William Peryam (1534–1604) of Little Fulford lies in the north side of the chancel. Adjacent to the west side of ‘Will’ is ‘Liz’, Elizabeth Tuckfield (1593–1630). Then John de Sully and his wife Isobel can be found at the end of the south choir aisle. John (1282–1388) was Lord of the Manor of nearby Iddesleigh, noted since for its public house, The Duke of York, recently frequented by Our King, where the author Michael Morpurgo of Warhorse fame says he talked to an old soldier with first-hand knowledge of the use of horses during the Great War.
The Church of the Holy Cross at Crediton in the county of Devon is often empty of live people, which helps. Once known by the Pythonesque name The Collegiate Church of the Holy Cross and the Mother of Him who Hung Thereon, the church today is an ancient and sacred space alive with dust and history and I heartily recommend a visit. The grand nave and chancel of the current building date from the fifteenth century. The existing structure is built on the site of what was the cathedral of the Bishop of Crediton until the mid-eleventh century when the see was transferred to nearby Exeter. Conveniently, it sits twixt Brampford Speke on whose riverbanks I flyfish the Exe, and Crediton Tandoori where I gorge on lamb saag most Saturday evenings (when fishless) during season.
I find my four friends to be patient listeners. They have now replaced the old monks – a housemaster, a headmaster and a teacher monk – who used to listen and advise on how best to conquer life’s rapids. All are now dead and gone, my monks, buried in Monks’ Wood cemetery at Ampleforth, a Benedictine school and monastery, in North Yorkshire.
The peace one can find in this fine church in Crediton, especially on the pew nearest to ‘John and Izzie’, elevates one’s thoughts. Problems solve themselves while dust dances in the light. Speaking to effigies is a practice I recommend to all my friends – they don’t talk back; they never sue and not once have they lost their tempers.
The effigies have helped me map out a business plan and decipher a pressing recruitment challenge. We came up with some inspired moves for the backs in my son’s rugby team and I felt reassured in their presence of numbers at the recent death of a beloved labrador. I have role-played a court case with my effigy pals, pondered a complex moral quandary and worked through innumerable challenges to the point of viable outcomes.
The process I employ with the four is less Ghostbusters and more mentor mind mapping. (Mind mapping is when you write, draw, or think up pictures of a goal that you would like to achieve and then you brainstorm everything you need to do to achieve that goal. One can add mentors for assistance and wisdom). Some people are clever enough to mind map without the need for effigies – I am fool enough to require their help. I use the layout of Crediton church and my imagining of the characteristics of the effigies to build mind-maps in my head. Not wishing to big up their egos, I suppose the effigies merely provide effective sounding boards and some geographical parameters while existing in a quiet and holy place where one can think, open to the universe.
I hand a problem to each of my stone counsellors. Financial decisions tend go to Will, who was once Lord Chief Baron of the Exchequer. Family issues and questions of morality go to the ladies. John tends to get lumbered with questions of strategy for no reason other than he looks like a cunning, card-playing chap. Then I work my way around the church in my mind’s eye, imagining an exchange of thoughts, often inspired by the coloured light that shines through the church windows, giving off Newtonian stimuli. You’d be amazed at how effective the whole process is. If we get stuck, then there is always that gigantic crucifix atop the main altar.
When I am disburdened, I light a candle, pray for their souls and for loved ones alive and dead, then put a few quid in the roof fund box. This is the most practical thanks I can give my counsellors for their guiding light as they would all erode without shelter from Devon rains – alas, some already suffer from worn noses.
Speaking to the dead was a capital offence punishable by stoning under Old Testament law. God in the Bible considers talking to the dead a detestable practice and He calls His people to be blameless. In mitigation, I do not believe I am really talking to the dead in Crediton church, but I confess that talking to my effigies is sometimes easier than talking to the living. I am reminded by them of Marcus Aurelius’ encouragement to, “Think of yourself as dead. You have lived your life. Now, take what’s left and live it properly. What doesn’t transmit light creates its own darkness.”
When we are honest with ourselves, we are all mere effigies. As long as light is transmitted, who cares what state of living one’s assistants take?
As one of my Benedictines taught me, death is but a thin veil and we are never far from the dead. He was with two boys at Medjugorje who had recently lost a sister in a tragic accident. They pleaded with him to ask her to give them a sign that she was well. As he prayed out loud before them, a rose seller walked close by, and they were all overcome with the sweet smell of roses.
It is thus at Crediton church. I enter burdened with problems and leave smelling roses.