You cannot attend an Orthodox service and not be aware of doors. There are the doors that form the center of the icon screen, opening directly upon the altar. There are the two doors that flank them, one on either side, known as the “Deacon Doors.” Someone always seems to be coming out of one and going into another. One visitor to my parish confessed that the service reminded her of a “cuckoo clock.”
“The door opens. Someone comes out and says something and goes back in again.”
I have to admit that I have never been able to rid my mind of her description. Doors are important things, even within the Scriptures. Their place in the liturgical life of the Church is important for all of the same reasons.
Doors hide things. “Behind locked doors,” has an almost ominous sound to it. They were clearly invented in the course of human history to keep animals, people and pests outside.
But doors also reveal things.
After these things I looked, and behold, a door standing open in heaven. And the first voice which I heard was like a trumpet speaking with me, saying, “Come up here, and I will show you things which must take place after this.” (Rev 4:1)
Indeed, one of the characteristics of revelation is that something must first be hidden in order to be revealed. That which always stands naked, open and available does not serve for revelation.
It is this character of hidden-and-revealed that serves as one of the main currents in the drama of Orthodox liturgy. The Christian faith is apocalyptic – it has always the character of that-which-is-revealed. Though we may employ reason in the consideration of the faith, we are nowhere promised that this is the true manner of coming to know what God has given to us. Instead, our faith is that-which-has-been-made-known. It is the revelation (apokalypsis) of that which is hidden (the mysterion).
I personally think that there is something within the human that is particularly attuned to revelation. We describe the experience by saying, “A light came on,” or “The coin dropped.” The movement between ignorance and knowledge in such situations is not a path. It is sudden and even jarring. We see when shortly before we were blind. I would suggest that the knowledge acquired in such a manner differs qualitatively from knowledge gained in other ways.
It is the instinct for such knowledge and experience that creates the theme of “the doors” in Orthodox worship. Some find the doors somewhat daunting and exclusionary. They announce, “You cannot go here!” a sentiment utterly contrary to our modern democratic sensibilities. But the exclusionary aspect of the doors always exists not to hide but to reveal. That which is closed will be opened – but the opening requires that they first be closed.
The universe presents itself as a closed door. As soon as we intuit structure and order, our efforts to make sense of things are rebuffed. The mystery of knowledge is not the perception of the obvious.
Charles Townes, Nobel Laureate and father of laser technology, self-described Protestant Christian, once observed:
“Understanding the order of the universe and understanding the purpose in the universe are not identical, but they are not very far apart.”
His own breakthrough invention of the “Maser” (using microwaves rather than light), came to him while sitting on a park bench. Work and study preceded it, but the idea itself came as an “Aha! moment” in his words. It is not unlike Archimedes famous cry of “Eureka!” (“I have found it?”).
Such moments do not come like the sum at the end of a math problem – they are rather like the dawning realization of how the math problem is to be done. It is knowledge of a different sort. And, unlike the sums, such moments are frequently life-changing. They are perceptions that change how we see things. A door that was closed has now been opened.
Doors also permit or restrict movement. St. Mary of Egypt’s famous conversion occurred in the experience of a doorway that would not yield to her sin. Entering can mean nothing if its refusal is not also a possibility. There is a hymn from Great Lent, sung first on the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee:
Open to me the gates of repentance, O Giver of Life,
For my spirit rises early to pray towards thy holy temple,
bearing the temple of my body all defiled;
But in Thy compassion, purify me by the loving kindness of Thy mercy.
There is the thought within the Church that there must be a “place of repentance,” an opportunity that is never just a “given.” In our lives we can sometimes experience such catastrophic consequences in our actions that we cannot undo the harm we have done. No amount of asking forgiveness can make things right. It is among the most devastating places that anyone can reach. It’s for that reason that we pray for the gates or doors of repentance to be opened to us – that we might find a place and not be swept away in the tidal wave of our own destructive actions.
Most joyful, however, is the greatest entrance allowed by the doors – the entrance of God into our world and into our lives. It represents the deepest longing of the human heart: the return of the King and the restoration of all things.
Lift up your heads, O you gates! And be lifted up, you everlasting doors! And the King of glory shall come in. Who is this King of glory? The LORD strong and mighty, The LORD mighty in battle. Lift up your heads, O you gates! Lift up, you everlasting doors! And the King of glory shall come in. Who is this King of glory? The LORD of hosts, He is the King of glory. (Psa 24:7-10)
Perhaps the greatest moment in the Divine Liturgy comes when the Royal Doors open before the altar and the priest comes forth, carrying the Body and Blood of Christ with the words: “In the fear of God, and with faith, draw near!” It is the invitation to communion, a profound proclamation that our sins have been forgiven and that our union with God is at hand.
Such liturgical moments are profoundly true. The drama within the liturgy itself is made to serve the spiritual reality of the event. What they await is the corresponding movement within the human heart. Words alone are often not enough to open the door of the human heart itself. The dramatic portrayal adds yet one more plea from God in His invitation of love. Sadly, our hearts sometimes remain unmoved and the gates remain shut. It has always struck me as the greatest spiritual irony that the most recalcitrant locks that we encounter are those on the outside of the gates of paradise, those that insist to God that He remain beyond our world behind gates we have barred against Him. And there on the outside, we can rant and rage against all the injustice of our world and all that God has not done for us – or simply go about our business as though there were no paradise beyond those doors waiting to come forth.
Being a child of the sixties, I thought sure you’d be mentioning Jim Morrison. Ah well.
It is my understanding that they took their name from Huxley’s “The Doors of Perception.”
The liminal space where everything happens.
We have a small Orthodox library in our parish house named THE HALL OF DOORS ORTHODOX LIBRARY. The name was given because that room had five doorway entrances. When I had the sign made up, it came to me that there were more meanings than the obvious so I put the verse on the sign which says “Behold I stand at the door…..etc.”.
I’m also a child of the sixties so the group The Doors came to mind. Even one of their songs seemed to strangely resonate! Jim was always trying to “break on through”!
I was only just listening to recording of an old talk of Elder Aimilianos (on the topic of Hesychasm) that touched on this. While analysing the first chapters of Genesis, he kept impressing how ‘man’ tries to hide from, or protests of God’s presence, yet simultaneously complains of His absence… (go figure…) Therefore God must use ‘doors’ (and almost everything falls in the category of a potential ‘door’) -the key to which doors is our hesychasm.
A wonderful reflection, Father. Thank you! I feel as if I have been hugged….
Reminds me of the character Door in Gaiman’s Neverwhere. 🙂
Now thousands of readers of this blog will be thinking of cuckoo clocks during mass.
So long as the deacon doesn’t say cuckoo, they’ll be ok
over 20 years ago my brother and his wife married in their strange little Orthodox church. I remember feeling bad for Kim because she had to walk down the aisle in her beautiful dress on top of that bright red carpet. They stood in front of lots of doors. Big giant gold ones that were not going to look good in pictures. It was very different. I felt very out of place and I left hoping that one day I would belong there. My journey to the Orthodox way of life started a year ago. I use to worry….. I didn’t think I was worthy enough to be an Orthodox christian. I didn’t think I was smart enough. I didn’t think God cared enough. I felt so left out. Learning about the Faith for me lately is my happyest time of day. It’s when I feel the most worthy. The smartest. The most loved.
Yes, it is strange that we approach Orthodoxy and feel “unworthy.” But it’s a sign that we know God is there. And it is profoundly true that He opens the doors to us and bids us welcome. Unworthy but welcome. The prodigal son felt he was “no longer worthy to be called your son…” And the Father ran out to meet him.
I was received into the Church on the Sunday of the Prodigal Son in 1998. The meaning wasn’t lost on me. In converting, I stepped away from my Anglican priesthood, an identity I had for 18 years. I felt empty and naked – quite vulnerable – even ashamed. For the first several years, maybe longer than that, I felt terribly awkward. I can see in hindsight that most of what I felt was simply within me. I had been welcomed by the Father.
Within about a week of our entering the Church, a former parishioner showed up at my door. He had no idea about anything called “Sunday of the Prodigal Son.” He had a styrofoam cooler. He said, “We just slaughter a cow, and I’ve brought half to share with you.” In 18 years of priesthood, no one had ever done anything like that. But I stood on my porch and smiled. I knew that God had sent the beef. It was a heavenly gift that said, “And here’s the fatted cow.” It was some of the sweetest food I’ve ever eaten.
Welcome home, Leslie. May give multiply your joy!
Your words are encouraging thank you Father. And thank you big brother Christopher…..I did not think all bad things on your wedding day….it smelt great in there!
There is an expectation followed by wonder in a cuckoo clock. One reason they delight us.
“open to me the doors of repentance” This one of my favorite hymns.
And don’t forget the wardrobe doors, the entrance to Narnia. Lucy went through them alone, at first, and encountered Aslan. Then she went back to tell the good news to her brothers and sister, who then went through the doors with her to see for themselves.
“…in their strange little Orthodox church. I remember feeling bad for Kim because she had to walk down the aisle in her beautiful dress on top of that bright red carpet. They stood in front of lots of doors. Big giant gold ones that were not going to look good in pictures. It was very different. I felt very out of place and I left hoping that one day I would belong there. ”
Ah yes. The lighting in that church was horrible (the pictures are no good in truth). Remember the heat? It was the hottest day of the summer that year and the air conditioning was undersized, especially for a full church. Father had a fan blowing up Kim’s dress to keep her from passing out. Remember the choir, all 3 or 4 of them?
So “inadequate” in worldly terms. Our mother told me something that one of her co-workers told her after the service. He said that afterwords he felt that we were “truly married” that he and his wife were going to have to do it again. Such is the beauty and fullness of meaning of God’s Church and her services…
‘It’s for that reason that we pray for the gates or doors of repentance to be opened to us – that we might find a place and not be swept away in the tidal wave of our own destructive actions.’
Thanks, Fr. Stephen.
Thank you, Father, for this, as for all your thoughtful and helpful pieces.
I’d like to share my favourite door – the narrow door outside which the Good Thief stands, carrying his cross, patiently waiting to be the first to enter, as promised: “This day shalt thou be with me in Paradise.”
I have been lucky enough to visit Venice twice, and to stand in awe and wonder before the mosaic of the Last Judgement which fills the west wall of the ByzantineCathedral of Santa Maria Assunta on the island of Torcello. Everything is happening “Today” and “Now” as in our Troparia: the Crucifixion, the Resurrection and the Kingdom – the clouds of witness, as the dead rise at the sound of the angels’ trumpets from earth, sea, the jaws of lions and sea-monsters.
And in the bottom left-hand corner the Good Thief waiting at the narrow door.
There is an 18th Century Roman Catholic Church on the island of Malta that has become by default or design, the central place of worship for Eritrean and Ethiopian Orthodox. I was walking past the imposing facade of St James in the fading light today when I heard this loud wailing. I stopped to look. A young lady lay prostate before its closed doors. Her cry pierced my soul. Lord have Mercy.
Timely mention of Charles Townes. He reposed this past Tuesday (27 January 2015) at the age of 99½.
You bless me Father Freeman. I loved your response to Leslie. I hope I find a home in the Orthodox Church!
Thank you Fr. Stephen for this reflection. Made me once again ponder the depths of John 10:9 (“I am the doorway”), John 14:2 (“In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you.”)
and Matthew 27:51 (And, behold, the veil of the temple was torn in two from the top to the bottom). Pax vobiscum
I love what you said Mary Alice Cook~And don’t forget the wardrobe doors, the entrance to Narnia. Lucy went through them alone, at first, and encountered Aslan. Then she went back to tell the good news to her brothers and sister, who then went through the doors with her to see for themselves. <3