Writer: John Simmons
Photography: Roger Thorp
The meaning of faith
water is holy
here at Petroc’s well
right by this water
build a house, God’s home
the map shows the way
from well to holy well
in step after step
facing the future
before long rain fall
the planet’s lungs breathe
missing saintly bones
but Petroc’s story
in the future
Taking a taxi from Bodmin Parkway into town, my driver shrugged when I asked about Bodmin. “I’ve got cynical”, he confessed. Fair enough, we all reach accommodations with past, present and future.
He dropped me at the Weaver’s Inn for lunch; fish and chips, vinegar without cynicism, salted with optimism.
I’d been wondering about the name, of course. Bodmin “sanctuary of monks” I’d read. Should this lead me to expect tonsured austerity or full-bellied feastdays?
I wandered the town, no sign of a monk. There’s a disused chapel, recent buildings for Seventh Day Adventists, Methodists and Evangelicals, looking like Scout huts or charity shops. The real thing was needed, and I found this at St Petroc’s Church. “The largest parish church in Cornwall” contains the spirit of Petroc, if not his relics.
I opened the wooden door to St Petroc’s, twisting the metal ring to lift the latch. Inside it’s cavernous, cathedral-like, light streaming through stained glass, a testament to the large faith of its 15th-century builders and the largesse of its congregation.
On the walls I read about Petroc; I walked around inside and out, stopping at the ivory reliquary that had once held his bones. He had come from Padstow, Petroc’s Place, moving the priory to Bodmanach, monk’s dwelling. I liked his humility. Returning from pilgrimage in Rome and Jerusalem, he landed in heavy rain. It’s all right, he told his companions, it’ll clear by the morning. But the downpour continued, lasting several days. Ashamed that he’d been presumptuous, Petroc set off on another pilgrimage to pay penance. Such principles would send a chill wind through the Met Office.
Petroc died in 564. It’s a date that stumps us because we know no other dates nearby. So we call this void the Dark Ages. Dark or not, they led Petroc to enlightenment. But darkened by death there’s no rest for the saint; someone stole his bones, perhaps revenge on a later bishop.
The bones were recovered centuries later when Henry II brought them home. The ivory casket housed them, but it was emptied by Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries. The void box makes a plaintive case for the saint. His casket stands empty but his spirit is present in Bodmin, around the church, these ancient stones, these leaning, listing gravestones in St Petroc’s churchyard.
Cornered in a nearby coffee bar, Cornwall’s daytime version of Edward Hopper’s painting, I’m rewarded with “my lovely” and an espresso smile. I wonder about the meaning of faith today. Looking on Instagram I read my friend Rowena Roberts’ post “the necessity and beauty of decay,” and respond with my picture of a weathered gravestone.
What do they say to us, these absent bones and present stones?
Coming off the bleak moors, St Petroc’s Bodmanach would have seemed a welcome refuge: water, food, shelter, company. And faith? On offer too, but not necessarily a religious concept today. It’s simply a belief in the future and, 1500 years on, Petroc’s legacy provides the evidence.