Do you have to live in the Cathedral now?


This comment from a former student of mine popped up on LinkedIn as I updated my job profile to include ‘Poet-in-Residence at Chester Cathedral,’ the year’s Volunteer Role I’m privileged to have started on August 1st.

I’ve had excited smiles from my friends and a warm welcome from the Cathedral community as I’ve taken up the role, alongside two recurring questions: What does that mean? What are you going to be doing?

These are questions that I’m asking myself. I’ve been given a three-fold brief to write as much as I can; to start up a monthly Faith in Poetry discussion group (on a Monday lunchtime from September), and the encouragement to initiate my own writing workshops – as I do in my day job.

My own understanding is that I’m here to help link the Cathedral’s community of faith to the possibilities of poetry and the wider community of poetry to the possibilities of faith.  

I’ve been asked to focus on a theme, and have chosen Spaces. This seems especially appropriate in my first week. I put on my red ribbon Volunteer lanyard, but there is an empty space below the clip where my still-to-be made name card should be. I don’t yet have an identity.

I’ve decided to fulfil the ‘in-residence’ part of my role by residing in the Cathedral every Tuesday morning and into the afternoon, too, unless I’m attending something else on-site that week.

I naively thought that August would be a quiet month in which to find my feet. It is certainly a season of respite from the busy rhythm of activities in Parish Church life. But the Cathedral hums with visitors, family activities, worship and tours. This summer it’s also awash with Lego, from the Chapter House’s Lego Lido to the South Transept’s transformation into a kingdom of intricate Lego-brick sea-creatures on display.

Despite this, I feel an airiness around me. One of the gifts of a writer’s residency is designated space in which to write. Space is something writers often bemoan the scarcity of, though we can be quite adept at filling what we do have of it with other things. From putting on the washing to answering that e-mail, tasks galore suddenly seem pressingly urgent when we’re faced with the blank page or screen. 

Courage is needed to enter the arena in pursuit of creativity or connection, but as the academic Joseph Campbell observes, such risk-taking can be well rewarded as, ’the very cave you are afraid to enter turns out to be the source of what you are looking for.’

‘It’s bit dark in here,’ I hear a visitor say as I head beyond the Nave towards St Werbergh’s Chapel on my first Tuesday morning.  I’m going to a space I’ve visited before. I light a candle and sit for some minutes in contemplative prayer, seeking to let go of distractions and make some inner space. Poetry and prayer are close cousins. Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury describes them as both being about, ’what happens when you’ve run out of ordinary language…about the world being much more than you can imagine it to be.’  

I get up, ready to be fully attentive and receptive to what the morning may bring. Later, I tag on to a Cathedral tour. I’ve been advised that I need to go on about four of these, with different guides, to pick up the fullest picture of this extraordinary place. 

Our guide is engaging and informative. I thought I already had a fair idea of what’s around the building, but I’m discovering so much more.  She stops at the Crossing, points out the figures of Tudor Mayor Thomas Green and his two wives. She tells the story of these vandalised statues. For me, this is the tour’s most poignant moment. I find myself moved by the damage they have suffered and feel drawn back to look at them again. 

I find it hard to write a poem to order, but when something catches me by the sleeve and holds my attention, I know that it has something to say, and I need to find some words for what is stirring.

Below is what emerged from my first Cathedral tour: 

Spaces of Prayer 


Saint Simeon once found his at the top of a pillar,

but this sober delegation of three are gathered

in a cove no higher than a hammer’s reach.


Tudors of standing, royally-coloured, ruffle-collared,

their dignity upheld in stone, arms angled

l-shaped, meet at wrists and an absence of hands.


Here empty air lingers in lament at slash and smash 

of palms pressed in so-called popish prayer, 

trauma of piety mutilated by Puritan zeal.


Poised still, they stand, unselfpitying as animals,

oblivious to my wince at the severing of fingers.

They know how prayer can move in hands-off space,


seep from the raw stumps of a shattered grip,

slip through dust-motes that spin in sunlight

Julia D McGuinness 

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  • About Julia


    From writing stories for my younger brother, to penning poems for the School Magazine and filling a growing pile of personal journals, the written word has always been part of my life’s journey.

    I started out as an English Teacher and subsequently retrained as a Counsellor. I have counselled in a GP Surgery and worked with various Employee Assistance Schemes and Charitable Trusts alongside seeing private clients.

    Although I have done some freelance journalism and written four non-fiction books, creative writing has become my main focus in recent years.

    My poems have appeared online on sites including Amaryllis, Silver Birch Press, Clear Poetry, Spilling Cocoa Over Martin Amis, Riggwelter and Ink,Sweat and Tears. I have been published in Curlew and Bucks Mill Magazine, and anthologised in Our Hearts Still Sing. My first poetry collection, Chester City Walls, came out in 2015.

    Read more about Julia
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