Thursday, 5 December 2013

in The Catholic Herald, November 28, 2013

Libraries are driving atheists into churches
Notebook, Patrick West

I have started going to churches again – something I never would have expected of myself 10 or 20 years ago. Am I becoming a lapsed atheist?

You see, when you’re in your 20s and politically minded, you’re pretty sure of everything. While I was not quite the angry New Atheist – I always retained my affection for the faith of my upbringing – I was very much a literal-minded atheist. Transubstantiation, miracles, horoscopes, alien abduction and so on: all such phenomena I smugly dropped into the mental categories of unreason.

Yet one of the welcome benefits of approaching 40 is coming to appreciate nuance. The ideologies of libertarianism, atheism or socialism are fine for young ideologists, but encroaching middle age teaches you that life consists of compromise and doubt.
So does learning a second language, where most people discover what the subjunctive and conditional states are: what might be and what could be. 

I like to study languages in public libraries, erstwhile areas of quiet, but for some years now noisy “community centres” full of computers and arguing couples. Harrumph!
So exasperated at this trend, I stormed out of Sandwich Library one day this summer, having admonished its librarians for their incessant chat. I found refuge in St Peter’s, now in the care of the Churches Conservation Trust. It provides a table and chairs for reading and contemplation. I had a productive day in this wonderful edifice, and where Thomas Paine was married under an onion dome built by 17th-century Flemish refugees.

I do most of my work and reading in places of quiet here in East Kent, and increasingly this has involved seeking solace in churches. In Canterbury recently, a visit to the cathedral ended up in accidentally participating in Evensong, and I have since spent a lunch break in the city’s Catholic church of St Thomas.

On one Saturday in Folkestone, after the library shut, I enjoyed a pleasant hour reading Inspector Montalbano in the Church of Our Lady, Help of Christians. This building is not only lovely for its serenity, but for its folkloristic aspect. Here, Fr Stephen told me that it’s one of the few remaining churches in eastern England that retains statues of the saints.

I know many non-Catholics dismiss the cult of saints as borderline polytheism, but saints and heroes do have a fundamental appeal to human nature. We all need someone to inspire us. What else explains today’s cult of Malala Yousafzai or X Factor hero-worship? What Catholic Herald reader didn’t want to know more about St Jude after the recent storm? As for me, I no long scoff at my mother’s exhortation to pray to St Anthony if I’ve lost something important, because, well, it actually works.

This church in Folkestone also has an inspiring Stations of the Cross, which I also used to find funny as a boy – my mum sent me home from Our Lady of Victories, West London in 1983, furious that I kept exclaiming “Choo! Choo!” at every “station”. But the Stations of the Cross, like the martyrdom of St Thomas Becket, are reminders that life can be a struggle, and when times are tough, you can forget that everyone else also has problems.

 The Church is getting a good press at the moment under Pope Francis, yet I think it could go one better. We live in an increasingly noisy world, where even libraries no longer afford tranquillity. Wouldn’t it be a great advert for the Church if it opened up more of its buildings and rooms as places of study and contemplation? It would be a wonderful way of connecting with the community at large, with people of no faith, with doubters and with the plain curious.

Patrick West is a columnist for

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