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Thought for the weekend: The stirring of Larkin's spirit in church so relevant at this time of year

Allen Sleith, Hillsborough Presbyterian Church

There's a poem by Philip Larkin to which I often return. It's called 'Church Going' and describes his reflections on stopping off at a rather rundown sanctuary when out for a ride on his bike.

"Hatless, I take off my cycle-clips in awkward reverence." Putting on a fake pompous voice, he reads a few verses from the lectern bible and is seemingly confirmed in his sceptical sarcasm when he writes: "The echoes snigger briefly.

"Back at the door, I sign the book, donate an Irish sixpence, Reflect the place was not worth stopping for."

The poet might think he's done with the church only to find that something stirs within him.

"Yet stop I did: in fact I often do, and always end much at a loss like this, wondering what to look for," he says.

His initial instincts are now giving way to a sense of ambivalence, poised between secular dismissiveness and an aura of the sacred that cannot be entirely explained away as superstition even if that notion runs through much of what he writes.

Arguably the next few lines contain the heart of the poem's power:

"It pleases me to stand in silence here;

A serious house on serious earth it is,

In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,

Are recognised, and robed as destinies.

And that much can never be obsolete,

Since someone will forever be surprising

A hunger in himself to be more serious."

It's as if the poet has himself been caught off guard by the stirrings of his spirit, gesturing to something greater, taken somewhat aback by interior oscillations that resonate to an unseen but nonetheless real spirit, whose palpable presence pervades the place, reverberating in this semi-ruined church.

Tomorrow is the first Sunday in Advent, a time of waiting, often in silence, for the coming of Christ. Successive Sundays will reflect upon the hope, peace, joy and love that the church perennially finds in him.

For some, this message is as clear as day and simple to believe. For others, perhaps like Larkin's poem, more attuned to slowly shifting perceptions, they're led to doubt their former doubts, to be suspicious of their suspicions, surprising a hunger in themselves to be more serious, their faith evoked in the living God.

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