Philip Larkin’s poem “Church Going” depicts his experience when, out for a ride on his bicycle, he comes upon a country church.
Once I am sure there’s nothing
I step inside, letting the door thud
. . .
Hatless, I take off
My cycle-clips in awkward
The poet walks forward, runs his hand around the baptismal font, mounts the lectern, and reads a few verses. Then,
Back at the door
I sign the book, donate an Irish
Reflect the place was not worth
Yet stop I did: in fact I often do
. . .
Christianity is an affair of things. The things we see and touch and smell are bearers of the living Christ over time. As inspiring and edifying as the works of great artists are—Caravaggio’s The Calling of St. Matthew in the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Bach’s Mass in B Minor—it is often the mute witness, the tomb of a saint, the wood and stone of a simple church, that moves us most deeply. Without touch and sight, memory is formless, reduced to the successive moments of an endlessly flowing present. The physical weight of things keeps memory alive.
When the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall was dedicated, three veterans drove from Wisconsin to stand before an expanse of black granite with names inscribed on it. No one was buried at the memorial, yet each man reached out to run his finger along the name of a buddy who had died in the war. “I don’t know what it is,” said one veteran who stood two hours at the wall. Another said, “You have to touch it. There’s something about touching it.”
This truth was understood centuries ago by the faithful who came to Jerusalem to kiss the wood of the Cross, and by learned theologians who had never seen Jerusalem. No one expressed it better than Paulinus of Nola, a bishop in southern Italy in the fifth century: “No other sentiment draws people to Jerusalem than the desire to see and touch the places where Christ was physically present, and to be able to say from their own experience, ‘We have gone into his tabernacle, and have worshipped in the places where his feet stood.’”
The destruction of the signs of Christianity in our society proceeds at an alarming pace. When my wife and I moved to southwest Washington, D.C., eight freestanding church buildings graced the neighborhood. Today, several have been razed to make way for a complex of apartments and condominiums, with a space for a church within the building. From the outside, one perceives a residential building decorated with a cross. The visible impact of a church edifice is lost. If Christian culture is to survive, we must love and care for the Church’s material culture, for those things make present the beautiful, haunting world of the living God.
Those things are the theme of “Bells,” a poem by the seventeenth-century poet Thomas Traherne.
Bells are but Clay that men refine
And rais from duller Ore;
Yet now, as if they were divine,
They call whole Cities to adore;
Exalted into Steeples they
Disperse their Sound, and from
Chime-in our Souls; they ev’ry way
Speak to us throu the Sky:
Their iron Tongues
Do utter Songs,
And shall our stony Hearts make
Bells attest to a living church. They declare the presence not only of a church building, but of a community of Christians.
This truth was brought home to me recently when I learned from a friend of the restoration of bells to the Church of St. Albani in Göttingen, Germany. Today, St. Albani is a Lutheran congregation, but its history goes back to the time of St. Boniface, the great missionary to the Germans. The original church was first mentioned in a.d. 953, and its patron is the St. Alban who was martyred in Mainz in the early fifth century.
During World War I, many bells were confiscated in Germany and used for weapons. After the war, churches struggled to replace them. The Nazis, when they came to power, began to confiscate bells—to use the bronze for cannons and to silence any public voice but that of their own loudspeakers. In the years after the war, some churches began to acquire iron bells (which rust), but in recent decades, new bronze bells have taken their place. And the people of St. Albani have, with a mighty effort, raised funds to have new bells cast and recently celebrated their installation in the bell tower. No testimony to the presence of Christ in a society that has turned away from him sounds more clearly than that of bells calling people to worship God in a place where his praises have been sung for centuries. To this day, bells are an irreplaceable declaration that Christ is alive.
A church is a place where people come to pray. As a contemporary of George Herbert said, “prayer is the end to which God’s house is erected, domus mea, domus orationis est [‘my house is the house of prayer,’ Luke 19:46].” There are many other religious duties to be exercised in God’s house, but the one activity that Jesus mentions is prayer.
Some years ago, I returned to my home parish, St. Paul Lutheran Church in New Orleans, to preach at the 125th anniversary of the founding of the congregation. As I was writing the sermon, I thought of the faithful Christians who for generations had prayed in this sacred space and taken Communion kneeling at its altar rail. That brought to mind a passage in
T. S. Eliot’s poem “Little Gidding,” the fourth of his Four Quartets.
Little Gidding is a village in Cambridgeshire, England, where a small Anglican religious community was formed in the seventeenth century. For a time, Herbert was a member of the community, and the church at Little Gidding became a site of pilgrimage. Eliot visited Little Gidding in 1936, and his poem emphasizes the timelessness of the place:
If you came this way,
. . .
At any time or at any season,
It would always be the same.
He writes of the living people who come to the church to pray, and of the dead who once did the same:
You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform
Or carry report. You are here to
Where prayer has been valid.
. . .
And what the dead had no speech
for, when living,
They can tell you, being dead:
Of the dead is tongued with fire
beyond the language of the
The church commands reverence as a place “where prayer has been valid.” This unexpected phrase may signal that the seventeenth-century religious community at Little Gidding was organized around strict adherence to the Book of Common Prayer. But it surely suggests as well the authorizing power of the continuity of generations, which is secured by rootedness in physical place. Churchgoers of generations past are interred in the churchyard, yet released into eternity, where their prayers transcend our language. Two forms of timelessness are thus brought to bear on Little Gidding, and both are dependent on the church’s particularity as a sacred space: “Here, the intersection of the timeless moment / Is England and nowhere.”
Larkin was an agnostic, unlike the believing Anglicans Eliot, Herbert, and Traherne. Yet Larkin, too, could see when things bear spiritual realities, and could see those realities borne most powerfully at a church. Perhaps death, which comes even to agnostics, compelled these recognitions. As Larkin concludes his poem, a church is a place “proper to grow wise in, / If only that so many dead lie round.”
Robert Louis Wilken, a member of the editorial board of First Things and chairman of the board of the Institute on Religion and Public Life, is the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of the History of Christianity Emeritus at the University of Virginia.