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Church Going

March 27, 2012

A connoisseur of complacencies of the peignoir rather than of church going on Sunday morning, I’ve always admired Philip Larkin’s poem “Church Going,” with its detached perspective on what twentieth-century organized religion could have meant, and been comforted by his suggestion that in the future, churches will fall out of use.

And yet I notice, having gone through a period in which one grief seems to gather other griefs to it, as one of my (imaginary) friends put it, that the people who are best at comforting–who seem to know the most about what pain feels like and what will assuage it–are the people who are religious.

I cannot reconcile my observation with my attitude. I can only be grateful that religion enables some of the best of us to grow wise.

Church Going

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 like the hunger for beauty, in this poem—the admiration of parts (rood-lofts, organ-pipes)–and the observation that “superstition, like belief, must die.” (Really, what kind of cynic are you, Philip Larkin’s speaker? And how can you have ever imagined a world so astoundingly rational that you could ask “And what remains when disbelief has gone?”)

It’s hard to believe. For me, it can feel a lot like fooling yourself (having your “compulsions recognized”). And yet, I would never argue that what is not real can have no effect on the mind and actions of a reader.

How long does it take to make sure “there’s nothing going on”?

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39 Comments leave one →
  1. March 27, 2012 7:51 am

    Faith is trust in things unseen. This actually makes me think about Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. In the future, the grand cathedral was turned into a market barn for livestock.

    I like this pondering poem.

    • March 28, 2012 8:16 am

      Trusting in things unseen could make you a fool, but maybe only seeing what is in front of your eyes means you’re missing something. I think this is part of what the poem is about.

      • March 28, 2012 11:11 am

        Trusting in things unseen could perhaps make you a fool, but what about trusting in a person unseen?

        Like trusting that operator on the other side of an emergency line will notify the relevant emergency response units to attend to your emergency…

        Or trusting in the surgical team that operates on you when you are under anesthesia? ( you may only know the surgeons, but what of the scrub nurses, the anesthetist, etc?)

        Or trusting in the poems of a writer you’ve never met?

        • March 28, 2012 11:34 am

          People have been telling me that it’s better to be a fool than to get too cynical, and I’m dealing with trust issues about whether the thousands of dollars worth of plumbing that’s just been done in my house was done right. So all this is definitely on my mind.
          I’m not sure how trust comes into reading poems. A poet (any author, for that matter) can be the biggest whack job in the world and it won’t matter, because what matters is what’s on the page.

          • March 28, 2012 2:21 pm

            There are those who regard the words of some poets as axioms.
            They are entitled to their reasons, but this denotes trust.

  2. Joe permalink
    March 27, 2012 7:52 am

    There’s a song where Vinx sings “thank you, Jesus, for the way you make my mama feel.” I think that way about religion a fair bit.

    • March 28, 2012 8:19 am

      I was literally glad that my mother is religious this fall, because it helped her deal with my father’s death.

    • March 31, 2012 11:11 am

      What an amazing line. Thank you for sharing.

  3. March 27, 2012 7:59 am

    I don’t think we’ll lose sacred spaces. Their number may decline, but their power for good, be it religious be it in energy, is too great.

    • March 28, 2012 8:26 am

      Not everyone feels that power for good. When I walk into a church, I think of the centuries of misogyny inspired by the tradition of priestly chastity in the RC church, or the creationism movement in the Baptist-related varieties around here, or the suffering of the Mormon gay man in Angels in America.

      • March 28, 2012 6:36 pm

        Recovering Catholic here, and I have come to associate all the beautiful buildings and traditions with the cruelties and evils that just keep on coming.

        But I am grateful that the church exists to comfort those who want & need it, regardless of my feelings.

        Everyone should be able to have what they need. If only more people felt that way. (read politicians)

        • March 29, 2012 8:32 am

          Availability is nice. I don’t like it when people park in my driveway and come to my front door saying “I want to invite you to a celebration of the anniversary of Christ’s death” as happened yesterday.

  4. March 27, 2012 8:38 am

    The Church is NOT the place where Christians gather to worship, but Christians themselves working together in harmony as one body: The Body of CHRIST…

    Food for Thought

    • March 28, 2012 8:29 am

      So do you like Larkin’s phrase “this special shell”?

      • March 28, 2012 9:57 am

        I like Larkin’s sincere and realistic approach to what “church” has been reduced to – wasted spaces instead of a socially proactive body.

        Most churches vilify those who want to give an objective perspective of what really goes on…

        “… marriage, and birth,
        And death, and thoughts of these – for which was built
        This special shell?”

        As a Christian, I find it disturbing that churches prefer to protect their image by keeping up appearances, instead of dealing with the corruption and hypocrisy in the congregation, especially the sins of their leaders.

        The Church is truly one big dysfunctional body – like a family where parents pretend there is nothing wrong with their ‘marriage’ and turn a blind eye to the adverse effect it has on their children.

        Larkin’s poem tells the truth most churches want to avoid.

        “Let’s bury our heads in the sand,” they say. “If we don’t see the problem, then it will somehow cease to exist.”

        Church Going hits the nail right on the head.

        • March 28, 2012 11:36 am

          No wonder I like this poem; my very next post is about how I bury my head in the sand.

  5. March 27, 2012 8:59 am

    I agree with lemming. Sacred spaces are not destined for loss. But their nature is changing. My favorite part about this poem, the one that sticks with me (perhaps perversely) is the moment of removing the cycle clips from his pants. It’s one of my favorite things about Larkin: his ability to ground big ideas in the most mundane, tactile things.

    • March 27, 2012 10:25 am

      For the same reason I like “up at the holy end.”

    • March 28, 2012 8:31 am

      Yes! Liking that is why I ended with the question about how long you have to wait to make sure there’s nothing going on. Because at that moment, you’re going to make some kind of little, awkward human noise, like taking the cycle clips off, and break the spell, if that’s what it was.

  6. Gwendolyn Bailey permalink
    March 27, 2012 11:22 am

    I must admit I,too, find “up at the holy end” speaks to my soul (perhaps it’s that I was branded Irish Catholic at birth). Such separation between the Priest and his flock is both physical and mystical. And I find myself rooting for Larkin’s post-religion vision, but I think he’s wrong about the gentle slide into obscurity. Religions do not just fade away or morph into something else. The over-throw of a religion is messy; it is bloody, and it is painful. Something within us tells us that our beliefs–whatever they may be–are sacrosanct, but others’ beliefs are foolish. We fight to the death in defense of our views, as does the other guy, each trying to beat into the others the one true religion. To the loser, there is only death, but to the winner goes the holy end of the church.

    • March 28, 2012 8:33 am

      Perhaps. But what if all the different religions fight each other until all that is left of what they believed in so fervently are these shells, places that don’t mean the same thing to the people who come after them? This poem has a post-apocalyptic vision–perhaps even in the religious sense of that word.

  7. March 27, 2012 12:55 pm

    I am not a religious person, but I have observed, too, that religious institutions that are helpful in times of grief, if only in that they know how to put on memorial services which, it turns out, are helpful things. They’re also good at marking seasons — it really is not Christmas unless you sing carols in church, it turns out. I think this part is true:

    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?

    • March 28, 2012 8:36 am

      It is nice to have a shell for those thoughts.

      • March 28, 2012 1:04 pm

        It’s not just the shell, though, I guess. It’s the institution, I think. I remember when my stepfather was dying of cancer, the Episcopalian priest would come every now and then to have a chat with him. At first I though, “how nice,” but later my mother told me how Peter dreaded those visits, when he would have to sit with the priest and make small talk, and it was a testiment to Peter’s excellent manners that no one would have guessed how he was feeling, even when he was so ill. However, after he died the church provided an excellent structure for a memorial service, which was immensely comforting to all of us who knew and loved him. I think that’s what religious institutions do — they have frameworks for celebrating births and deaths and marriages — I would definitely be in favor of belonging to a church that did not require you to believe in any god, but was aware of a human need to take notice of those important milestones in human life. I really don’t believe in god, but I still think it’s important and really helpful to mark those milestones. Maybe especially because I don’t believe in god. If this life’s all we’ve got, and I think it is, then we have to pay attention to it.

  8. trapunto permalink
    March 27, 2012 1:49 pm

    Mostly I hear a reflection of a particular cultural orientation to ecclesiastical buildings and religion in Larkin’s voice here, it’s familiar to me after living in Scotland. American piety is a whole different breed–very different set of foci with the lack of architecture and lack of historical continuity. One of the things I found most fascinating when I traveled was the variety of subtle ways people in different countries have both maintained and let slip their connections to their “national” religions.

    I love your link! If you’ll forgive me for gloating a bit: the complacencies of the peignoir even more luscious when you’ve grown up going to church and come out the other side of throes of guilt for not going anymore!

    • March 28, 2012 8:40 am

      I’m glad you love the link. That poem has forever paired the image of a peignoir with the scent of warm oranges in my mind.
      And yes, when an American goes to Europe, a lot of what she sees is palaces and churches or cathedrals; you go to admire the beauty of the building. It’s very different from American churches, many of which are going up around here in imitation of the “mega-church” buildings I first saw at the turn of the 21st century in Texas.

  9. March 27, 2012 8:03 pm

    I was so intrigued by the comment that religious people are often the ones that can offer the most comfort. I think that is because they are more sure than some of us that there is a better place to go to … that God truly does care for all of us.

    • March 28, 2012 8:41 am

      And in being sure of that, they act on it. And then it’s true.

  10. March 27, 2012 9:41 pm

    Gah – just realized you posted for ReadMorePoemsBlogMorePoems and I didn’t think it was the last Tues of the month.

    I also FAILED to ask and by sympathetic about your flooded basement havocness – how thoughtless of me. Hope it is recovering well?

    • March 28, 2012 8:44 am

      The jackhammer and bulldozer crew (plumbers) were finished last evening and we got the heat turned back on and have hot water again. Now we have to figure out which of the particleboard bookshelves are so badly damaged we’ll have to replace them, and get a construction crew in to fix the insulation and the cutouts in the (formerly) drywall.

  11. March 27, 2012 9:42 pm

    oh, and I think I need to add Wallace Stevens to my authors to get to someday list? He wrote novels, too, right? not just poetry? I’ll run over to Goodreads and check….

  12. March 28, 2012 8:47 am

    Stevens wrote only poetry, and a lot of it is an acquired taste. If you look up his name on my blog (here and at the old blogger site) you’ll find several of his most accessible poems, which ain’t sayin’ much. “The Emperor of Ice Cream” is the one most people are introduced to first; one time I taught it by asking my students to look up every word in the dictionary. That’s one way to understand it, but too arduous to encourage any enthusiasm!

  13. March 28, 2012 12:03 pm

    I think it’s all – literally – in your mind. What ever we can perceive, it’s in the grey cells. We have created God and religion for answers to the unanswerable and for comfort where this is none. I prefer the comfort of knowing that winter will pass into spring and spring into summer.

  14. March 28, 2012 12:18 pm

    I tend to believe as you do. When my father was dying and my mother asked me seriously what I thought of a book about there being a heaven, I answered her as seriously as I could by saying that I don’t believe it can be the absolute end when a body doesn’t exist anymore for a person to whom the life of the mind has always been more important.

    • trapunto permalink
      March 28, 2012 4:25 pm

      That’s a beautiful way to put it.

  15. parrish lantern permalink
    March 31, 2012 7:15 am

    The Mower

    The mower stalled, twice; kneeling I found
    A hedgehog jammed up against the blades,
    Killed. it had been in the long grass.

    I had seen it before, and even fed it once.
    Now I had mauled its unobtrusive world
    Unmendably. Burial was no help:

    Next morning I got up and it did not
    The first day after a death, the new absence
    Is always the same; we should be careful

    Of each other, we should be kind
    While there is still time.

    Philip Larkin.

    Love the poet & the sentiment
    in these lines &
    altho we know it,
    it’s a moment well spent
    remembering
    “While there is still time.”

    • March 31, 2012 7:29 am

      This poem seems much more Methodist to me, love your neighbor being the focus of the message. Church Going seems more Catholic–about the power of beauty and ritual in a sacred space.

  16. March 31, 2012 11:22 am

    Jeanne, thank you so much for sharing this poem and for fostering this discussion on your blog. I think it is important that we all acknowledge each other’s beliefs. I, for one, always have a tendency to agree with Larkin in all his cynical hopefulness, here and in many of his poems. There are many parts that I like in this poem, all seem like more perfect combinations than the last, but I always stop at this pair:

    And what remains when disbelief has gone?
    Grass, weedy pavement, brambles, buttress, sky,

    It is easier to comfort when you believe that there is something next, wholeheartedly and completely. That assurance feels right. When you are unsure, as I am, I never quite know what to say. I am not trying to simplify religion or religious beliefs, I know and respect many religious people, because I know it is not so simple. But there is a framework. I have no framework and so sometimes my beliefs feel like weeds, grown and overgrown and no order to them. Some days I believe there is nothing next, some days I believe in ghosts, some days I have comforting things to say and others I do not.

    As always, thank you for participating. You have given me much food for thought.

  17. April 2, 2012 8:37 am

    I like your word–framework. I think that’s a lot of what Larkin means by the word “shell.”

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