A little unsteady in all his finery, and conscious that all eyes were on him, the bishop followed the altar boy to the centre of the labyrinth. The altar boy then placed the ball in the bishop’s hands. This was the signal: the organ sounded, the choir sang out and the bishop threw the ball in the air. The dean caught it, took a step to the rhythm of the music, then passed it on, till all the clergy were dancing around the labyrinth and passing and catching the ball.And so we might begin a comic novel, a mystery novel or even a wistful “what if” about church. But this is in fact, allowing for local variations, what happened at Easter in cathedrals up and down France until the mid-15th century. The cathedral chronicles and rituals laid down how it was to be done. And in the eyes of the citizens, woe betide any bishop who tried to wriggle out of the Easter dance. This was not just some eccentricity, a sop to residual paganism or even a clerical way of letting off steam. It belonged to a tradition of spiritual knowledge to which this dance, held to be the dance of heaven, was believed to give access. This same tradition of spiritual knowledge was embedded in the architecture of the cathedrals themselves, the labyrinths on the floors, the sculptures, and the images in the windows. It structured the music, the seasons and feasts, and much else. Then the knowledge got progressively forgotten and lost.
If you picked this book up in the Mind, Body and Spirit section of a bookshop, it may well have been nestling next to books on Atlantis, the Pyramids or the Holy Grail. If nothing else, it shows that people are fascinated by books on mystery and hidden knowledge. Sometimes such books are openly fictional – such as the Da Vinci Code. But they strike a chord. Fiction as much as non-fiction awakens our desires, even a a spiritual search. The Da Vinci Code continues to send people off to Paris to look at the obelisk in St. Sulpice. Even though we know that the obelisk is 18th-century, it speaks to us of something much older, much deeper in our human memory. Something we experience with our senses reminds us of something we feel we ought to know – something which has been forgotten. I am convinced that under the fiction – as so often – there is fact. And need. I stumbled on the knowledge of the cathedral.