“When you find more spiritual sustenance in an empty church than the actual service, something has gone badly wrong.” William Wildblood, Meeting the Masters Blog (October 10, 2020)
“But when alone—really alone—everyone is a child: or no one.” C. S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength (1945)
“Unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew18:3.
I have spent many hours alone in empty, silent churches, and I will confess that those hours were, for me, superior to the many hours I have spent in churches that were packed with people and full of sound. My preference is no doubt partly due to a discreditable streak of misanthropy, but I think it is primarily due to distaste for the dreadful clamor and din. As Wildblood says, something has gone badly wrong when men prefer an empty church to a worship service, and I say that what has gone badly wrong is the service and not the men.
Do solitary men find more athletic sustenance in an empty stadium than in a roaring game? Do gourmands prefer it sit before empty tables and plates? Do lovers find their erotic desires are most fully satisfied when they lie, alone, between the sheets of a solitary bed?
You may begin to see the problem.
We are all of us drowning in an ocean of clamor and din. We are by turns wheedled, exhorted, reproved, beguiled, alarmed, flattered and coaxed. And this pandemonium is enlivened with jangling tunes, flashing lights, grimacing faces, and bodies in lewd or ludicrous postures. From morning to night, we are accosted by the barkers, buskers and bawds of Vanity Fair, and when we pack into our churches we find that the service is not really different.
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There are, to be sure, many people who like the dreadful clamor and din, and Lewis tells us why. When they are alone—really alone—they are appalled to discover that not even they are there. Drain the clamor and din from their consciousness, and they are conscious of a ghastly emptiness. The feeling is rather like the ghastly emptiness one feels walking round the rooms of an apartment from which one has just moved. There are two wire hangers in the closet and a dead fly on the window sill. One wonders if these bare walls and dusty floors are all the apartment ever really was.
Children are certainly subject to this ghastly emptiness, and are gregarious in consequence, but an adult who remains childlike is not. Or at least he is not subject to ghastly emptiness in the same degree as adults who truly hate to be alone. An adult who remains childlike is happy in an empty, silent place because he is not himself empty, or silent, and because his being and music are not eclipsed by clamor and din in that empty, silent place. He becomes, instead, like the child you have seen absorbed in solitary play, talking to itself and entirely content and withdrawn from the world.
When you have seen a child absorbed in solitary play, did you think it would be better to break the spell and subject that child to a scolding lecture, a giddy game, or an hour of frantic razzmatazz on television? Of course not! Perhaps our churches should go and do likewise. Perhaps they would provide more spiritual sustenance if they would only learn to be quiet and leave us alone.