“A serious house on serious earth it is,”

The English poet, Philip Larkin, spent time in the early 1950’s at Queens University Belfast. A favorite week-end pastime was cycling through the countryside. Coming across what appeared an unused church he takes a moment to venture in. Like him we have done it often, pushed the door to see if it opened, and then taken a moment to step inside and look around. Read aloud Larkin’s words and hear them echo in that old church building, which he describes as a serious house on serious earth.

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 cylce-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?

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 or other 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. Philip Larkin 1955.

I encourage you to stop for a moment and give thanks for those church buildings, those church folks, that have been important to you and your family over many years.

I pray today
remembering the places where
and the people with whom
I have sat in church.
I give thanks
for those who welcomed me,
for those who taught me the gospel story,
for those who thought well of me
despite my many failings.
I give thanks
for those who preach and pray,
for those who sing and serve,
for those who love and forgive
for those who forgive and love.
I pray today
those serious houses,
teaching me a serious truth.

2 thoughts on ““A serious house on serious earth it is,”

  1. I very much appreciate both poem and prayer, and both have led me to a special memory of my father. Thank you! He was asked to address a congregation about annual giving and while doing so, suggested that a church touches a person at three points: The head, where people think through the meaning of their lives, especially in their relationships and with things sacred. Next, the heart, where a person is moved to live a better life. And last, the church touches the wallet so that it can reach the heart and soul of its work. My summary is of course lame compared to the entirety of his message, but as your post reminds us, it is good to consider and cherish our deepest connections we associate with church.


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