Lyn Cronin offers a Reflection on the day.
A Service. A Burial. A Reception. An Extraordinary Day
We were driving to Stirling for an unusual funeral. We were to attend a Requiem Mass and re-burial of the remains of an unknown friar, discovered on a site, which had been redeveloped in Stirling. I was reluctant and somewhat worried by the prospect of yet more inclement weather on the road. We arrived safely.
I was quite unprepared for the impact and significance of the day’s events as they gradually unfolded.
The setting for the Mass was the beautiful Church of St. Mary in Stirling, sparely decorated with white walls and a sanctuary dominated by a huge mural of the Risen Christ. Before the altar stood a simple wooden box with a brass plate and handles, shockingly smaller than I expected for the remains of a human body – until I remembered that these remains were bones dating from the late 13th to early 14th century and had lain in the ground for about 700 years.
The Requiem Mass, led by Fr. John, was concelebrated by five Edinburgh Dominican friars and a priest from St Mary’s. The Catholic Students’ Union choir and readers from the Edinburgh Chaplaincy congregation all made their contributions. It was a particularly beautiful and inclusive service. Among the congregation were a large number of the Stirling Councillors (identified by their chains of office) with officials and others who had played their respective parts in making this day happen.
Fr. Dermot preached. In his sermon he made his personal connection with this unknown friar through the buckle found with the bones. A buckle has been an element in the dress of Dominican friars across the centuries. He brought this man to life in our imaginations by telling us of the daily rituals they both shared, unchanged over the years: to don the friar’s habit tied with belt and buckle at the start of each day and follow the call to the communal daily prayer and life shared within the Order of Preachers from the beginning. We received Communion. Those Councillors who were not Catholics accepted as a group the invitation to receive a blessing from a present-day friar. I realised just how special this occasion was becoming.
We were greeted by the briefest fall of hail as we stepped out of the Church. We walked up the hill in bright sunshine to the Snowdon Cemetery and the open grave prepared by Stirling Council already marked by a headstone. The Council grave diggers carried the coffin from the hearse and laid it to rest. After prayers we were all invited to throw soil unto the coffin. In my head the centuries collapsed. These bones were indeed the remains of a human being. I was not the only one to be moved by all this ceremony: one of the Councillors turned to me and said how moving the service had been and how privileged he felt to be part of it. I felt connected not only to the friar but to all who stood at the graveside.
More was to come: the Council hosted a reception in the Tolbooth followed by presentations of how this day had been brought about. It had required a year of preparation and the enthusiastic co-operation of many different organisations and interests.
Provost Christine Simpson welcomed us and set the context. The Council recognised that any remains exhumed in these circumstances deserved the respect of being committed back to the earth according to the rites, where known, of any religious belief. And so the Edinburgh Dominican friars were contacted and joined the Stirling team to prepare for this day.
We learned from a film and presentations by Stirling archaeologist Dr Murray Cook, and Baillie Chris Kane, about the historic times the friar must have lived through, may have witnessed, and perhaps even taken part in. So, our nameless friar was put firmly in a place and time in the middle of violent war and turbulent events which have shaped the history of Scotland. He is placed alongside the major players: Edward, Hammer of the Scots; his son Edward II; William Wallace; and Robert the Bruce. We feel these times still. They are part of our DNA.
Father John thanked the Council for their respect and recognition of a fellow friar from so many centuries ago. He told the audience about the work of present day Dominicans whose vocation is to preach and teach the word of God to all through Christ. He stressed the current cooperation between different Christian denominations and inter-faith perspectives.
This is a great story that springs from archaeological finds and their historical interpretation.
But behind the words I learned much more. I came away very impressed by the members of Stirling Council, who participated in the Requiem Mass and showed their sensitivity for the 700 year-old bones of a mediaeval friar. I admired and caught the immense enthusiasm of the archaeologist; and the civic pride of the Baillie. He saw our friar as a true, adopted, “son of the rock”. I felt pride too in being connected with the current friars and their work in our world.
So, our Goosecroft Friar, who lived through times of fear, war and violence, has become the source of goodwill, appreciation and understanding in the coming together of so many different attitudes, interests and motives many centuries later. This seems to me like real “Holy Ground.’’ Much to ponder and pray about. A day when time seemed thin and heaven just a little nearer!
This was extraordinary and significant day. We stepped through a warp in time and contemplated terrible events. We are pleased perhaps to be living now in our comfortable and peaceful surroundings in the 21st century. Then we realise in our global village that the same wars are still happening. We are facing our own plague: a virus which in a few weeks has spread to the ends of the earth. Even worse, we humans now have the capacity to destroy, not just our unwanted neighbours, but all life on our earth.
How will we fare? Where do we begin?
Perhaps we can find an answer by looking to another mediaeval person; this time a woman and better known than our friar – Julian of Norwich. She says : “Where do we begin? We begin with the heart.” “Our life is all grounded and rooted in love, and without love we may not live.” “All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.”
LC 7th March 2020
The Catholic Chaplaincy serves the students and staff of the University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh Napier University and Queen Margaret University.
The Catholic Chaplaincy is also a parish of the Archdiocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh (the Parish of St Albert the Great) and all Catholic students and staff are automatically members of this parish.