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Thinking Out Loud

Love and Sacredness

by Michael Jinkins | Feb 15, 2016

Pinecone Church

Down a leafy country road, curving and climbing through the English county of Cumbria, just when we thought we'd gone astray, the small village of Wreay came into view, hardly more than a wide spot in the narrow road. Getting there had been an adventure.

The GPS wasn't much help. Nor was the huge British highway atlas that Debbie cradled in her lap. The tiny roads on the map looked like sinuous blue capillaries, unnumbered and without intersections. We'd left the big six-lane motorway that runs down the western side of the country from Glasgow to "the South" (as all the signs on the freeway vaguely read, as though to say, "If you don't know where you're going, we don't much care if you get there"). Just beyond Carlisle was where we decided we take our cross-country chances because we knew the major highway didn't go to a village as small as Wreay. We chose a small road toward Penrith, exited the motorway, and catapulted off the roundabout in a generally eastward direction.

Now, if ever you're trying to find the turn to Wreay from the old Penrith road, just one piece of advice: If you come to the turn for the village of Unthank, you've gone too far. Find a driveway and turn around. But don't turn around in the driveway of the apparently perpetually irritable farmer who has a "No Turning! This means you!" sign in his drive.

We did find the turn to Wreay, and our marriage survived the journey. And that's saying "summut" as they say in the north of England. We found St. Mary's Church, better known as the Pinecone Church, smack in the middle of the village. It is surely one of the most remarkable church buildings ever designed, combining naturalistic and mystical carvings, references to paganism, the natural sciences, paleoarchaeology and patristic theology. Insects share wall space with angels, and everywhere pinecones are carved. The elegant curved apse graces an otherwise simple rectangle of stone. A couple of years ago I wrote a whole blog on the church's remarkable architecture and it's even more remarkable architect and patron, Sarah Losh, who built this basilica in the nineteenth century.

I had wanted to see the church since I first read about it. What most struck me about the church "in the flesh" was not its unique design and its wondrous, playful carvings, or even the richly wooded site where it stands. What struck me most was the love to which every stone and tree bears witness.

Love can make a place holy. As surely as lives sacrificed in war can hallow a place like the battlefield at Gettysburg, compelling a visitor to tread quietly across a wide pasture where hundreds fell, just as surely Wreay's churchyard hushes the voice, slows the step, bows the head.

Sarah's love is what does it. Sarah's love for a friend, a brave young army officer who never returned from a distant war. Sarah's love for her parents. Above all else, I think, Sarah's love for her sister whose tomb dominates the small graveyard, hallows this place; her beautiful, graceful likeness is carved in marble, her gown flowing softly in the darkness of the mausoleum.

So much whimsy among the cavorting figures that festoon the church inside and out, but the pinecones carved everywhere solemnly remind us that this place of worship is not just about life's joyful abundance, but about death as well, and a hope almost desperate for resurrection. So much grief over lives cut down before their time, and lives lived out into a lonely old age, so much love poured out in tears. Holy rivers of tears baptize this beloved soil, all the more beloved because of those who lie beneath its surface or rest in tombs upon it.

After Debbie and I visited the church and the family graveyard and strolled the park in which the church stands, we went across to the ancient pub, hoping we weren't too late for lunch (we were). There we found a chatty publican who told us that the pub dated virtually from the founding of the village, centuries before this church was built, and that if it wasn't for the pub the church never would have been built.

Maybe he was right, from his perspective. But it was love that built St. Mary's, and it is love that holds it in time and space to this day, suspended in this world as in a gossamer web of pure devotion.

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