Eleanor Rigby and a Common Failure of Institutionalized Christianity

Have you listened to the Beatles’ song “Eleanor Rigby” recently?  It’s one of my favorite Beatles songs.  I just listened to it again and was struck by it’s very poignant central message.

Eleanor Rigby statue, Liverpool, by Tommy Steele, 1982.

The song features two individuals: Eleanor Rigby, a woman who lives alone, and Father MacKenzie, the priest of the local parish.  The suggested tragedy is that these two individuals never meet up in any meaningful way, never connect with each other beyond perhaps a perfunctory “hello” at the end of weekly mass.

During the week, Eleanor stands at the window of her small apartment looking out at the world, wishing she could be out there among people and be truly seen and accepted for who she is.  Instead, she keeps a “face” inside a jar beside the door to put on whenever she emerges from her lonely little world inside her apartment.  She’s afraid of not being loved and accepted for who she is.  So she puts on the “face” she thinks will be acceptable.

The one time the song describes her emerging, it’s to attend a wedding.  But that only increases her angst.  She picks up the rice in the church where the wedding has been and wishes it was for her.  “Who is it for?”  She’s consigned to live a fantasy of imagining and longing it’s her.

Meanwhile, Father MacKenzie spends his week writing his Sunday sermon.  But the song points out that he writes sermons that no one hears.  The implication is that very few people are there at church on Sunday.  And whoever does attend isn’t very interested in his words.  He feels useless and meaningless.  But he keeps writing in his little study because it keeps him occupied, away from the lonely reality of his life and his own existential angst.  Better to be alone in his office then out with people who don’t “see” him, either.

And at night, all by himself, “Look at him working, darning his socks in the night when there’s nobody there, What does he care?”  Like Eleanor who keeps her face in a jar by the door to be able to put on when she might go out or someone might visit, he darns his socks to get ready to use when he goes out.  He must look good, after all, for whoever might notice.  But of course, no one ever does.

As the chorus theme repeats, “All the lonely people, Where do they all come from? All the lonely people, Where do they all belong?”

Two lives, living alone, not really “seen” by anyone.  One is too busy writing sermons to notice the other.  The other is too busy worrying about what others might think about her to notice him.  Two ships passing in the night.

Until finally the end comes when the two meet up.  Father MacKenzie officiates Eleanor Rigby’s funeral.  And this tragedy becomes complete:

“Eleanor Rigby died in the church and was buried along with her name,
Nobody came.
Father Mckenzie wiping the dirt from his hands as he walks from the grave,
No one was saved.”

The Beatles’ indictment against the institutionalized Church is driven home.  A lonely woman is completely forgotten.  Her name is buried with her body.  And all Father MacKenzie is concerned about is whether she or anybody else was saved or not by his sermons.

Here’s the way one reviewer put it:  “This song is a bold-faced accusation against the self-righteous and overly religious that refuse to reach out to the all the lonely people and then wonder why so few come to church.  This song is saying that it isn’t enough to be friendly. This song is saying that as long as people, especially religious people, remain cold and aloof, the Eleanor Rigby’s of this world will continue to die and be ‘buried along with her name.'”

Isn’t it a tragedy that institutions too often get so self-absorbed with their own structures, rituals, rules, and policies–the “work” they simply have to keep carrying on–that individual people are forgotten or set aside or even neglected.  It writes its sermons in the isolation of the office and study, It conducts Its “business” in the isolation of Its board rooms, oftentimes ironically not connecting to the very people It’s suppose to be loving, helping, and paying attention to.  Rather than trying to listen to people’s stories, it’s easier to preach them sermons.

And whatever attention is given to the people, it’s attention more for their “salvation” than their personal needs and interests.  The religious institution allows their faces to remain in the jars beside their door.  In other words, people have to put on the mask in order to feel accepted and loved and embraced by the Church.

And what results?  As Eleanor Rigby reminds us, “All the lonely people, Where do they all come from? All the lonely people, Where do they all belong?”

In contrast, Jesus said, “I have come that people will have life, abundant life.”  How different Eleanor Rigby’s “song” would be if the followers of Jesus would give the same gifts He came to give:  abundant life now and for ever.  And central to the experience of abundant living is meaningful connections with others, being truly “seen” and “heard” and loved.

If this happened with greater regularity, as part of the very DNA of the Church, the Eleanor’s of the world could emerge from their apartments into a world filled with love and compassion and acceptance.  Preachers would feel the courage to connect with others and even themselves without agendas other than to simply love and be loved in ways people and themselves need it the most.

It’s time for a new stanza to Eleanor Rigby.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

4 thoughts on “Eleanor Rigby and a Common Failure of Institutionalized Christianity

  1. Thanks, Dr. G.! I’ve always loved and been drawn to this song. Thanks to your insights, I shall never again hear it without being reminded of its deeper message – I am grateful for that insight.

    • Thanks, Re-Gene, for your kind words! I love this song, too, and am so moved by the sentiments. Blessings to you!

    • I so agree with you, Miriam! Imagine what life could be like surrounded by people who boldly chose to love others no matter what! May we all find that experience! Thanks for your comments.

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