Leaving Church

Protestant faith does not vanish into the sunlight as Catholic faith does, but leaves a shadowy ghost haunting the night of the soul. Faith, in the two cases, was not faith in the same sense; for the Catholic it was belief in a report or an argument; for the Protestant it was confidence in an allegiance. When Catholics leave the church they do so by the south door, into the glare of the market-place, where their eye is at once attracted by the wares displayed in the booths, by the flower-stalls with their bright awnings, by the fountain with its baroque Tritons blowing the spray into the air, and the children laughing and playing round it, by the concourse of townspeople and strangers, and by the soldiers, perhaps, marching past; and if they cast a look back at the church at all, it is only to admire its antique architecture, that crumbling filigree of stone so poetically surviving in its incongruous setting. It is astonishing sometimes with what contempt, with what a complete absence of understanding, unbelievers in Catholic countries look back on their religion. For one cultivated mind that sees in that religion a monument to his racial genius, a heritage of poetry and aft almost as precious as the classical heritage, which indeed it incorporated in a hybrid form, there are twenty ignorant radicals who pass it by apologetically, as they might the broken toys or dusty schoolbooks of childhood. Their political animosity, legitimate in itself, blinds their imagination, and renders them even politically foolish; because in their injustice to human nature and to their national history they discredit their own cause, and provoke reaction.

Protestants, on the contrary, leave the church by the north door, into the damp solitude of a green churchyard, amid yews and weeping willows and overgrown mounds and fallen illegible gravestones. They feel a terrible chill; the few weedy flowers that may struggle through that long grass do not console them; it was far brighter and warmer and more decent inside. The church—boring as the platitudes and insincerities were which you listened to there for hours—was an edifice, something protective, social, and human; whereas here, in this vague unhomely wilderness, nothing seems to await you but discouragement and melancholy. Better the church than the madhouse. And yet the Protestant can hardly go back, as the Catholic does easily on occasion, out of habit, or fatigue, or disappointment in life, or metaphysical delusion, or the emotional weakness of the death-bed. No, the Protestant is more in earnest, he carries his problem and his religion within him. In his very desolation he will find God. This has often been a cause of wonder to me: the Protestant pious economy is so repressive and morose and the Catholic so charitable and pagan, that I should have expected the Catholic sometimes to sigh a little for his Virgin and his saints, and the Protestant to shout for joy at having got rid of his God. But the trouble is that the poor Protestant can't get rid of his God; for his idea of God is a vague symbol that stands not essentially, as with the Catholic, for a particular legendary or theological personage, but rather for that unfathomable influence which, if it does not make for righteousness, at least has so far made for existence and has imposed it upon us; so that go through what doors you will and discard what dogmas you choose, God will confront you still whichever way you may turn. In this sense the enlightened Catholic, too, in leaving the church, has merely rediscovered God, finding him now not in the church alone, but in the church only as an expression of human fancy, and in human life itself only as in one out of a myriad forms of natural existence. But the Protestant is less dear in his gropings, the atmosphere of his inner man is more charged with vapours, and it takes longer for the light dubiously to break through; and often in his wintry day the sun sets without shining.