What do the times seem to require? A resort to permanent, essential things and a retreat from dirty, miserable politics. This would be an important heart and soul realignment at a time when politics has become a religion for so many people. Why else would the world of politics have become so desperate, especially on the left. On the right, where the most traditionally religious peoples in America tend to gather for mutual support, they are seeing their most cherish, deeply traditional religious and spiritual principles threatened — along with their religious practices and observances as legitimate pandemic-related health concerns get catapulted into extreme quasi-religious concerns and church-going and religion are viewed as less essential than commerce, entertainment and supermarket-going. Body vs. soul. Body wins in an increasingly, radically secular culture. A post-Christian culture, we were calling it — well before the pandemic. Religion is no longer viewed as something that keeps body and soul together.
This has led me to a decidedly secular, even probably atheistic or, at best, agnostic late British poet of some renown named Philip Larkin (1922-1985), an Oxford-educated librarian and scribe regarded to be among the spokesmen for the “angry young men” of Britain’s post-WWII generation. He wrote, among many other things, a poem called, “Church Going.”
From the beginning, as you read, you know church is not a natural place for Larkin to find himself. It was 1955. He was 33. England was still reeling economically and socially in the aftermath of war’s bombardment, privations and civilization-rattling concussions. There was the usual fevered political activity in the public square.
Larkin writes of being in church…
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;
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.
And so it goes on, for eight stanzas, as the poet explores this church. But I have to wonder what brought this “angry young man” into this particular space in the first place. I must read the poem again — and again — for a sense of that. It is an ruminative and enjoyable poem. It is far better sometimes to read what the non-religious, world-weary, agitated-in-mind and the cynical have to say about a church than what the pious and religiously convicted might spew. You can discern where the non-religious are hiding those natural spiritual impulses.
And Larkin asks,
I wonder who
Will be the last, the very last, to seek
This place for what it was…
Some ruin-bibber*, randy for antique,
Or Christmas-addict, counting on a whiff
Of gown-and-bands and organ-pipes and myrrh?
*bibber in this context means addict — and Larkin does make “antique” singular.
This might be called, far from a profession of faith, a cold profession of anti-faith. Larkin also asks, “for whom was built this special shell?” And though he wonders what it all might be worth in dollars ( or pounds), he adds, “it pleases me to stand in silence here…” in “a serious house on serious earth.”
We are standing, pre-and-soon-to-be-post-inauguration, mid-turmoil “on serious earth” in America. I, for one, plan to stop into a church, though feeling more like Philip Larkin than any regular church-goer (which I am). I’ll be in a place, as Larkin choruses,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognized, and robed as destinies.