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.