It’s the middle of April, so I thought I’d tell you that my favourite Christmas carol is O Little Town of Bethlehem. I can’t truly say why. Something about the combination of lyrics and music, the memories of singing the descant in CHOIR perhaps, the yearning nature of it, maybe. And that quiet line ‘the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.’
I think of that line every time I enter a place of worship, like some kind of mental jukebox, soundtracking my life. Because essentially, it’s true of every church I visit, from the smallest, humblest, most out of the way ‘one service every four weeks’ little village church to the overwhelming and soaring beauty of Norwich cathedral. They don’t even have to be that old either – I sobbed a fair bit in the hideous late 1960s environs of Xabia church not so long ago. Churches are places we turn to when we are celebrating, when we are grieving, and most of all, when we are troubled. A place of worship, yes, but also crucially, prayer, communicating our thoughts to some higher being, a saint, a deity, a some Other whom we believe may bring us comfort, deliver us from evil, and bless our endeavours.
And that thought, that appreciation of what has brought so many other people to this place catches in my throat every single time. The thought of all those souls, some long dead, some present in the same place and moment as I; all of them have sought solace here. That haunts me. Even thought I know that many happy events will also have taken place within these walls – christenings, weddings, celebrations – it’s the unspoken awareness that these stones hold the secrets of so many people. That people whispered their prayers to a god I don’t believe in, and the only witness to their private torment was this building. If only walls could talk, eh?
And of course they do, as I’ve discovered, having fallen head over heels in love with graffiti from any and every when. But that is nothing more than a glimpse at those other lives. It tells us more than we knew before, but we can never fully know the horrors of so many lives, the impulse within them that sent them here, to offer up that which weighed upon their mind, whether in trembling expectation, or quivering anticipation.
And that is why I cry in churches. Every time*. Because just stepping inside reminds me that the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight. And when you feel the weight of that thought, how can you not cry?
*Salthouse has thus far proved the exception, because exceptional.