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‘Is There Anybody There?’ Said The Traveller

Do you ever get the feeling God is laughing at you? Not unkindly, just in a gently amused sort of way.

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?


Eternal Life

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.

◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ◊


The main illustration is ‘Arches in the Bastille at Grenoble’ by Bruce Amos, via Shutterstock.

13 comments on this post:

Ukviewer said...

I’m not sure about sound waves trapped in stone, but I am sure that within an old, sacred space, there is some essence of those who have gone before. I’m not talking about spirits, perhaps some sort of race memory, which allows us to tune into our ancestors where they’ve lived and worshiped over centuries. I often feel something of the same in older houses, a sort of ‘lived in’ feeling.

Perhaps I’ve got an overactive imagination, but in cold church, when I watch the breathe of those praying swirling upwards, I imagine them going upwards to heaven. Joined in with all of the prayers over the years, one long continuous stream of prayer with all of the saints.

I’m off to check in with the men in white coats soon 🙂

Lay Anglicana said...

I’m with you on this, so the men in white coats will have to come for both of us.
I love your image of breath on a frosty morning in church swirling upwards to join the communion of saints. Amen to that!

22 October 2011 19:43
22 October 2011 19:09
Susan Snook said...

TS Eliot in “Little Gidding”:

If you came this way,
Taking any route, starting from anywhere,
At any time or at any season,
It would always be the same: you would have to put off
Sense and notion. You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more
Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.
And what the dead had no speech for, when living,
They can tell you, being dead: the communication
Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.
Here, the intersection of the timeless moment
Is England and nowhere. Never and always.

Prayer carries its own weight, which sound waves cannot measure. Prayer accumulates. Interestingly, as a church plant, my church has worshiped in an office building for 4 years now. You would expect it to be pedestrian – yet sometimes when I approach the altar I am almost bowled over by the presence of the Holy Spirit – somehow stronger in that “thin place.” I have to wall myself off from the full impact of it in order to function in my priestly duties sometimes. I feel like Moses, having to hide and not look as God passes by.

Lay Anglicana said...

How nice to hear from you again!
I love the quote from ‘Little Gidding’ and ‘Prayer accumulates’ – yes, indeed.

And I wouldn’t expect anywhere you were leading worship to be anything other than full of the Holy Spirit.

But the ‘patina of prayer’ we are talking about is interesting. Obviously one way to accumulate it is simply the passage of time. But I certainly believe that there is also the possibility of speeding up the process where a church is planted with the love and support of the surrounding community and led by a sincere and gifted priest: the very strength of the brew, if I can put it like that, can clearly leave its mark. To the point that it is almost overwhelming, as you say.

What you say is very moving – I would so much love to come and worship with you.

Susan Snook said...

Oh, please do come and worship with us! In January or February, when it is gray, cold and gloomy across the pond – come to sunny Arizona and test the Spirit here!

22 October 2011 21:21
22 October 2011 20:55
22 October 2011 20:39
Stephen said...

With you and Susan all the way re places “where prayer has been valid” – such prayer seems to permeate the physical surroundings to the extent that it can be sensed by some mysterious faculty that is not operative in all. This is allied to what some people call the “numinous” – the sense of a divine presence.

Do you know the old hymn “In Our Day of Thanksgiving” (quite hard to sing – tricky tune)? Verse three runs thus:

“These stones that have echoed their praises are holy,
And dear is the ground where their feet have once trod;
yet here they confessed they were strangers and pilgrims,
and still they were seeking the city of God.”

(Chokes me slightly just to type the words!)

22 October 2011 23:27
Joyce said...

On a more prosaic note: an episode of The Why Files some years ago told of a test caried out on the walls of the cellar of an old inn where over many years workers and guests said they’d heard voices but with the speech largely unintelligible.Some ‘ghosthunters’ investigated the stones that made up the wall. Their lab found streaks of the mineral that is used to coat audio tapes.Can stone record sound? It looks as though it depends what’s in the stone.
When Shakespeare told of ‘sermons in stones and books in the running brooks’ I didn’t realise he meant it literally.

23 October 2011 00:12
UKViewer said...

Susan speaks of the atmosphere of prayerfullness, which permeates when her congrgation worships. This is an experience that I often share, but not always in the same places. Sharing prayer in a small Lent Group, has for instance, felt really powerful and I’ve been convinced that it’s power surrounds us with the Holy Spirit and the Aura of God, beside, between and around us in his Love.

Canterbury Cathedral seems to me to be the primary Echo Chamber of prayer, shared through the ages. When its open and buzzing with tourists, it can feel like an empty shell, but, when full in worship, particularly Even song or an early service in one of the Crypt chapels, you just feel surrounded. The Choir is wonderful, the sound of their singing the Psalms raises the roof and flows about and around you and you can just relax and allow it to permeate your whole being and be uplifted as the music and praise rises to heaven.

23 October 2011 05:03
Claire Maxim said...

We’ve got two CofE Churches in one of our parishes – one the 11th + 14th Century Parish Church, one a 1954 + 1964 church in the middle of the village. They have noticeably different atmospheres, and are used in very different ways. Those differences are forming the basis for my MA research!

I find both equally easy to pray in, but find myself praying in different ways – more contemplative in the older building. The idea that prayer “builds up” or resonates in a place is perhaps an argument for going somewhere really unpleasant and praying there?

Lay Anglicana said...

I like your last sentence! You’re of course right that one should put the idea to positive use, rather than just basking in the atmospherics.

23 October 2011 08:30
23 October 2011 08:04
john scott said...

And not just in winter cold…in Summer too!

Kneeling RS THOMAS

Moments of great calm,
Kneeling before an altar
of wood in a stone church
In summer, waiting for God
To speak; the air a staircase
For silence; the sun’s light
Ringing me, as though I acted
A great role. And the audiences
Still; all that close throng
Of spirits waiting, as I,
For the message.
Prompt me God;
But not yet. When I speak,
Though it be you who speak
Through me, something is lost.
The meaning is in the waiting.

24 October 2011 13:40
Nancy Wallace said...

In Celtic spirituality is the idea of the “thin place” where what separates us from the glory of God’s presence seems like only a thin veil. There is a church near where I live that I would describe as a “thin place” in that sense. It is ancient, but I don’t get the same “thin place” feeling in equally ancient and more beautiful churches in the same area. Whenever I step into that church I sense a stepping into God’s presence.
Sharlande Sedge describes it like this:

“Thin places,” the Celts call this space,
Both seen and unseen,
Where the door between the world
And the next is cracked open for a moment
And the light is not all on the other side.
God shaped space. Holy.

28 October 2011 11:24

[…] the historicity and atmosphere of buildings soaked in prayer, […]

17 November 2011 13:59

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