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Mary the Virgin (Patronal Festival)

Sunday, 13 August 2023
Rev Marion Chatterley, Vice Provost

Open our hearts to making a creative response to the creativity we encounter.

Mary the Virgin (Patronal Festival)

This is a very special Sunday for a number of reasons. We celebrate Mary, mother of Jesus and patron of this Cathedral. We are joining with the Festival of the Sacred Arts in celebrating the opening of their series of events in churches across our city. We are in the very middle of the Edinburgh Festivals and can celebrate the contribution that performers here have made to the cultural life of our city. And, of course, Sunday is always special as we gather, in this place that is dedicated to Mary, to worship God and bless and break bread together.

Without Mary there would be no church. Without Barbara and Mary Walker there would be no St Mary’s Cathedral. Without the contribution of artists, the experience of coming into this place would be very different. Today is a day to mention and celebrate the gifts and contributions of women, and they have certainly made a difference in this building. Our beautiful altar frontal was almost certainly stitched by women. The extraordinary sculpture that creates the Reridos was crafted by a woman. This year’s exhibitions all celebrate women’s art. This is a day to mention and honour women’s contribution because it is so often overlooked or undervalued.
One of our best treasures is the Song School with its Phoebe Traquair murals. Traquair is a very well known and well loved artist. She’s an artist whose work certainly hasn’t been devalued. But being an artist wasn’t her full-time occupation. At the time when she painted our song school she had young children. She put them to bed and then came over and painted by candlelight until she was too exhausted to see.

That is not an uncommon experience for a woman, particularly, I think, for a woman who is involved in
the creative arts. Women’s artistic and cultural contribution is so often an add-on to the primary role of bringing up children and maintaining a home.

At the same time, we can’t ignore the contribution of men. We wouldn’t have the architecture we love were it not for Gilbert Scott and his vision and expertise. We wouldn’t have the wonderful carved gargoyles and grotesques without the skill and vision of the stonemasons. We wouldn’t have the wonderful play of colour across the stone without the genius of Paolozzi.
All of these influences work together to create a place that is very much more than the sum of its parts. And the artistic embellishment is just as important as the structural beauty - a building without its creative and artistic elements would be less of a building. A world devoid of artistic expression would be bleak.

Art, in its very many forms, allows us to engage in a holistic way with a whole range of subject matter. Whether it’s theatre or sculpture, music or poetry, painting or writing, art engages our whole selves in order for us to experience something that is beyond ourselves. Beyond our immediate ability to comprehend; beyond our egotistical self-importance; beyond our limited ability to understand, towards that which we can never fully comprehend.

Shorthand in the church would simplify today down to the celebration of the fact that Mary said Yes to God. And at its simplest, that is true. But Mary’s yes wasn’t the passive yes of the heroine in a Victorian novel. It wasn’t the yes of many of the women who we encounter in Scripture; women whose yes is often linked with a man’s yes. Mary said yes in a full and poetic way. She was artistic in her yes.
She was fully engaged with her yes. We can be absolutely sure that she meant it. Saying yes can be an automatic response to a request – the polite response, whether or not we really want to do whatever has been asked. Saying yes might be about people pleasing, about currying favour, how we think we would be perceived by others. None of those factors seems to be important in the yes that Mary gave. Mary’s yes was full and expansive. It was a creative yes.

The poetry and creativity of that yes is honoured in the very many musical settings there are of the Magnificat – often known as the Song of Mary. It is sung at every service of Evensong and has been an inspiration for composers through the centuries.
Mary’s creativity in her Magnificat is the starting place for others to express their own creativity. Creativity isn’t a once and for all moment when something is made, it’s a step on a journey that may include many people. Creative people find themselves inspired by the creativity of others. Artistic expression might challenge or disturb; it might comfort and soothe. At its best it inspires and facilitates a response that has its own impact.
Creativity is at the heart of a place like this. The beating heart of this Cathedral is our rhythm of morning prayer and Evensong. The spoken services are examples of creativity every bit as much as the sung services – the words we use have been crafted to ensure that they become something more than themselves. And, of course, the musical settings for Evensong do that same job.

Art points us towards that which we can’t comprehend whilst at the same time being a process that we can’t fully comprehend. We can observe someone else’s creative process, but it’s not something that we, or perhaps they, can ever fully understand. That is because our creativity, however it manifests, comes from deep within us. Our creativity is, in part, an expression of who we are. I guess you see that in the work of artists as they mature and their work matures. You hear it in the distinctive voice of one composer over another.

Coming back to Mary, so far as we know the Magnificat was her only contribution to the world of poetry. The complexity and depth and longevity of that contribution tells us something about the nature of the woman. It tells us something about her relationship with God, her understanding of that which none of us can fully understand, her ability to know in her very being that she was at a crucial moment in her life and that she was being called upon to make a difference.

That difference was located for her in her soul. My soul magnifies the Lord. When we engage with our whole selves with any form of creative art, we open up the possibility that our souls will be touched; the possibility that the very depth of our being will be changed. The possibility that we will magnify the Lord, that our spirits will rejoice.

And that end goal is to a large extent what we’re about. We are here to be agents of change. We are here to support one another to rejoice in and with our Lord. We are here to be open to the possibility that something we hear or see or experience will touch that core part of us that we call our soul; will touch our soul and open our hearts to something or some way of knowing that is new, and perhaps might even encourage us to make a creative response.

May our souls encounter new and exciting ways to magnify the Lord.

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