausible: how can this space be here?
Moving through into the main part of the building, people feel as though they’re in an ancient space but they’re not. The 12th century church that stood on this site through plague, war and blitz was levelled by an IRA bomb in 1993. All that remains are some fragments of the original materials. The result is impressionistic. If you squint you can almost sense two buildings, two moments in history, juxtaposed within the same structure. In one place, a medieval stone wall. Elsewhere, floor-to-ceiling glass. The stained glass window of our patron saint St Ethelburga depicts her with a flowing patchwork cloak. Each patch is a shard from the original church window, which the bomb blew to smithereens.
In all of these subtle and not-so-subtle ways, the space holds both its destruction and resurrection in mind all of the time. And I think it’s this that people are responding to when they cross our threshold and breathe a sigh of relief. The story the building is telling you isn’t peaceful, it’s intensely destructive. And while it tells you that story of violence and harm, the building also says to you, ‘..and it’s ok.’
There’s huge strength to be found in sitting with symbols immense enough to embrace chaos and order, despair and hope, death and rebirth. At one point in my life, when I was going through an especially turbulent time, I used to find myself caught out in some public space with a need for the sacred so urgent that I would have to drop everything and hunt for the nearest church. Just to sit there was like oxygen for me. That was when I learned that sometimes a symbol can be like a spiritual elder. Someone who rests a hand on your shoulder and says, ‘ It’s alright, you’re not the first to go through this and you won’t be the last.’ During lockdown I was often haunted by this same longing for a symbol I could go into and feel dwarfed by, and I think it’s this I miss the most about going in to work.
I’m convinced that the visceral presence of brokenness, recorded in the fabric of the building, invites depths of conversation and connection between people that don’t happen easily elsewhere. Again and again, I’ve seen how the building seems to give a kind of tacit permission for people to welcome the parts of themselves that feel jagged and raw, explosive and tender.
Sometimes we can be these walking symbols of breakage and repair to one another. How many of us have patched ourselves up after inner explosions, and created out of that a kind of St Ethelburga’s within: a space of regeneration, where total obliteration is just a prelude to renewal? And yet often we can feel shy to stand up and show these parts of ourselves to one another. But these gifts of vulnerability and courage are so needed at this time, if only we can find a way to offer them to one another.
And as I think about this, I’m reminded that St Ethelburga’s is a symbol that almost didn’t come into being. The chasm created at 79 Bishopsgate could easily have been filled by another commercial building or even a restored church. But it didn’t, because Bishop Richard Chartres had a vision of something wholly new, something that knitted together the broken pieces of the building’s past without concealing the scars of violence. Inspired by this moment in our history, St Ethelburga’s resilience model places a high value on visionary imagination. All of our resilience and deep adaptation workshops include an element of this. Sometimes we guide groups through a series of exercises designed to shake off conventional habits of thinking and bring us to the threshold of a deeper receptivity. Then we give a guided meditation, where we travel 7 generations into the future, and ask people to find a symbol of what that future means. The symbols people bring back are often fragmentary, only partially seen. But even when we fail to see them clearly or sum them up in words, these symbols bring a palpable energy and excitement — something wild, unsanitised, and full of promise.
It may be months before our team returns to our offices at St Ethelburga’s, and who knows if our working patterns will ever look the same. But that doesn’t mean the centre is closed – far from it. We’re opening our doors for socially distanced events, and continuing to offer a range of programmes online.
As I type this from the desk in my six year old daughter’s bedroom, I’m left wondering about the power of symbolism – what it means to have symbols encoded in physical spaces, and what it could look like to dream new symbols into being. What out-dated symbols do we need to let go of, and what new symbols are waiting to step forth from our collective psyche to guide us through these turbulent times? What if we could populate our inner landscapes with spaces like St Ethelburga’s – where pain and hope are fused together in symbols that speak of the possibility for a new wholeness? What practises do we need to use to find the symbols that can sustain us, and what could it look like to do this work collectively? What deeper reserves of resilience might we find by doing this? Can we take seriously the fact that our age is in the throes of a deep crisis of symbolism? And if so, what would it look like to respond to this from a visionary perspective?
If you’re interested in the links between visionary imagination and resilience, you can find out more about how we work with these themes in our programmes on deep adaptation and Radical Resilience. If you would like to hire our beautiful space for a socially distanced event, contact email@example.com.
Clare Martin is St Ethelburga’s Communications Manager and Programme Leader for the Radical Resilience Programme.