Connection to the cathedral

Sam Mahon looks back on the moments of his life when he felt connected to Christ Church Cathedral.

We were pausing for coffee recently in a rural cafe when a woman blew in through the door as if she had been expelled from a vacuum cleaner.

She headed for a nearby table and threw herself into a chair opposite a thin, upright man dressed in the drab garb of an undertaker.

Blowing a lock of hair from her eyes, she slapped a palm on the table between them and addressed him as follows: "What on earth have we done to deserve this snatch-and- grab society? It seems to have subsumed us."

I got up and went over. She glanced up.

"I'm sorry," she said. "Was I being loud?"

"No," I replied. "You were being succinct. I liked what you said. Can I borrow it?"

She said I could, and I have.

Now, I don't think of myself as a religious person, and yet somehow that broken building in the centre of our city means something to me that I have a hard time explaining. I think I will miss it when, or if, it goes.

And yet there have been only four moments in my life when I felt intimately connected to the place.

The first was as a young boy compelled to sit in silence, trying to make sense of a sermon that sounded very much like a bee bumbling in the dry summer grass of my longed-for hills.

I gave up and began an inventory of my surroundings. What I saw were choir boys in crenellated collars looking like meadow flowers, the sun trapped in a web of broken glass, and an eagle bearing a huge Bible on his spread wings, his accusing eye on mine, his beak open just a little as if panting the staccato breath of absolutism.

At the base of the lectern were four tiny carved angels bearing trumpets, their eyes raised to the heavens.

I followed their gaze and saw neither sparrows nor seraphim, but vaulting arches of stone and wood and wondered how it was possible for any human hand to create all this.

It was my first gallery. It filled me with optimism. Everywhere I looked, I saw the mark of excellence, and I longed to be part of it.

The second was the day a young woman climbed the stone tower, and finding neither God nor sanctuary, slipped over the balcony and died a few feet away from the head chorister.

I saw him by chance two weeks ago for the first time in 40 years. He was smiling, but he doesn't sing any more. He works for Treasury now, a different faith altogether.

The third was when former Greens co-leader Rod Donald died. It seemed that the cathedral was the only place big enough to take him.

The day was hot and the tiles of the Square blazed under a relentless sun.

Off to one side, the politicians waited, a murder of crows on a burning field of snow. But inside it was as cold as a ship's ballast.

Shoulder to shoulder with friends and strangers, we crowded together, exchanging fumbling half-sentences until the sound of an organ broke like thunder across the vaulted ceiling and stilled us.

Everything was caught and formed, held and shaped in one enduring lovely chord.

It filled that high-blown place and the smiles passed from face to face as, one by one, we recognised the tune, and recognised that here within that song we would always find him - Shine On You Crazy Diamond.

My last memory was from two years ago when Canterbury was rendered by the Environment Canterbury Act a little less equal than the rest of New Zealand. It was a seismic shift, not in tectonic plates, but in legal principle, and we were appalled.

The cathedral and its grounds served as a meeting place for 3000 aggrieved citizens and the cairn we built that day still stands, while everything around it seems to have fallen.

Those who wish to rebuild the cathedral are often dismissed as sentimental, as if it were a fault, something to grow out of.

I once had an entire exhibition snortingly dismissed as such by an old friend, who fancied himself the dispassionate critic. Soon after his review, he threw up everything and decamped for Alaska in hot pursuit of an auburn-haired lead fiddle from the Juneau Symphony Orchestra. Sentiment, I submit, is simply humanity declaring itself.

Among the best reasons for not wanting to let the cathedral go, the most compelling might simply be that, in part, it defines us.

It's not Notre Dame or the Empire State Building.

And its not Barcelona's La Sagrada Familia, now in its 10th decade of construction. Although Gaudi died more than 70 years ago, his extraordinary work still bubbles relentlessly towards heaven, and no-one regrets the wait.

It is a collaboration of stone masons and sculptors - masters of art and engineering, weaving their skills together to celebrate the one element that earns man's tenancy on this planet: imagination.

The restoration of our cathedral could be that again, a collaboration.

And perhaps in this present "snatch-and-grab society", a measured pace and a little collaboration are exactly what we need.

Sam Mahon is an artist, sculptor and writer.

The Press