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 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?
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 whom 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 recognised, 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.
~Philip Larkin from “Church-going”
Even an empty shell of a church invites in silent witness-
even those of us who struggle with unbelief,
who stop only to rest a moment, to mock or sigh,
breathe in the musty history of such a place.
Over the centuries, there has been much wrong with churches,
comprised as they are of fallen people
with broken wings and fractured faith.
They seem anachronistic, from another time and place,
echoing of baptisms and eucharist, weddings and funerals.
Yet we still return, fragmented souls that we are,
acknowledging the flaws in one another
as we crack open to spill our own.
What is right with the church goes beyond silence:
Who we pray to, why we sing and feast together on
the grace and generosity of His Word.
We are restless noisy people joined together
as a body bloodied, bruised, redeemed.
Dear Lord of Heaven and Earth,
look out for us in our motley messiness,
rain down Your restless love upon our heads,
no matter how frowsty a building we worship in,
or how we look or feel today.
Be unignorable, so we might come back, again and again.
We stand, stirred, in silence,
simply grateful to be alive,
to raise our hands together,
then sing and kneel and bow
in such an odd and humble house,
indeed a home God might call His own.
The old church leans nearby a well-worn road,
Upon a hill that has no grass or tree,
The winds from off the prairie now unload
The dust they bring around it fitfully.
The path that leads up to the open door
Is worn and grayed by many toiling feet
Of us who listen to the Bible lore
And once again the old-time hymns repeat.
And ev’ry Sabbath morning we are still
Returning to the altar waiting there.
A hush, a prayer, a pause, and voices fill
The Master’s House with a triumphant air.
The old church leans awry and looks quite odd,
But it is beautiful to us and God.
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