If someone, perhaps some deacon or caretaker, had asked me why I had slipped inside the church, I might have replied that I wasn’t really sure; that it had simply seemed like a good idea at the time.
Some of it might have been nostalgia. I had come here as a child, Sunday after fidgety Sunday, to wrestle with two mighty questions: why, when I tried to believe in this god that everyone else seemed to feel, was there simply a dusty silence beyond the prayers and promises and incantations; and secondly, would my bladder outlast this service?
But there had also been happier, more certain times. I had sung in the choir, for a brief period from when I learned to hold a note until my voice broke like a stained-glass window into a heap of jagged shards. For a boy infused with a kind of instinctive, feral paganism, singing felt more like worship than whispered prayers did. Music filled the church like a robust holy ghost and I worshipped it eagerly, with a slight lisp and a tendency to sing flat as the deep vibration of the organ joyfully jiggled my innards.
Perhaps it was these memories that nudged me through the door, but once I was inside I knew what had drawn me there. I had wanted to smell the place, and to let the dimness of the vaulted roof ease the sun-strain out of my eyes. I felt again why I could never believe, and why I still cannot; that for me, the religious experience had always been primarily an aesthetic experience, a communion of the physical senses and the human imagination. I had come to experience that sensation again, to smell and touch something that some people might feel as God; that great quiet that calms them and reassures them that there is some permanence in the world – the aesthetics of stillness.
I was not disappointed. The smell, omnipresent and apparently eternal, had not changed in a quarter of a century; the scent of floor polish, tinged with the faint mustiness of old books and moth-eaten draperies. The air tasted of incense and something cooler, damply mineral, as if a century of prayers had drifted up and around the church’s tall pillars and dissolved small amounts of the stone into the air.
I paused. An elderly person knelt in one of the pews, eyes closed, hands resting together against her forehead. This, too, was how I had remembered church: the old and tired, negotiating their exit. The only thing that had changed was that she had let her hair turn white without trying to tint it. I remembered one Sunday, when an infectiously energetic bishop called Desmond had come to lead the service. We sang Hymn 422 for him – my fellow trebles and I giggled about “four two two for Tutu” for a fortnight – and then he beamed down at all the old white people and said he had never before seen so many ladies with blue hair. The women had wanted to be offended, but even from up in the choir gallery I could see that they were already melting in the beams of his generosity and charisma.
Watching all those blue-tinged heads bow, I had decided that God was not the embodiment of love but of fear; that prayer was not a conversation with a beloved but an appeal to a cruel judge whose verdict was ever only death.
But watching her now I knew that I had been the cruel judge, made arrogant by invulnerable boyhood. I had sat up next to the organ, smelling the polish-infused corners of this alleged god’s house, a house now sublet to fish moths and pensioners, and dismissed it all as a delusion. And yet here I was, breathing eternity, reflecting on ageing and transience. The secular humanist in me would insist that I was thinking. The feral pagan might suggest that I was meditating. But I had also breathed in those atomised pillars and so, I conceded, I was also praying.
I still do not believe that my old church is the house of a god, but I no longer disparage those who do. As the world shrinks and its spaces for thought and feeling are invaded by the noise of the marketplace and the political world, these places take on a new meaning, even to heathens like me. We don’t yet have a word for a space sacred to non-believers, but surely anywhere where we can stop and listen is sacred. Whether we believe in a god and a plan or merely wonder about the strangeness of being made of the debris of an exploded star, sometimes we all need a still room, dust in sunbeams, and the smell of floor polish.
First published in The Times and TimesLive