FROZEN IN TIME

July 24, 2017  •  Leave a Comment

My life-long interest in the past brought me to my passion for photography. In the beginning, I regarded my camera as a tool to record things. My early interests focussed on churches, graveyards, castles and old buildings. These record shots, so much frowed upon by the arty photographers, were my stock in trade. I still photograph them but not as much as I used to and I honestly think that in time to come, far more people will be interested in my 'record shots' than they will be in all the stuff for which I've won awards.

Sometimes, I go back to my photography roots, especially when on holidays abroad. One of my interests is church interiors. I know a little about the iconography and symbolism within old churches and am well aware that most people these days know little or nothing about such things. I can read churches in a way other people read books. I touch the stone pillars and rub my hands along the pews to get a feel for these places. Stained glass windows capture my imagination. Light dappling through coloured glass seems as heavenly to me as they must have seemed to the poor people who saw these places a century ago. Inscriptions on windows and plaques remind me, as they are intended to do, of the dead people who once felt the emotions I now feel but whose lives have left little or no trace. 

The rural churches of France are magnets to me. Most are centuries old, much older than most churches in Ireland. I like their quietness. I like being alone in them. They invite reflection and make me wonder about others who have been there long before me. I scan them with the eye of a photographer looking for things to photograph. Photography teaches you to notice detail in the smallest of things. So it was that I found myself visiting a French church recently which had a statue of Saint Christopher. I'd been in this particular church before but had forgotten that my photograph of that statue, which I'd taken a few years ago, had come from there. 

Christopher is always depicted holding a child. The story goes that one day Christopher, who was a very tall man, was at a river when a child approached him and asked him to help him across. Christopher put him on his shoulders but by the time he reached the middle of the river, the child had become so heavy that it gave Christopher everything he could do to carry him to the opposite bank. It was there the child revealed that he was Jesus and that when Christopher carried him, he was carrying the weight of the world. Churches are, for so many people, places to go to when the weight of the world is upon them. As Jerry Ryan used to say on his radio programme, 'there is no such thing as an atheist in a foxhole'. Willie Nelson's song 'Too Sick to Pray' is another way people 'pray'. They just have a conversation and hope someone 'up there' is listening.

Churches, like religion, are not as popular as they used to be. People seem almost afraid to go inside them in case they might somehow get contaminated by religion. But their architecture, history and iconography transcend space and time. Even if you don't believe in religion, they can still be spiritual places, if you allow them to be. We've lost a lot of our understanding of that 'magic' that used to make churches such special places. For past generations of the poor, churches were little pieces of heaven here on earth. I was chatting about this with a friend of mine this evening. He happens to be a priest. He reminded me that some churches had inscriptions at their doors inviting worshippers to enter the door of heaven. That's what people believed - enter here and enter the door to heaven.

Churches are not dead places. Sure, the people might not pack into them as much as they used to but they still hold magic for those willing to visit and look carefully. Light streaming through stained glass can be almost mystical. Plaques, memorials, statues, windows, even the flags on the floor, are part of a story that, occasionally at least, I try to capture, whether in camera or in my mind. I feel a certain sadness to see them empty yet it's when empty that they are most fascinating to me.

I once asked a Church of Ireland clergyman 'what is the future for the Church of Ireland'. His response surprised me. 'If God has a use for us we'll continue, if he hasn't then that's that'. In France, churches and religious buildings have been the property of the State since 1905, and these places them as part of the responsibility of local mayors and communes. In many villages, when I arrive at a locked church, I go to the mayor's office to ask for the key and I have never been refused. I visit the church, take my photographs, express my thanks, and go on being a tourist somewhere else. So, it seems, in France, the churches belong to the people of the villages and towns, even to those who have no interest in ever visiting them. The responsibility for the church is with the mayor, not the priest who is left do his job of preaching and praying and not having to worry all the time about church repairs. If people recognise these buildings as part of their heritage and their community's past, then I think they have a future albeit different to that for which they were originally built. Interesting idea that, if you care to think about it.

 

 

 


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