In my studies I am appreciating the opportunity to learn from some of the best Catholic writing of the last few years. The best of the new is every bit as good as the best of the old – and the best of the old is a great reminder that our family of faith extends back across centuries, and today we continue to benefit from the wisdom of those who have lived with Christ through grief and struggles, hopes and anxieties in generations past.
This week while I was searching in the library for a book published a few months ago I stumbled across a little book by one of the great Catholic intellectuals of the last century. Don’t be frightened by the word “intellectual” – it simply means that he was not afraid to engage his brain with his faith! Romano Guardini was an Italian-born German priest (his family moved to Germany when he was just a year old) who had a special care for the liturgy as the source and summit of all human existence. His little book “Sacred Signs” was first published before the first war (1911) and has been republished dozens of times since. It is available at this link as a free ebook.
Once I found the book I was distracted and spent the next half hour reading some of his reflections on different aspects of the church building and of the Mass. His brief reflection about church doors is especially relevant as we prepared for our weekly pilgrimage to Sunday Mass. Here it is:
Every time we enter a church, if we but notice it, a question is put to us. Why has a church doors?
It seems a foolish question. Naturally, to go in by. Yes, but doors are not necessary–only a doorway. An opening with a board partition to close it off would be a cheap and practical convenience of letting people out and in. But the door serves more than a practical use; it is a reminder. When you step through the doorway of a church you are leaving the outer-world behind and entering an inner world.
The outside world is a fair place abounding in life and activity, but also a place with a mingling of the base and ugly. It is a sort of market place, crossed and re-crossed by all and sundry. Perhaps “unholy” is not quite the word for it, yet there is something profane about the world. Behind the church doors is an inner place, separated from the market place, a silent, consecrated and holy spot. It is very certain that the whole world is the work of God and his gift to us, that we may meet Him anywhere, that everything we receive is from God’s hand, and, when received religiously, is holy.
Nevertheless people have always felt that certain precincts were in a special manner set apart and dedicated to God. Between the outer and the inner world are the doors. They are the barriers between the market place and the sanctuary, between what belongs to the world at large and what has become consecrated to God. And the door warns the one who opens it to go inside that they must now leave behind the thoughts, wishes and cares which here are out of place, my curiosity, my vanity, my worldly interests, my secular self. “Make yourself clean. The ground you tread is holy ground.” Do not rush through the doors. Let us take time to open our hearts to their meaning and pause a moment beforehand so as to make our entering-in a fully intended and recollected act.
The doors have yet something else to say. Notice how as you cross the threshold you unconsciously lift your head and your eyes, and how as you survey the great interior space of the church there also takes place in you an inward expansion and enlargement. Its great width and height have an analogy to infinity and eternity. A church is a similitude of the heavenly dwelling place of God. Mountains indeed are higher, the wide blue sky outside stretches immeasurably further. But whereas outside space is unconfined and formless, the portion of space set aside for the church has been formed, fashioned, designed at every point with God in view. The long pillared aisles, the width and solidity of the walls, the high arched and vaulted roof, bring home to us that this is God’s house and the seat of his hidden presence. It is the doors that admit us to this mysterious place. Lay aside, they say, all that cramps and narrows, all that sinks the mind. Open your heart, lift up your eyes. Let your soul be free, for this is God’s temple.
It is likewise the representation of you, yourself. For you, your soul and your body, are the living temple of God. Open up that temple, make it spacious, give it height.
Lift up your heads,
O ye gates, and be ye lifted up,
ye everlasting doors,
and the King of Glory shall come in.
Heed the cry of the doors. Of small use to you is a house of wood and stone unless you yourself are God’s living dwelling. The high arched gates may be lifted up, and the portals parted wide, but unless the doors of your heart are open, how can the King of Glory enter in?