Brendan Hoban: Every church has its own unique ambiance                   

Western People 25.7.2023

In his poem, Church Going, the English poet Philip Larkin suggests that no matter what meaning churches have they should be preserved. A strange thought in that Larkin placed no emphasis on the faith dimension that churches represent for many, indeed most people. He had a simple view of church buildings as places where people used to gather in an acceptance of their common humanity. And in his poem Church Going, he attempts to explain why someone like himself – a non-believer – is inexplicably drawn to exploring churches:

A serious house on serious earth it is.

In whose blent air all our compulsions meet . . .

Since someone will forever be surprising

A hunger in himself to be more serious

Larkin’s poem is an exploration of an ill-defined inner conflict about his attraction to churches. He frequently visits them not really knowing why he wants to be there:

Yet stop I did: in fact I often do,

And always end much at a loss like this.

He feels no reverence towards the items he encounters with curiosity his sole emotion. The  nearest he comes to any religious sense is wondering what the church building will represent when all believers are long dead. No more than that.

In recent years, as the great bell of time tolls louder, like Larkin I’ve taken to visiting churches. It’s always been what you might call a professional interest – it went with the territory – but it’s different now. It’s about sitting in a church for the first time, soaking the atmosphere, ingesting the ambiance, connecting with faith and history.

Sometimes I’m on my own, other times with friends. It’s really an exercise in imbibing how much a local community, with whom I am unfamiliar, has stamped its mark on what’s the signature building in that parish. Every church has its vibes.

Churches can vary from ornate to minimalist, from the spare to the cluttered, from a faithful regard for standard liturgical principles to obvious personal obsessions or the lackadaisical approach of its faith community.

Thus, some churches are overwhelmed with a superfluity of images that reflect a series of private devotions that have evolved into permanent shrines to Padre Pio or Sr Faustina or Our Lady of Medjugorje. Some sanctuaries are cluttered with unnecessary furniture, even sometimes with stacked chairs, natural flowers past their sell-by dates and wilting visibly, even from a distance, or artificial flowers in overly ambitious displays at odds with the modest dimensions of the church.

Sometimes too church walls are pockmarked with acknowledgements of items presented to the church that are given excessive space and unjustifiable prominence. With time unsuspecting parishioners can become conditioned to what seems bizarre and even unforgivable to the casual visitor – like the ‘Presented by . . .’ notice on the base of a tabernacle. The overall effect can be not just a failure in design or even in taste but ultimately in the lack of any embarrassment threshold.

I hesitate to give any examples of what, in my opinion, a church should not be, though I’ve experienced on my travels several pristine examples ­– decrepit, unkempt and unloved. Alternatively, a superb example of a mellow church space that’s a joy to just sit in is the parish Church of Bohola, Mayo. Exquisitely clean with not a speck of dust to behold, it has a restful, serene and unaffected ambiance. It is a graceful and sacred space that holds a visitor in a calm and restful stillness. A place that resonates the importance of a living faith, the presence of God.

Another example is the parish Church of Templeboy, Sligo, a cut-limestone building recently refurbished to a high standard with a sure and evident liturgical touch placing a clear focus on a church’s main function – to provide a space for gathering the faithful to commemorate the events at the heart of our faith and for the faithful and sometimes those ‘of little faith’ to eat the Bread of Life at God’s table. There is nothing in the church that interrupts or distracts from the centrality of the altar and what it represents.

The altar as the focal point of a church is the litmus test of  a good design. The altar is not just the centre-point of the Mass but the locale of other sacraments. A defining principle is that if attention is drawn elsewhere before the eye rests on the altar then the elements are out of sync. Altars should be sufficiently elevated to facilitate adequate visibility but not so elevated as to seem remote from the people. An appropriate alignment of the elements in the sanctuary  is fundamental and Templeboy Church stunningly underlines that central truth.

(The Church was originally opened in 1875, built just over twenty years after the great Famine, the vision of the then PP, Fr Michael McDermott, a native of the parish. It stands now on an impressive site on the Ballina-Sligo road. Worth a visit!)  

Only one of two cut-stone churches in Killala diocese, a stand-out feature is the original flagged floor, the only one in the diocese. But, more importantly, is the hallowed sense within its walls of an ancestral faith stretching back through the generations with a long history of reverence and prayer that continues to this day. A church to sit in with ease. A church to pray in without distraction. A church to savour the presence of God in these changing times. In Larkin’s words:

A serious house on serious earth it is.

In whose blent air all our compulsions meet .

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  1. Lance MCGrath says:

    Hi Brendan,

    What a well penned essay on Churches you have drawn.
    With Churches still in use and even those abandoned, I too like to visit and reflect.

    Mans effort to have a ‘dwelling place’ for God on earth should bring us all to focus alone on Him, without distraction.

    Thank you.

  2. M. J. Toner says:

    Even more dispiriting than the presence of the kind of extraneous clutter mentioned by Brendan in some churches, is the occasional example where a church, having been reordered in line with the Vatican 2 ‘vision of church’ (the faithful gathered together, the People of God in communion), in an imaginative, worthy and liturgically appropriate way, was then swiftly put back the way it had been in pre-Vatican 2 mode by the incoming P.P. a devotee of an older understanding of church, who “wasn’t comfortable” with the altar at the centre and right in the middle of the congregation.
    The struggle for a direction into a future for a church worthy of the People of God goes on, with not enough priests with the courage and enlightenment to lead. Seán O’Conaill in other threads on this site bemoans the lack of vision in the Irish church in relation to faith formation. I would suggest that the Mass, properly celebrated with active participation of the faithful, would be one of the best ways to do that.
    With reference to Larkin’s poem, he derisively at one point refers to “up at the holy end”, where in an old vision of what happens at Mass, it was understood the priest performed some sort of magic. In present understanding, I believe it’s more that the priest presides on behalf of the people, who are active participants in the worship. Realising that, bringing it to concrete actuality in involvement of the congregations, in the language of the Mass and in church architecture, furnishing and art work, would change everything.

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