I’m currently reading Humphrey Carpenter’s biography of W.H. Auden, and have reached Auden’s brief period in Spain during the Civil War.
Auden travelled to Spain to work as an ambulance driver on the Republican side, but ended up at something of a loose end upon his arrival in Barcelona. In contrast to the romantic view of the Republican side that tended to prevail then as it does now, Auden found the factionalised politics of the Republicans – with their bitter divisions between anarchists and pro- and anti-Stalin communists – “particularly unpleasant”.
However, it was the treatment of the churches that especially dismayed him – perhaps surprisingly given the atheist and anti-religious views which he had held since his adolescence. Carpenter quotes Auden as follows:
I found as I walked through the city that all the churches were closed and there was not a priest to be seen. To my astonishment, this discovery left me profoundly shocked and disturbed.
As Carpenter observes, “to say that the churches were ‘closed’ was an understatement”. Barcelona’s fifty-eight churches had almost all been burned, and many of them demolished. This caused Auden a degree of shock that “puzzled and worried him”. As he later wrote:
The feeling was far too intense to be the result of a mere liberal dislike of intolerence, the notion that it is wrong to stop people from doing what they like, even if it something silly like going to church. I could not escape acknowledging that, however I had consciously ignored and rejected the Church for sixteen years, the existence of churches and what went on in them had been all the time been very important to me. If that was the case, what then?
I can identify with this. During my years as an atheist, I sometimes described myself as (in Woody Allen’s words) the “loyal opposition” – being more conscious than perhaps Auden was of my continued attachment to many aspects of the church, especially its music and architecture (without that making me any less vehement and outspoken in my rejection of its beliefs). But I recall a specific moment walking down the Cornmarket in Oxford, seeing St Mary Magdalen’s church, and realising how sorry I would be if the churches all became nothing more than museums.
Like Auden, the question this posed was: “If that was the case, what then?” For Auden, the answer was his return to the church within a few years of his time in Spain. For me, the answer was much the same – but only took a few months.