Worship and worldbuilding

There is a hadith, a moslem teaching, that all the world is a mosque, a place of worship.  I grew up in a family which preached the belief that god is found wherever two or three come together to worship.  Both are creeds that promote the importance of prayer, and of unity in prayer, over the specifics of buildings and place.

Walking through the lovely summer landscape of Quercy, we passed the exquisite church of Le Bourg.  The hamlet is tiny, less than 300 residents and yet boasts this enormous church in an exquisite location overlooking a small valley.  It perfectly illustrates how places of worship, even in a secular society, punctuate the landscape.

Visual impact is obvious.  The sharp uprights of steeples, the disproportionate, wealth-displaying bulk of (pre-Reformation) christian churches in northern Europe.  The domes and curves of a mosque, which dominate even tiny villages in poor lands bordering on deserts.  Ornate temples with delicate fretwork, and multiple carved deities that adorn the flatlands of Rajasthan and the exhaust-ridden pavements of Neasden.  The distinctive, noisy architectures of wealthy piety.

Perhaps less obvious is the way such places punctuate space by the distance between them.  As commas mark breathing spaces in a sentence, the steeples of English villages are placed just a convenient distance apart to provide a break for prayer, a journey to services or to school.  Like markets, they represent a manageable mileage to transact a particular kind of business.  To walk, or ride, in the rural areas I know best (the United Kingdom, France) is to move from one church to the next.

In the flatlands of East Anglia, you can see the towers of churches for miles.  These days, they are some way from the villages, isolated by the plague years that drove families to build new homes somewhere away from the mass graves.  Since the death of the elms, they are often the only exclamation mark to be seen.    Devon is more like these gentle, wooded farmlands of the Lot, with churches sitting on small promontories, tucked into woodland, but still displaying the piety and prosperity of bygone generations.

There are rich metaphors and insights here for the creation of landscapes within fiction.  Many are well established tropes for the seeker for peace after trouble and drama:  the jaded detective who sits in an empty church to ponder the ways of murder or what his dog should have for dinner.  The sight of Le Bourg reminds me that, even in a secular or non-faith based tale, a created landscape needs to have its places where people gather to worship.  Faith and prayer may have no locus in the story, or happen only in crisis.   The writer still will recognise that the made, humanised landscape contains these buildings, often of great beauty, which confer their own grace and history into the lives of those around them.

About Sarah Tanburn

I'm a writer, a sailor and a strategic adviser to public organisations. Visit my websites to find out more.
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