“ You don’t question some things, you just accept.” A friend’s response to a comment I had made about an aspect of her religious belief flicked through my mind as I listened to the Jubilee Commemorative Service in St John’s Cathedral. I looked around me, wondering how many of my companions were regular churchgoers. I am, not for the traditional purpose but I will enthusiastically go for a wedding or baptism, a commemorative or memorial service because I just love church spaces with their solemn dimness and the cool damp chill air that traps the aromas of incense and candle smoke. As you may have guessed I am not religious. The bigotry exhibited by the nuns in my primary school and the taunts from childhood companions began my alienation to any one belief. Personally, I find it difficult to justify the many actions taken in the name of religion that don’t seem in any way to conform to the espoused philosophy of goodwill to another being.
Church bell ringers
However, whenever I travel I drag my husband and children through cloisters, churches and cathedrals. I won’t gate crash a service, but sometimes I have been lucky and chanced upon a choir or church bell ringers preparing for a service.
Then I am happy to stand, often in a puddle of colour from a stained glass window and listen with pleasure mingled with a tinge of envy to those beautiful voices.
I have become a column hugger much to my husband’s embarrassment. I lean against these trunks of stone and brick soaring skywards and try to absorb the history of its builders. I have sat through an entire service flitting like Tinkerbell examining the architectural details. Perhaps this is why I enjoyed Ken Follett’s book Pillars of the Earth
set in 12th
Century Kingsbridge, UK where the building of a new style of cathedral is the focus of the story and the characters involved take second place.
Benedict Arnold Window
Sitting through a service is no bind if I can look at the stained glass windows where saints and sinners share eternity. Churches will always surprise me. In the small St Mary’s Battersea I came upon a window remembering General Benedict Arnold keeping company with J.W.M. Turner and William Blake. I have spent an entire service contemplating windows containing heraldic coats of arms and wondering what I would include if I was designing one for my family. Think of all the lives and stories that are represented around the walls and floors of these churches, and in the surrounding gardens. My imagination goes wild with the thought of births and murders, tragedies and happiness, lives lived to the fullest and lives crushed before they have had time to blossom. People mourned deeply or respected widely. There is so much history in a church. I love reading the plaques about artists, poets, soldiers, traitors, mothers and children. Being Australian, I was hugely excited when I discovered the sarcophagus in which Admiral Bligh was buried in St Mary of Lambeth church garden. I couldn’t stop myself from telling some American visitors all about his amazing navigation feats.
I would love to have enough land to erect a family chapel just so that I could have a finely detailed tessellated floor and a stained glass window. Perhaps I could have a small tile made for each of the many birds, goldfish, chickens and mice my children raised, and of the wonderful cats and dogs that so contributed to my companionship. I would have a wonderful heavy carved timber door with a huge key to enter it. There would be no place for a keypad because I cannot ever remember the numerous pin numbers I already have. Perhaps I could even incorporate a column in an outside corner as I have seen in many European buildings. I would use it as my study and fill it with flowers.
A Russian Orthodox singer
Having recently read Alain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists I do find I have a greater appreciation of the contribution to art, music and architecture that religious communities have made. So I will continue to wander through churches and even sit through a commemorative service not because religion will contribute to my pathway to another better life but as an acknowledgement that the expression of religious belief has contributed to the sophistication and refinement of my world.