Putting Religion in Its Place

Colm Tóibín

  • Lila by Marilynne Robinson
    Virago, 261 pp, £16.99, October 2014, ISBN 978 1 84408 880 5

Philip Larkin’s ‘Church Going’, when I read it first, came as a relief. For once, someone had said something true, or almost true, about religion and its shadowy aftermath. The poem seemed to have a lovely assuredness and finality. The self-deprecating voice – resigned and a bit sad – was having an argument with no one. The tone was mild and tolerant, and although it was filled with uncertainty, there was a convincing veneer of pure certainty about the main matter, which is that churches are left-over things, belonging to the sweet foolishness of the past. The future won’t be much better, the poem suggested, but we won’t have churches, except to visit, of course, and wonder about.

It seems strange that the poem was completed just a decade after Eliot’s ‘Little Gidding’: there seem light years between Larkin’s melancholy scepticism, his urge to bring religion down to earth, and Eliot’s high-toned, abstract, prayerful urge to coax his images into some large, suggestive, mystical space. And yet there are moments in ‘Little Gidding’ that are as precise and worldly as ‘Church Going’. Even when he meets the ghost, he is concerned to make the case for the encounter as something that actually occurred, or that could occur and belongs to experience, perhaps even common experience. His dead leaves ‘rattled on like tin/Over the asphalt where no other sound was’; they belong to a known, shared, modern world, making the appearance of the spirit less unconvincing:

I met one walking, loitering and hurried
As if blown towards me like the metal leaves
Before the urban dawn wind unresisting.

Eliot is insisting here that the event happened, just as in ‘Church Going’ Larkin makes clear in his very first line that the ‘nothing going on’ in the church he has come to visit is real; if there were something going on, he probably wouldn’t enter. He allows ‘God’ into his first stanza, but only as a figure of speech, and jokingly, or at least ironically: there is ‘a tense, musty, unignorable silence’ in the church, which has been ‘Brewed God knows how long’.

The problem for Larkin in telling so much plain truth is that, once he has written six nine-line stanzas, he has difficulty ending his poem. He could perhaps finish with ‘It pleases me to stand in silence here,’ the last line of the sixth stanza, but we already know that it pleases him: he has made that much clear from the beginning. His final stanza will have to say something more, just as Eliot will have to find a way to let his poem soar towards some mysterious and totalising image in the final section, even after the apparent finality of ‘History is now and England.’ The last stanza of ‘Church Going’ enacts what any writer has to deal with who has let loose images of God and prayer. Unless he is content with mockery or pure old-fashioned nihilism, such images will threaten to have a dialogue of some sort with mystery and the spirit. Larkin’s church, once so modestly described, becomes in the final stanza ‘a serious house on serious earth’, ‘In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,/Are recognised, and robed as destinies.’ Meet and are recognised – but by whom, by what? And what does Larkin mean by ‘compulsions’? Does he mean merely human urges and needs? Or, since the word suggests the irrational, does he mean something more? Does he mean, with the help of the words ‘blent air’ (which has a hint of ‘blessed air’), something beyond the material, approaching the transcendental? And what does he mean by ‘destinies’? Also, the word ‘robed’ (with ‘blent’ close by) suggests something medieval. And when he invokes a ‘someone’ who will gravitate to this church, to a place ‘Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in/If only that so many dead lie round’, surely he is suggesting that the wisdom here isn’t just a worldly wisdom, but may contain something more.

What is the difference, then, between this ‘someone’ of Larkin’s with ‘a hunger in himself to be more serious’ and the voice at the end of ‘Little Gidding’ who states: ‘We shall not cease from exploration’? Poets have it easier than novelists because they don’t have to tell us what the ‘someone’ who saw the ghost or visited the church did next, where they slept that night, what they did for a living, or what they said to their wife. Eliot can say ‘history’ and Larkin can say ‘destinies’ in much the same way an abstract painter can put a single colour on a canvas and let it have its tumultuous effect. We poor novelists, on the other hand, have to deal with perspective, context, point of view and banal issues of narrative line and credibility.

If ‘Little Gidding’ and ‘Church Going’ are religious poems, or poems which don’t ignore religious feeling, what are religious novels, or novels which don’t ignore religious feeling? What are the different implications for their art in Eliot declaring ‘I am an Anglo-Catholic in religion’ and Marilynne Robinson ‘I am a mainline Protestant, a.k.a. a liberal Protestant’? In When I Was a Child I Read Books, her most recent collection of essays, Robinson wrote: ‘Relevance was precisely not an issue for me. I looked to Galilee for meaning and to Spokane for orthodonture, and beyond that the world where I was I found entirely sufficient.’ Surely in the background, as we consider these matters (ignoring, for the moment, the wisdom of looking to Spokane for anything at all), we hear the voice of Virginia Woolf, who wrote to her sister Vanessa in 1928 on hearing from Eliot of his conversion to Christianity:

I have had a most shameful and distressing interview with poor dear Tom Eliot, who may be called dead to us all from this day forward. He has become an Anglo-Catholic, believes in God and immortality, and goes to church. I was really shocked. A corpse would seem to me more credible than he is. I mean, there’s something obscene in a living person sitting by the fire and believing in God.

God represents a real problem for the novelist. The novel is happier in a secular space where people suffer from mortal ailments and failures, where their ambitions are material, their hopes palpable. Changing bread and wine into body and blood could be done in a novel, but it would be hard, and shouldn’t be tried twice. Having miracles from on high interfere with choice, chance, destiny or paragraph endings won’t help a novel, or not much. Novels like human voices, human will, human failure. They like journeys from one place to another without encounters with fellows such as Moses or Muhammad, not to speak of the Buddha. They like the sadness or fun of the mind at play more than showing how a character’s prayers have been answered. Unless of course the prayers haven’t been answered at all, and were merely another example of human foolishness, with interesting consequences for the fool and his or her family.

Nonetheless, because I was born in Ireland and brought up Catholic, I have a serious difficulty when it comes to the creation of characters who live entirely in a secular universe and depend on Spokane rather than Galilee for meaning. Irish Catholicism has many mansions, but one of them includes a good bedrock of paganism, or animism. I’ve never heard the banshee knock on my door in the night to announce that someone in the family would soon die, but I think I would know the sound if I heard it. (As my mother and her sisters did.) I don’t have a fairy fort in my garden, but if I did I wouldn’t allow it to be removed, and if it were removed I would expect bad luck, and soon. (My neighbours have one, and it won’t in our lifetime or any foreseeable lifetime be bulldozed, although it is in the way.)

Also, people around me genuinely believe that, at the saying of some words by a priest, the wafer and the wine literally and actually become the body and blood of a man who was, it seems, crucified in the Middle East two thousand years ago. (While growing up, I often wondered at what point in the digestive process the wafer ceases to be the body and blood, but I knew not to raise this troublesome matter.) They believe in eternal life too. (In an essay Robinson ponders the question of the eternal: ‘The eternal as an idea is much less preposterous than time, and this very fact should seize our attention.’) And they believe in an all-seeing God, who knows us and watches us, one who has read our next novel already or at least knows the general outline. (‘Calvin says that God takes an aesthetic pleasure in people,’ Robinson pointed out in a Paris Review interview. So he might enjoy invented characters as much as real ones, or even more, especially on his day of rest.)

Since, unlike God, I know nothing much, and don’t generally read science or philosophy, and, unlike Calvin, don’t know how God feels, and generally haven’t really a clue what to believe, I have no problem with any of the above beliefs. They might make more sense, indeed, than believing, for example, that nuclear power is safe, or that the United Kingdom shouldn’t be split up, or that putting people in prison is a way to prevent crime. My problem isn’t about belief itself, however, it’s simply a technical one: how do you create a religious or a non-secular protagonist in a novel without making a dog’s dinner out of the book?

Some people, such as Graham Greene, Flannery O’Connor, Chinua Achebe, Georges Bernanos, Kate O’Brien, Maurice Gee, Brian Moore and Andrew O’Hagan, have made a big effort. Others, such as James Joyce, have managed to weave religion into a larger fabric, with all the sheer drama of faith and doubt, and have managed also to include the comic possibilities of dogma and ritual to liven up their books. In Ulysses Leopold Bloom, in musing on the use of wine in the Mass, comes to the fine conclusion that wine is more ‘aristocratic’ than, for example, ginger ale. It’s hard thereafter, at least for me, to witness the sacred consecration without at least smiling at the thought that there wouldn’t be much future in a religion that changed bread and ginger ale into the body and blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ. One of the purposes of literature, as Joyce made clear, is to put religion in its place.


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