I’m not religious or spiritual. Aside from a brief dalliance with Buddhism in my teens, don’t think I ever will be. But places of worship fascinate me. The architecture, the aesthetic and, often the scope, can be stunning. These places are as much for praying to a deity as they are for instilling a sense of awe and reverence in the people who gather in them.
Not being religious, that sense of reverence is lost on me. But the sense of awe? For the longest time, I’ve believed that you can tell more about a place when it’s not being used for purpose than when it is. I’ve been to many lovely churches, cathedrals, and temples around the world when worship or services weren’t happening. In most of them, I never felt a sense of awe or majesty or whatever holy spirit was supposed to fill me by my being there.
One of the few times it did was at St. Laurence’s church in Bradford upon Avon. It’s an old Anglo-Saxon church that dates from somewhere between the seventh and tenth century AD. It’s definitely not a building on a grand scale — the place was built using rough, hand-hewn stone.
The first sense I got when walking into the church is that it was a working church. It was the centre of the community. It was a place where the locals gathered to get closer to their god. There were no adornments. Function overrode form.
The day before I stumbled upon St. Laurence’s, I’d visited Salisbury Cathedral. The contrast between the two couldn’t be sharper. St. Laurence’s church lacked stained glass, the ornate decorations, even the graves of clergy and crusaders. But it seemed the holier place.
Even though the church had also served as a barn and a school, I could feel the purpose, I could feel the piety of the place. It’s as if the spirit of religion, of belief in a higher power, had seeped and set into the stones that made up the church.
Stepping into St. Laurence’s church didn’t put me on the road to conversion to any religion. Not even close. I did, however, gain an appreciation for the power of religion in the life of the ordinary person living in the centuries before I was born.