By Katrina Quinn
Today I decided to visit the church building I see from a distance several times a week. It squats atop a small hill dwarfed by the nearby ridges and rolls of the South Downs. I glimpse it through the trees as I attempt to regulate my breathing before I arrive at my sometimes stressful support worker job. I often overthink my breathing in the car, imagine filling all the spaces in me with oxygen until there’s no room for anxiety.
Recently, also while driving, I noticed how much saliva there is in my mouth. I Googled ‘extra saliva’ on Easter weekend and one of the top results was that it’s a symptom of early pregnancy. I was already slightly worried because my period was late and I’d just found out my twin sister is pregnant. She didn’t realise she was for the first month so is now five weeks further on than she thought. On Easter Sunday my 18-month-old niece kept reaching up to me instead of my twin sister to be held, and my other sisters joked it was because she picked up on my possible pregnancy vibes. I laughed but inwardly I quaked. Was it a sign? I bought a pregnancy test on the way home on Easter Monday and took it as soon as I got in the door: negative. My sister’s first four tests were negative.
I took another test this morning. I woke up early which rarely happens so I took it as another sign. The test didn’t work, nothing showed up on either little window. Uncertainty remains. My womb may or may not be empty. I think of all the women who’ve sat on the toilet over the years, imagining that sacred space inside of them. Hoping one way. Hoping another. Hoping for something. Hoping for nothing. I think of the women at the empty tomb.
I park in the layby near the church where there is a red sign: All Saints Church, Buncton. I didn’t realise the scattering of houses here had a name. I chose today to explore the church because I’m attempting to work through The Artists’ Way and one of this week’s tasks is to visit a sacred space. I can’t say I generally find church buildings very sacred or particularly welcoming. The churches I’ve attended throughout my life have met in ugly community halls: it’s not about the building, they said. But I’m not convinced I found God there either. I suppose I’m always hoping that God will find me.
The path from the layby, over the stream and up the mound is very muddy. I have to trample wild garlic and put my arms out for balance as I try to avoid puddles collected in deep footprints. I cling to a wooden rail to avoid slipping. I wonder who, if anyone, makes it to the services and whether they go in their wellies, smart shoes in hand. Another footpath meets the entrance to the graveyard but no road comes close. It’s the opposite of accessible. Bare branches of a lone tree twist into a threatening sky. I shiver. A row of gravestones slant away from the grey walls at 45 degrees as if looking up toward the cross on top of the pointed roof. Any wording is moulded over, illegible. Bursts of daffodils sway at the feet of some of them.
Opposite me another gate opens to a footpath snaking over the fields towards the Wiston Estate where I first talked to my husband at a church festival nine years ago. I try to imagine weddings and christenings here, heels sinking into grass, frost snapping underfoot after midnight mass. But it’s so quiet today, no echoes, even. I walk around the outside of the building. It is not large and it is not fancy. I prefer this. There is just one small door. I twist the handle but the door is locked. The bench in the corner of the graveyard looks lonely.
In a quiet moment at work I look up All Saints Buncton and learn it is a “chapel of ease.” Perhaps the path to it did not used to be so muddy and un-easy. All Saints Buncton has been there since the 11th or 12th century. The chapel is most famous for hosting a Sheela Na Gig, a figurative carving of a woman displaying her exaggerated genitals, found in castles and churches across Ireland, France, Spain, and the UK. Their purpose, origins and spiritual roots are debated. Many believe they were placed to ward off evil spirits. In Buncton the carving lay horizontally. Newly-weds were encouraged to climb a ladder and rub her, until, worn down over time, she was mistaken for man. Whether this Sheela of Buncton was protecting the Parish, warning inhabitants against lust, or augmenting fertility, I am sure she witnessed much and was much witnessed across the centuries. Until 2004, that is. When someone or some ones – still unidentified – crept into the chapel one night and chiseled her out of her resting place and smashed her to pieces. Leaving an empty space. An empty sacred space. I’m sad we did not meet. Would I have noticed her, if the door had been unlocked? Would I have taken her as a sign? Would the sacred space of me have connected with this sacred place? And felt a little less empty?
On the way home I listen to a podcast about the poem at the beginning of Genesis. About a sacred garden and sacred bodies formed from nothing and mud and about breath. About how maybe the story was never about a woman leading a man astray. About how maybe it’s about growing up, leaving the nest and finding or making and naming our own new sacred spaces with our sacred hands and sacred mouths. With the blessing of the Gardener.
Someone on a hill has unlocked a door.