Sunday Poetry

Church Going by Philip Larkin (1954)

Once I am sure there's nothing going on
I step inside, letting the door thud shut.
Another church: matting, seats, and stone,
And little books; sprawlings of flowers, cut
For Sunday, brownish now; some brass and stuff
Up at the holy end; the small neat organ;
And a tense, musty, unignorable silence,
Brewed God knows how long. Hatless, I take off
My cycle-clips in awkward reverence.

Move forward, run my hand around the font.
From where I stand, the roof looks almost new -
Cleaned, or restored? Someone would know: I don't.
Mounting the lectern, I peruse a few
Hectoring large-scale verses, and pronounce
'Here endeth' much more loudly than I'd meant.
The echoes snigger briefly. Back at the door
I sign the book, donate an Irish sixpence,
Reflect the place was not worth stopping for.

Yet stop I did: in fact I often do,
And always end much at a loss like this,
Wondering what to look for; wondering, too,
When churches will fall completely out of use
What we shall turn them into, if we shall keep
A few cathedrals chronically on show,
Their parchment, plate and pyx in locked cases,
And let the rest rent-free to rain and sheep.
Shall we avoid them as unlucky places?

Or, after dark, will dubious women come
To make their children touch a particular stone;
Pick simples for a cancer; or on some
Advised night see walking a dead one?
Power of some sort will go on
In games, in riddles, seemingly at random;
But superstition, like belief, must die,
And what remains when disbelief has gone?
Grass, weedy pavement, brambles, buttress, sky,

A shape less recognisable each week,
A purpose more obscure. I wonder who
Will be the last, the very last, to seek
This place for what it was; one of the crew
That tap and jot and know what rood-lofts were?
Some ruin-bibber, randy for antique,
Or Christmas-addict, counting on a whiff
Of gown-and-bands and organ-pipes and myrrh?
Or will he be my representative,

Bored, uninformed, knowing the ghostly silt
Dispersed, yet tending to this cross of ground
Through suburb scrub because it held unspilt
So long and equably what since is found
Only in separation - marriage, and birth,
And death, and thoughts of these - for which was built
This special shell? For, though I've no idea
What this accoutred frowsty barn is worth,
It pleases me to stand in silence here;

A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognized, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round.

I love this poem.  Every time I come to it, I recognize myself – awkward longings and reverential questions, sentimental habits and a hunger to be wise, anachronistic and timeless seriousness.  My spirituality is in transition.   I went to Church every Sunday for 47 years with very few exceptions.  I haven’t been for the last 2 years.  I am working on embodying a more inclusive philosophy, a less social practice, and a less dogmatic and judgmental religious outlook.   I do miss singing in the choir, though I have put lots of good music in my life, and found many holy places in which to look up and many opportunities to practice love outside of the Church.  I feel rather like I’m cutting apron strings and finally growing up.  When I was a child, “Children’s Church” was another place where grown-ups told you how to be and said, “Repeat after me.”  When my children went to church, they had what was called “Catechesis of the Good Shepherd” which was a Montessori-based religious ed approach.  The children explored their own innate spirituality through play, manipulating figures of shepherd and sheep and acting out rituals with candles and vestments and various other items.  I think the idea was to give permission and encouragement for the children to experience their own connection with the stories they were told and express their own emotions about them.  So anyway, I suppose there is an evolution of spirituality within a person’s lifetime.  It’s different for each person, of course.  To stay in the routine of church going without engaging in any new dimension of thought or experience would be a deadening of the dynamic, though.  I want to have a living faith, and I’m experiencing a new kind of life now.  And I suppose that I am also rationalizing in order to give myself permission to be absent from Church.  It’s a complicated relationship.  Maybe more like being a daughter than I imagined.  I’m still trying to mature.

6 thoughts on “Sunday Poetry

  1. I always give in to the urge to genuflect before I sit in a church pew. I lit a candle in the chapel of La Conquistadora in the Santa Fe Basilica de San Francisco de Assisi and tied a thread on the tomb of Shaik Salim Chisti. My prayers were answered and my wishes fulfilled. The places worn smooth by the knees of believers are holy to me for the devotion that has been poured out there. The longing of the soul and the poignancy of its cries are holy to me wherever they resound. I am full with beliefs and superstitions and inspirations. I choose them and they choose me in a swirling quadrille, losing and finding each other through life’s complex patterns. My reverence didn’t begin or end with church, and I got more out of my childhood church-going than being told what to do. That mystery is bigger than I have words for. I am grateful that Philip Larkin did what he could to find some good ones to put into this poem.

  2. The poem was really evocative. I thought the writer’s comment about what we will use churches for was a painfully accurate description of modern spirituality.

    I walk through my church frequently in off-hours. Somehow, you always expect to discover something or experience something. I have yet to find it.

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