Thinking Anew: Philip Larkin in his `Wondering what to look for’ speaks for many today

It is a reminder that most of us seek a deeper and richer understanding of the meaning and purpose of life

In his poem Church Going, Philip Larkin describes leaving an empty and underused church building that he had wandered into: “Back at the door I sign the book/ donate an Irish sixpence/ Reflect the place was not worth stopping for.” But then he continues: “Yet stop I did: in fact I often do/ And always end much at a loss like this/ Wondering what to look for/ wondering too/ When churches fall completely out of use/ What we shall turn them into…”

At one level, he is addressing the fact that churches in the West as we have known them are struggling with falling attendances and ageing congregations. This is both sad and challenging for those still committed, especially clergy who are being asked to do more and more with less and less while, at a leadership level, there is a lack of a credible vision to share with the wider world. There seems to be an inability to articulate a message that addresses the felt needs of people today. Instead, we get bogged down in endless discussions about issues that divide and exclude people, such as the role of women in the church and gender identity.

Exclusivism has little appeal to more widely travelled younger generations that have a greater appreciation of the human diversity that was known to and understood by Jesus. The church he founded was intended to reach out to the margins of society, to welcome the least of our brothers and sisters, and even our enemies. As Fr Richard Rohr put it: “When any church defines itself by exclusion of anybody, it is always wrong. It is avoiding its only vocation, which is to be Christ. The only groups that Jesus critiques are those who include themselves and exclude others from the always-given grace of God.”

Larkin in his “Wondering what to look for…” speaks for many today. It is a reminder that most of us, religious and so-called non-religious alike, seek a deeper and richer understanding of the meaning and purpose of life.


In his book Broken Signposts, former bishop of Durham Tom Wright says that we need relationships at every level in order to be human, especially in “today’s rootless society”. He writes: “We sense that something is amiss with the way things are. We want to find, as we say, ‘true love’ not just in the often-trivial sense of the ideal romance, but something that is solid, lasting, utterly reliable, and constantly life giving. That is why, even in today’s cynical world, most people love to celebrate a wedding. It appears to be raising a flag of hope in the midst of a world of broken dreams. It points to something much, much more than itself. There is an important paradox there: the deep love that has brought these two particular individuals together into this challenging and demanding commitment and relationship is not, after all, just about them. It is about all of us. About the world. About (as St John would say) God and the world. About Jesus.”

In tomorrow’s gospel, Jesus tells his followers what is key to a meaningful life: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind ... You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” This is not just about doing; it is about being – being in love with God and each other, the God who the First Epistle of St John insists is love. In every moment of love shared, a kiss, a hug, a generous deed, God is real and present, recognised or not.

“Yet stop I did: in fact I often do,” wrote Larkin the agnostic about his church visit and goes on to explain: “It pleases me to stand in silence here; A serious house on serious earth it is… /And that much never can be obsolete /Since someone will forever be surprising /A hunger in himself to be more serious /And gravitating with it to this ground…”