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Christ Church Cathedral in 25 Objects: The Monk's Footprint

Written by Jim Godfrey, posted on Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Buddha Footprint In the East there is a rather strange and wonderful religious practice of venerating footprints of the Buddha (such as the one on the left). There are in total about 3,000 of these footprints, some elaborate and covered in significant buddhist symbols, others just simple impressions of a foot onto rock. They exist because, before he died, the Buddha instructed his followers not to make images of him, and in early Buddhism there are no portrayals of the Buddha at all. Instead, his presence was represented by symbols such as a wheel, or an empty throne, or these wonderfully strange footprints.

The tradition started in India, spreading throughout eastern Asia as Buddhism itself took its first steps beyond the land of its birth. The footprints invited people to walk the same path as the Buddha himself. They also acted as reminders to his followers that he had really existed (that he wasn’t some ethereal, other-worldly being). In fact, they are the only artefacts that give the Buddha a physical presence on earth.Monks Footprint

At Christ Church Cathedral we have something akin to a Buddha footprint. It is a depression in stone of a footprint belonging to a monk, or more likely many monks, made half a millennium and more ago. The cathedral, which began life as an Augustinian priory, was served by a small community of monks (or Canons as they are more correctly called). Long before there was a Bishop of Oxford, and many centuries before the cathedral became the cathedral, it was the church of St Frideswide's Priory, used seven times each day for worship by the Augustinian Canons.

More accurately the church was used day and night, as their daily round of services began in the middle of the night. It meant the Canons had to leave their dormitory in the dark to make their way down to the church. The dormitory was a long attic room above the chapter house, now used to house the cathedral offices. Interestingly, there were two staircases leading up to it; a day stairs and a night stairs. The day stairs was used to gain access to the cloister, and was more or less in the same place as the present staircase up to the cathedral offices today. Indeed, part of the original stone handrail is still visible at the bottom of this staircase.

The night stairs, however, descended directly down into the church. It would have led from the dormitory out onto the gallery above the sacristy, and from there down through the sacristy into the south transept. This was the shortest route from the dormitory to the church, avoiding having to go outside. In other words, it was a short-cut.

So, imagine you are an Augustinian Canon. You retire to bed at 9 p.m. as is required of you, and are then woken for Nocturnes, the first of the seven canonical hours (consisting of psalms and lessons), at midnight. Down the night stairs you descend, and at the bottom, as you enter the south transept, you step onto the floor of the church. However, you can make another short-cut, this time by stepping across the base of one of the columns. It was just a convenient step down into the south transept. And there, on the base of the column next to the sacristy door, is a foot-sized depression, formed by monks stepping into church for hundreds of years.

It's a remarkable survival. Just like the Buddha's footprints, it is the only artefact that gives the Augustinian Canons a physical presence today. We have of course a fine monument in the latin chapel of Prior Alexander de Sutton, and there are one or two brasses of the Augustinian Canons dotted about, but nothing that takes us back to their actual existence in the same way that this footprint does.

And just as the Buddha footprints are meant not to represent the Buddha but rather the way of walking or practising his teaching, our monk's footprint is not an image of an Augustinian Canon. But it does speak of their daily path, their cycle of prayer, the central part of their lives. I love the way we have been left this echo, the faintest of echoes, by which we can still sense the presence of the Augustinians in the building.  And when we step down from the sacristy into the cathedral, at whatever time of day, what are we doing if not following, however falteringly, in their footsteps?


Bio Photo


Jim Godfrey, who is one of our vergers at the Cathedral, has spent many years studying the history of Christ Church. He is the author of the current guidebook to the Cathedral and helps to train the Cathedral Guides. He studied Buddhism as part of his theology degree, and has practiced meditation for the last 20 years.