I have been travelling for most of my life, and for much of that time, wherever I was, the local church was a featureless concrete block built in the twentieth century. Now, I know the theology: God is everywhere. It should make no difference to one’s ability to worship whether one is surrounded by breeze blocks or stained glass. But over and over again I found myself ruefully muttering the first half of Psalm 137 – ‘As for our harps, we hanged them up…How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?’
In the fullness of time, my husband retired; we returned to the Hampshire village that had been the Brigadoon which sustained us through our exile. At the heart of the village is a 12th century church, built on the ruins of an earlier Saxon one. And that’s when I dreamed that God chuckled at my foibles and just asked ‘Better now?’ I had to admit that it did make all the difference, even though I knew it shouldn’t have. Not that I’m alone in this failing – far from it. The French describe the love of old buildings as an attraction to ‘les vieilles pierres‘ (old stones). Admirers of antique furniture wax lyrical about patina. A building in which people have been worshipping God for nearly 900 years does have an atmosphere which a new building does not.
I seem to remember a programme by James Burke about the idea that stones retain echoes, which form a sort of -theoretically readable- patina. I asked my friendly (I wouldn’t say ‘tame’) hippogriff, Tim Skellett (@Gurdur). His reply?
There have been a couple of SF stories on reproducing sound waves recorded into pottery through minute, sound-caused wobbles in the potter’s hand as the potter inscribes decorative lines in a pot on a turnwheel. However, the idea is implausible owing to any such fluctuations being lost in statistical noise and far larger minute tremors in the hand. I would think the program you heard probably picked up from that idea (the original SF story is very old now). As for stones in stone buildings, the physical scale of the stone is simply too immense for sound waves to have any such effect, sorry.
There is more on the Heathen Hub thread at the hyperlink, if you would like to follow this up.
So that’s that, then. And yet…
Walter de la Mare answered the question which forms the title of this post in his strangely compelling poem:
But only a host of phantom listeners
That dwelt in the lone house then
Stood listening in the quiet of the moonlight
To that voice from the world of men:
Stood thronging the faint moonbeams on the dark stair,
That goes down to the empty hall,
Hearkening in an air stirred and shaken
By the lonely Traveller’s call.
I have been carrying around with me for nearly thirty years a piece of paper on which is written a poem given to me by a work colleague, Jean Bull, who has since died. We had been having the discussion about sermons trapped in stones, like flies in amber. I have never been able to find the author – do any of you know it?
There is no death for words.
The loneliest ship probing new seas
Has no real silence.
Voices blow in the wind,
The air is taut with cries, calls, song,
Shouts and lamentations.
Like tired birds in the rigging cling
Words spoken long before.
No mountain top can offer solitude
Rocks echo, and the whispering trees
Shelter more secrets than their own.
Stars live in rocks, and rocks reveal
Themselves in stars.
Each to the other lends a permanence.
And words vibrate there, questioning
Offering another immortality.
Perhaps the sweet words of Jesus
Throng rock and spire
Sending a hurricane that shrieks
And clamours through the uneasy world -
No word that’s spoken ever dies
But, fugitive, lives on.
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The main illustration is ‘Arches in the Bastille at Grenoble’ by Bruce Amos, via Shutterstock.