A rear view of York Minster’s West Towers, York, England.
In this extract from his memoir-in-progress about growing up in County Laois, novelist Tom Phelan reflects on the impact that “beautiful and stupendous” church buildings have had through the centuries on people living in rural areas.
The war was blamed for many things; everything had gone up since the war started. Flour wasn’t milled properly anymore, and Granny sieved out the impure bits, in an old stocking, onto a sheet of newspaper on our kitchen table. The inner tubes of bikes were repaired so often that patches were patched. Petrol was rationed, and Mr. Culliton used TVO—Tractor Vaporizing Oil—to run his van, and sparks in showers flew out of the exhaust pipe. Instead of sugar, saccharine pills sat in egg cups on tables, so sweet they burned the tongue when surreptitiously slipped into the mouth. Tobacco was scarce and some people put beet pulp in their pipes. Tea leaves were saved and reused and, when they had no more to give, were dried and smoked in pipes or in tubes made from newspaper, and the smokers coughed like cows with the hoose. The war squeezed the color out of clothes until all that was left were navy blues and browns. Only for the green grass and the blue sky and the flowers of spring and summer, the world was black and white; except in the church – the huge, magnificent, spotless, colorful, musical church built and adorned to house God.
We can never know the utter astonishment our medieval ancestors felt when they approached one of the great cathedrals for the first time. Our forebears lived in dark, cold, low-roofed, leaking, draughty, smoky huts. For the well-off, wattles and daub served as walls; tree branches and grassy clods kept some of the rain out. When the peasantry, at the behest of wandering monks, set out on pilgrimages to cathedrals in Chartres, Salzburg, Paris, York, Cologne, Winchester or Lincoln, they walked barefooted along dark and narrow forest paths. Traveling inside leafy tunnels for weeks, with their faces bent to the ground, they carefully picked their way over roots and rocks and holes. Along the way they ate berries off bushes, drank from forest streams. When they got lost they stumbled around in circles for days until they found the path again. Some got sick and some of them died. During the long trip they must have often wondered if the monks had scammed them, wondered if, while they were plodding off on the pilgrimage, the monks back home were prodding their wives, as Rabelais suspected.
Then one day the pilgrims unexpectedly emerged into a sunlit clearing and were faced with the most immense, most stupendous, most infinite and most massive, most overwhelming and frightening thing they had ever encountered. They might as well have been prehistoric canoeists on a small lake, suddenly aware the “Titanic” was bearing down on them. They did not know what it was, but what they were seeing rose up into the sky where God lived. They weakened at the knees and were forced to the ground on the spot.
Eventually, when they saw other people approaching this gargantuan edifice they summoned the strength to stand. Shyly and fearfully they sidled up to the massive entrance, exposed their dirty arses every time they tripped over a step and fell their way up to the 18-foot-high entrance. There in the bronze castings on the doors were tiny, naked people falling down into leaping flames; an angel with a flaming sword; a man and woman slinking into a pile of bushes; a giant’s head, with a boy holding it up by the hair; goats, sheep, trees; crowds on knees staring up at a dancing sun; a goat with a man’s face, standing on its rear hooves and laughing, horns on its head, and a long tail; a man pouring water over another man’s head.
Stepping on each other’s heels like a nervous herd of gnus hearing a rustle in the dry savanna grass, the pilgrims shuffled inside. Their fearful glances swept the length and width and height of the cathedral; the space; the colors; the brightness; the colors; the size of the pillars; the shapes; the colors and colors and colors. It was angels who had splashed the colors all over.
Heaven had been trapped within the massive structure. It was a miracle, for only God could build a house and have colored light streaming through the walls. And then they saw people and goats and sheep and cows in the colored light. The things God could do!
The walls themselves were higher than the highest fir tree. It was God himself who had made the enormous, glistening pillars. He had made the towers in heaven and then stuck them down in the ground so that men could climb up and talk to Him, see the edge of the world, see mountains they thought were monstrous, blue snails.
Again their knees gave out; they were in the presence of God in God’s own house; they were inside God. They did not, and never would, have the words to tell the village back home what they were seeing. How could they describe the size and the towers and the colors to people living in a tiny forest clearing, people who had never seen a sunrise or a sunset because the trees were so tall, whose hut floors were earthen, with holes large enough to break an ankle in; who did not have “clean” in their vocabulary?
The pilgrims would not have had the words to describe the steady flames nor the candles that gave them life; they would not have words to describe the richly colored and gold-threaded vestments, the smell of incense, the voices of the choirs echoing off the distant vaults. How could they ever imitate those sounds for the folks back in the woods?
Eventually the pilgrims would return home but they would never be the same again. Some became so dissatisfied with their surroundings that they went back to the cathedral and offered themselves to the service of the magnificent edifice as a doorkeeper, reader, exorcist, acolyte, subdeacon, deacon or priest. Of course, if they were accepted they would have to throw away their skins, go sit in the nearest river, and scrub themselves with sand for a week. “And cut the talons off your toes! Here’s my axe.”
In comparison to my barefooted, bad-toothed, flea-bitten, rabbit-skinned ancestors, I lived in a slate-roofed farmhouse with five bedrooms, a parlor and a warm kitchen that had a window, a chimney and a smooth cement floor. But the rest of the house was cold and damp. We went to bed by candlelight and slept in damp sheets. On school nights, we took the next day’s clothes to bed with us to have them warm in the morning. When we stepped out into the farmyard, we walked with our eyes cast downward to avoid walking in animal and bird waste. But compared to my medieval forebears, I lived in a palace.
I could not claim to have had the same cathedral experience as my ancestors when, in the middle of World War II, I first toddled into our local church holding Mam’s hand. But over time, everything beautiful and stupendous about the building slowly seeped into my consciousness. With each attendance at Sunday Mass I became more aware of the colors; the saints and animals in the stain-glassed windows; the geometric designs with no beginning or end; the blood-red flame in the filigreed, enormous silver sanctuary lamp hanging from the depths of the ceiling; the brilliant whiteness of the intricately carved marble reredos; the six tall flickering candles in front of the reredos; the polished terrazzo floor; the arches dividing the nave from the side aisles, the marble angels on top of the pillars holding up the arches on their backs; the sky-high brown, wooden ceiling looking like it had been knitted into patterns by giants with giant knitting needles; the lights hanging on ropes that disappeared into the ceiling folds; the gold of the tabernacle door when the small silk curtain was pulled aside; the liturgical colors draped on the altar and embroidered into the priests’ vestments; the embossed, golden-threaded symbols all pulling the eye to IHS in its circle; the smell of snuffed candles and billowing incense smoke; the sound of the curved brass gong announcing the Consecration; the red cassocks of the altar boys; the vases of jumbled flowers; the little arches of the altar rails, with their black and green pillars of Connemara marble and the filigreed brass gates allowing access to the sanctuary; the huge pipes of the organ shaking the air, followed by choral voices filling every little space; the life-sized statue of Saint Joseph holding a lily; the statue of the Virgin Mary looking up to heaven, her hands joined and her blue scapular falling in folds to the floor.
Over time, the colors and warmth and cleanliness and smoothness and dryness made me aware that not everyone lived with muck and animal dung and soggy fields or with chilblains and cold and bed sheets that were never quite dry. What had been enkindled inside me was some version of the awe felt by my ancestors when they stepped into a cathedral, and the longing that burned inside them when they returned to their smoke-filled, dark and leaky shelters.
© 2015 by Glanvil Enterprises, Ltd.
Tom Phelan’s latest novel, “Lies the Mushroom Pickers Told,” is published by Arcade. To read more about that and his other novels go to www.tomphelan.net or look for TomPhelanNovels on Facebook. BERTIE KEATING PHOTOGRAPHY