The Doors of the Heart

In the summer of 1952, an obscure event took place in London that would have a profound impact on the future of Orthodox Christianity in the English-speaking world. A seventeen-year-old English lad walked through the doors of St. Philip’s Russian Orthodox Church on Buckingham Palace Road (the Church has long since been torn down). Today he is known as Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, one of the most important figures in the contemporary Orthodox world. His own worlds vividly recount his experience:

I can remember exactly when my personal journey to Orthodoxy began. It happened quite unexpectedly one Saturday afternoon in the summer of 1952, when I was seventeen. I was walking along Buckingham Palace Road, close to Victoria Station in central London, when I passed a nineteenth-century Gothic church, large and somewhat dilapidated, that I had never noticed before. There was no proper notice-board outside it — public relations have never been the strong point of Orthodoxy in the Western world! — but I recall that there was a brass plate which simply said “Russian Church.”As I entered St Philip’s — for that was the name of the church — at first I thought that it was entirely empty. Outside in the street there had been brilliant sunshine, but inside it was cool, cavernous and dark. As my eyes grew accustomed to the gloom, the first thing that caught my attention was an absence. There were no pews, no chairs in neat rows; in front of me stretched a wide and vacant expanse of polished floor.Then I realized that the church was not altogether empty. Scattered in the nave and aisles there were a few worshipers, most of them elderly. Along the walls there were icons, with flickering lamps in front of them, and at the east end there were burning candles in front of the icon screen. Somewhere out of sight a choir was singing. After a while a deacon came out from the sanctuary and went round the church censing the icons and the people, and I noticed that his brocade vestment was old and slightly torn.My initial impression of an absence was now replaced, with a sudden rush, by an overwhelming sense of presence. I felt that the church, so far from being empty, was full — full of countless unseen worshipers, surrounding me on every side. Intuitively I realized that we, the visible congregation, were part of a much larger whole, and that as we prayed we were being taken up into an action far greater than ourselves, into an undivided, all-embracing celebration that united time and eternity, things below with things above….

…Before the service had ended, I left the church; and as I emerged I was struck by two things. First, I found that I had no idea how long I had been inside. It might have been only twenty minutes, it might have been two hours; I could not say. I had been existing on a level at which clock-time was unimportant. Secondly, as I stepped out on the pavement the roar of the London traffic engulfed me all at once like a huge wave. The sound must have been audible within the church, but I had not noticed it. I had been in another world where time and traffic had no meaning; a world that was more real — I would almost say more solid — than that of twentieth-century London to which I now abruptly returned.

Everything at the Vigil Service was in Slavonic, and so with my conscious brain I could understand not a single word. Yet, as I left the church, I said to myself with a clear sense of conviction: This is where I belong; I have come home. Sometimes it happens — is it not curious? — that, before we have learnt anything in detail about a person, place or subject, we know with certainty: This is the person that I shall love, this is the place where I need to go, this is the subject that, above all others, I must spend my life exploring. From the moment of attending that service at St Philip’s, Buckingham Palace Road, I felt deep in my heart that I was marked out for the Orthodox Church.

The full account may be read here.

A young man and his curiosity take him through a door – behind which are both an absence and a fullness. There are a large variety of doors within our lives – some are marked by time and place – others inexpressible except in the silence of the heart. There are a number of stories told of doors in the life of the Church. St. Mary of Egypt, a prostitute and drunkard, found herself unable to enter the door of the Church of the Resurrection in Jerusalem – prevented by an unseen hand. The obstacle of that doorway became the occasion for her conversion. The patriarch Jacob’s dream-encounter with a ladder to heaven is greeted upon waking with the exclamation, “This is none other than the gate of heaven!” Jacob enters into covenant with God.

Like Jacob’s dream, not all doors are physical. My own “doorway” was the first time I heard Rachmaninov’s Vespers. It was being played on the radio – and I heard it by chance. Both my wife and myself were utterly struck by the music. We listened carefully until it ended, wanting above all to find out what music this was. It was like nothing I had heard before – and opened the door to a deep longing that years later found its fulfillment in the Orthodox Church.

Doors commonly play a large role in the services of the Orthodox Church. The doors of the iconostasis open and close both for practical reasons and for mystical reasons (frequently “practicality” carries a mystery within). The doors are not essential – liturgies have been celebrated without them – but the doors of the heart are utterly essential – we cannot enter the Kingdom of God except we go through them.

Christ refers to Himself as “the Door,” and encourages us to “knock.”

In my experience, the doors of the heart are rather exceptional. We are not always able to find them (or certainly not without difficulty). They are encounters with God and His kingdom and are thus not subject to our beck and call. Instead, such doors are a call to us, an invitation to enter.

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 (Psalm 24:9-10).

32 comments:

  1. My doorway was a cup of coffee. That cup/door might have led to revolutionary actions like what they discuss in European salons, but instead it led to a true understanding of where authority lies.

  2. Thank you Fr. Stephen,
    My door was entering a Serbian Orthodox church with some trepidation. I entered alone. Yet, not far into the liturgy, which was in Slavonic, I also knew that I was home. A little more prosaic than the bishop, I had my “eureka” moment. I had found it…rather He had found me. I was 49.
    “Lift up your heads, O you gates. Lift up, you everlasting doors, and the King of Glory shall come in.” We sang this very Psalm when I was in high school A Capella choir. I never forgot it. Now looking back, I can see that Christ was preparing my heart even as a 16 year old to eventually step through those doors.

  3. My door opened after many more had entered and eventually walked right through. Subsequently I can and could see that I was allowed to walk through those many other doors to see observe even live by those parameters precepts concepts, then knew they were just gifts along the way, and swinging doors. Doors from childhood as an often fearful little fellow, but also often with a sense of presence and goodness and holiness. Finally out the doors of Roman Catholicism and into the doors of restlessness and rebellion. I kept walking through doors of many attractions and seeking; what did they have to offer. Some I zipped right through, having seen red flags very early in the process. (Not for me!!!) Some took longer to find the EXIT door. Buddhist doors, Hindu doors, many unmentionable, some frightening doors. Some ornate, some simple. Then through the doors of the Pedi ICU when our first son was born with tetralogy of fallot, and heart surgery at one day old. That led back to Christianity and many revolving doors, changing churches to dizzying degrees still seeking
    35 or more years went by and Gods Grace brought us next door to an Orthodox Church! My landlord was a member and invited us to “come see”! Indeed these were the doors my wife and I had always been seeking. Indeed our loving Father opened these doors and the doors of our hearts.
    What were icons, beautifully different appointments of decor and of course the doors to the altar behind the iconostasis? Icons I was told at some point were “windows” into heaven. At some point early on, I discovered that icons of our three boys were all next to each other on that iconostasis, my daughters icon in the Narthex, my wife, mother, and daughters in law as well also on the other end of the iconostasis! Yes I knew I was home! Our family portraits were even hung and displayed within this long searched for home!
    This may seem to be somewhat wandering off topic, but it is so REAL to us in a personal way! I just had to share the degree to which God will go to open the doors to our hearts ! Assurance and a sense of humor to boot!
    As always, Thank you Father for your perspectives and sharing them with us!
    “Onwards and Upwards “! Adios, DM

  4. Having been baptized in the Roman Catholic Church at 10 days old, I do not remember the first time I walked through the doors! (However, I will be celebrating the 63rd anniversary of that day in a couple of weeks.)

    I have walked through many doors since then and oftentimes experience that overwhelming sense of home, even if I have not been in that particular church building before.

    I think this occurs because I know that Christ is present in the sacramental Mysteries. And my heart, doors open wide, leaps for joy – for He is my home.

    (Sadly, too many times my heart-doors have not been open. May He have mercy on me and always grant me the grace to open them once again.)

  5. Thank you Fr. Stephen! And Glory to God for All Things! Many years to you, Mary Benton, on your 63rd anniversary, God bless you and keep you close to Himself always, thank you for sharing your comments here. The doors! An amazing and loving image and reality from Our Good God Who loves Mankind! I am forever grateful!

  6. My door was a car door. A priest, later learned to be an Orthodox priest, kindly gave several college students a ride to an airport. My boyfriend and I later decided to take a course on the Life of Christ from him. He was a prof in the religion department. The boyfriend became my husband and then an Orthodox priest who was at the professor’s death bed and closed his eyes. Never underestimate the power of an act of kindness.

  7. I am thinking of the parable of the sower and if my own tendancy to shut the doors and turn the lights out as if no one is home. Sometimes I have to pry the doors open hearing the hinges creak because they are rusty.

  8. Father, my own profound moment was more curious. I was born into Orthodoxy and raised an Orthodox. Yet I was ‘lukewarm’. I begun to warm up during one Epiphany Service when the Priest was reading from the Gospel ‘This is MY beloved Son, ‘…. I started crying really hard as if something very special and very important was being revealed to me. This was The Truth. And I begun doing something about it, like going to Confession for the first time. I was 33 years old at the time and this was just over two decades later.
    Halleluiah!

  9. Fr Stephen,
    You always write on topics that inspire and/or encourage deeper reflections. In many respects this would also encourage us to till the soil of our souls. For this reason, perhaps, a few ‘rocks’ in our souls come to the surface. And that is indeed a good thing I think, as then we have the opportunity to place the rocks to the side and allow God to plant fruitful seeds.

    There is so much beauty in this article and in the picture you have selected. And beauty again reflected in these comments above.

    Sometimes I yearn almost to the point of grief that I’m not able to describe with such eloquence the beauty I see present in the Higgs Field. It is indeed my ‘door’. And that door led to another, that of my parish home. These doors are so intertwined that, ultimately, I’m not able to separate them. Through this Door, for which the others are icons, I entered into the world where I now live, but it’s taking some time for my eyes to become accustomed to the Light in this place.

    thank you Fr Stephen.

  10. My poetic door: As a teenager, hearing Rimsky-Korsakov’s Russian Easter Overture on one of Dad’s records. It spoke to my Russian roots, but my family was modern. We didn’t need God. 45 years later, at my first Pascha, I was overwhelmed! That music was home!
    My prosaic door: Reading Terry Mattingly’s column, Get Religion, about thousands of Evangelical Protestants joining the Orthodox church in 1987. I had become a Christian through the testimony of my husband, but I thought that the Orthodox Church was only for those born or married into it. I knew the work of those Evangelicals, and I was impressed. I said, in 1987, that if I ever wanted to return to a church that featured the Eucharist, Orthodoxy could be the place., because the other options didn’t look good. In 2003, I knew it was time to find another church. I had seen notices in the paper about an English-speaking Orthodox Church. This is the place!

  11. Bless Father! Thank you…beautiful article and discussion. Even Met. Ware shares the same type of homecoming with the flock!

    Mary Benton… wonderful! many years!
    Lynne…God even goes “church shopping” with us 😉 . Good story! Our “retired” Priest came from EOC as well.
    Dee…no doubt in my mind from the womb you have “science DNA”! The Higgs Field! Oh how God knows each one of us! (That was good Dee 🙂 )
    Mine was in very first visit to Church. Like Met. Ware said “before we have learnt anything in detail” I was completely taken! Like Thalia says above, the only response was tears…throughout the whole service! I knew…..

    Blessed day!

  12. Oh, Joan, how poignant!
    My door opened when a Methodist minister couldn’t answer a question about the vision a devout, elderly friend had days before she died.
    The next day, I stumbled (or God led me) to this blog through a blog post that precisely answered my question.
    I read Fr. Stephen’s book that afternoon and started reading everything I could find on Orthodoxy. Now I am a member of the local Church.

  13. I really have no good idea of an exact “door” into the Church but God led me here. Perhaps I first began to understand somewhat reading Fr. Damick’s book “Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy” (it was certainly instrumental in my journey). However, I am equally certain that coming to the mystical theology that Orthodoxy teaches was/is equally instrumental.

    Perhaps I tend to err with “too much mysticism” at times, but it has been so incredibly important in my journey. Moving from the “hyper-rational” approach of most of my (Protestant) life, the mysticism of the Orthodox Church is like water in the desert….

  14. The Door for me was when I was very young. I don’t know where I read it, but I read of a RC Saint who argued that sin was a sickness. I have no idea how old I was, but I must have been very young, because as time wore on, I forgot about it. It was easy to do so since I was surrounded by denominational Christians, and without any Orthodox contacts.

    I have a long list of things I struggled with, I was going to list them, but suffice to say, I checked out of my denomination’s tenants, and would have become a Church attending Atheist except for two things. One, I believed there was a God. Two, I believed that whomever he was, he wasn’t what the “Christian World” taught him to be.

    I read, and I read and I read, until I stumbled upon a resource that mentioned orthodoxy; specifically, that the Orthodox world never had indulgences. From there, I found Molly Sabourin’s answer to, “Are you saved?” (http://www.ancientfaith.com/podcasts/closetohome/saved)
    I also found Bishop Kallistos Ware’s tract, “How are we Saved?” (http://store.ancientfaith.com/how-are-we-saved-the-understanding-of-salvation-in-the-orthodox-tradition/)
    from there, my reading list expanded exponentially.

    I am no longer a Christian Atheist.

  15. What beautiful and precious memories these are! I can locate my doorway into Orthodoxy very precisely, perhaps because I was at a literal doorway.

    I was standing watch to an entryway while our ship was in dry dock. The watch was dreadfully boring so I had been sneaking down my copy of The Brothers Karamazov, nightly. Reading it furtively in the many snatches of solitude which that particular watch afforded me, I made the acquaintance of Elder Zosima. In the twinkling of an eye, my heart was changed! I read and wept, again and again. I was an atheist before I started reading it, and although I tried maintain that atheism outwardly, I was utterly transformed. Where Fr. Zosima was, there would I be, too.

    Even though Fr. Zosima was a fictional character he managed to interact with me and showed me the Christ that was in him. I think I wept because I could admit what I had been trying for so long to hide- that I was wretched and weak. I could only acknowledge the truth about myself because for the first time I met someone who was patient and gentle with me though I had nothing to offer Him. Indeed, the less I tried to offer Him in the way of my merits and the more I showed Him my sores, the more merciful I knew Him to be. (I wonder if we weep- for whatever outward reason- because God’s lovingkindness is too beautiful for our hearts to contain.)

    As with Elder Zosima, so it is with this blog. Thank you Father Stephen, for always speaking a kind word-may God open the doors of many hearts through them!

  16. I am recovering from the years of resisting the seemingly purposeless beauty my heart knows at once and that it longs for, but for which my environment demands a rational explanation.

    I am being healed from the wounds inflicted on an alien who sees home even while wandering in a land of hyper-rationalism; being told repeatedly, consistently, and confidently that there is no home.

    “You do not see that. Sit down.”

    “I’m sorry, you’re right. How could I think I saw anything like that. I must have been mistaken. But wait, what’s that?”

    I’m finding more and more water in this modern desert, Byron. The water has always been there, but the residents say it doesn’t exist. And it’s true, the water does not come from the modern plumbing, but wells up in springs hidden away in quiet copses and dales, frolicking down the sides of treacherous granite, places not seen unless sought.

    Yet, even lying on the ground, wounded and pushed down by petty, little rationale–God given intelligence squandered on hopelessness–even as I lay there, about to get up for the hundredth time, my blue eyes see the blue sky carrying the brilliant white clouds so effortlessly, and I know, once again, the truth.

    Home does exist, and even now, I am there.

  17. Father, thank you for writing this door. And thank you Everyone, for allowing glimpses through your doors.

    Only by opening them and walking through them, or at the very least leaving them open with the screen door latched, do we begin to know life.

    I just looked again at the picture you chose for this post, Father. Narnia! Quite appropriate, I must say.

  18. “In my experience, the doors of the heart are rather exceptional. We are not always able to find them (or certainly not without difficulty). They are encounters with God and His kingdom and are thus not subject to our beck and call. Instead, such doors are a call to us, an invitation to enter.”

    How especially true this is. Yet in our egotistic separation from God, it is easy to think that it is we who open the doors of the heart. I am reminded of the words of Fr. Dumitru Staniloae:

    “Christ dwells in the heart and opens the door for us because we call out His name, because we show our need for Him. But this need is awakened in us by a kind of feeling of His sweetness in our vicinity. He makes us call Him… Without having at the beginning the consciousness that He is in our heart, He attracts our thoughts to Him, and by them we knock continually at the door of the heart, at His door. Then He too knocks at the door of our conciousness with these thoughts. He opens the door so that we can enter our consciousness. In the heart we meet Jesus, but in as much as He had gone out by thought of Him before us, as the Father went out to meet the prodigal son, from experience we can’t tell that He was previously in the heart, but it seems to us that He had just entered, along with our entrance. But the persistence with which we sought Him can only be explained by the fact that He was there ahead of us, in a hidden way. Actually He was influencing us, first to help us, then to also put our powers to work in finding Him, that they might develop, and be able to understand Him.”

    Glory to God for all the doors, both visible and invisible, that He places before us. May God grant us the ears to hear His call and the eyes to see these doors, not as a barrier that separates us, but as a passageway to Him.

  19. I think there have been more than one door: having a Ukrainian Orthodox church looming over our own Catholic church, failing at marriage the Catholic way. One was slammed in my face because it led somewhere that wasn’t exactly the Church, but an incredible simulation!

    But the best door was Agia Sophia. No, not the one in Turkey, the one in Colorado Springs. It was a coffee shop. It was also a large Orthodox bookstore run by at least one monk, with some beautiful icons. It was the best and most peaceful place to go after I had lost my job. But, I was too busy trying to be a super-Catholic to pay attention at the time. Later on they had set up a chapel and held Divine Liturgy there, which was no surprise at all, but I just found out it’s been closed since the end of 2017. If you could sing Memory Eternal for a place I would.

    Speaking of doors, isn’t it curious that today, on the Old Calendar, Christ says “If anyone enters by Me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture”? Not just go in and stay there like I might expect, but in and out. Sometimes I feel like even though I went in and was Chrismated, I’ve wandered back out to my old sinful ways. Lord have mercy!

  20. I was struck by Metropolitan Kallistos’ comment about the solidity of the “one- story” world of Orthodox Christianity. I just recommended Lewis’ The Great Divorce” to my teenage daughter and we have been talking about the people who have no substance vs the very real substance of Heaven.
    Good stuff. Unfortunately I don’t have the time to write of the decades long door that led me home to standing unworthily at Christ’s Altar.

    In Christ,
    Fr Nathan

  21. Sometimes I feel like even though I went in and was Chrismated, I’ve wandered back out to my old sinful ways. Lord have mercy!

    I often feel this way. And it is worse now that I know how close God is; how Christ never leaves us!

  22. Byron,
    You made in think of this. If our body is the temple of the Holy Spirit then we are completely suffused by Him, every part of our being…and then partaking of Christ in the Eucharist…He truly never leaves us!
    Then, around me are visible, walking icons…those made in His image. And He further inundates me with His presence through the beauty of His creation. Truly an inescapable present/Presence!

  23. Dean,
    In that each human being is fearfully and wonderfully made – every soul is a door into fear and wonder – the gate of heaven (though sometimes it is clouded by the false “presence” of a hell).

  24. At one point in my life, the door of my heart was closed and locked. There was darkness inside it.
    One night I had a dream that I was travelling through a dark underground corridor. I was searching an exit. I was searching light. In my dream, I kept walking, and I remember the feeling of guilt knowing that I deserve to be trapped in darkness, but in my heart there was a lot of hope! Unexpectedly I found a door. I ran to open it, and I was stunned to realize that I wasn’t outside, but in a building. I looked around, and I recognized the walls, the icons: this was my very church, the All Saints Orthodox Church!!
    So my exit from darkness began with opening the door of my church.

  25. Justin,
    From one Kolodziej-lineage to another: Sounds like you’ve had a rough time. I pray you are doing better now.

  26. My door was Kyriacos Markides book The Mountain of Silence and “meeting” contemporary Christian saints through this book, especially Saint Seraphim and his famous quote, “The purpose of the Christian life is the acquisition of the Holy Spirit.” That was a massive “A-ha” moment for me. Saint Seraphim eventually brought me through the actual doors of the Saint Seraphim Church in Santa Rosa. I was certainly seeking the Truth, but I had no clue it was to be found in Christ and His Church. I has been a remarkable journey.

  27. My dear sister-in-law shared with me a ‘vision’ of a door that opened my heart to the grand ‘moreness’ of Orthodoxy 8 years ago that continues to this day…as best as I can recall…she saw herself in a small room with a door on each wall, one of which she had come in by. A table stood in the middle, full of delicious foods, some she had helped prepare, all meant for her to eat. On the wall ahead of her a bigger door full of light opened, beckoning her to come (was it the east wall?). When she stepped over the threshhold she was nearly blinded by a grand banquet table that stretched out ahead of her endlessly, with foods and delicacies she had never seen nearly spilling over the sides. Standing at this table she had no hands. She was being fed by Christ Himself…

  28. Debbie A.
    Awesome! Just awesome!
    No hands…being fed by Christ Himself. I’ll never forget this one, Debbie! You describe the vision beautifully.
    Thank you for sharing!

  29. I have been thinking about my doors and there are many I could name. Almost all of them involve some existential pain for me. I have come to the conclusion that my most significant door was my Baptism and Chrismation at the hands of a priest who was deeply troubled and dysfunctional. He later caused deep and lasting pain to my family. Still I have to say that he did more to open the doors of my heart to Jesus than many more pleasant and uplifting moments. My soul was permanently changed.

    He long ago left the Church and his own family, a broken man. I can only weep for him and remember the great gift he gave me by the laying on of his hands and sealing me with the Holy Spirit. I pray that he be granted mercy at the dread judgment seat.and thank God for him.

  30. I am reading all of these beautiful dream stories/revelations and thinking about a recent dream of my own. I hesitated to verbalized it to others because it was so real to me that when my lips spoke of my dream, I was afraid it would become like water in my hand and I would lose my peace. But reading all of these accounts makes me want to share.

    I was very upset in my dream. Something was threatening one of my children. A fear and pain arose that I couldn’t describe, only one that I could feel. Then out of nowhere, our parish priest came toward me, in his black robe when all of a sudden I felt this amazing peace. It was the peace of Christ Himself. Our priest didn’t transform into Christ in my dream, he remained as himself, but the peace he brought me was not human, it was only peace that Christ could give me. I never even knew that such a peace existed.
    Even though I know that I cannot just recall that peace as if it were to be used as some kind coping tool, I try to recall the dream just so that I never forget that Christ is in our Midst, in my midst.

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