The entrance to my primary school was a gateway in a wall built from the flintstones of Reading’s ruined Abbey. Running across the playground could be painful, if you were not careful and collided full tilt with an array of sharp-edged fossil chunks. It had a Dickensian feel, not least because on the far side the grounds abutted on the wall of Reading Gaol, where Oscar Wilde had been confined. Some of the doorways and walls of the Abbey are still standing, so there was a strong sense of being close to the distant past.
My mother, like other mothers, would leave me at the gate to venture into the turbulent uncertainties of other families’ offspring and the sense of multiple undecided destinies. She also took me and my sisters one evening to a special event held in the ruins to the right of the school in this photo. A live, open-air performance of Shakespeare’s Macbeth was given amongst these craggy walls. Special lighting behind each hollow, empty window space captured the shadowy presence of the three witches up above our seats. Fierce, battling Scots rode in on real horses. Fresh breezes tugged at our hair and threatened to prevent us hearing the actors’ words.
So this was a place on the threshold of imaginary, dangerous turmoil. Here also I was commended for spotting the alert voice of the New Testament evangelist, using the words, ‘At that time, Jesus went…’ Yes, Jesus sought mercy amongst the pressures of social upheaval.
When we travel, we hope that when the heat gets too much or we feel hungry and thirsty, God’s Providence may bring us a friendly face and a chance of hospitality. But tourism takes us through areas of ruined classical cities, where once was a lively population and hospitality was likely. However, that population died long ago, and all they have left is the skeleton of a dwelling. This picture reminds me of a similar doorway, to a house which no longer existed, when I visited Athens in my late teens, when a military junta ruled Greece.
I had taken a bus from the airport into Athens in the early hours. By five in the morning it was light, and beginning to be warmer. I had planned to visit the Parthenon before the crowds arrived, so I sat down on the step in front of a doorway like this to gather my wits for the climb up the hill. But there was an old wooden door in the doorway, and this suddenly opened behind me. A fellow traveller, an American I think, emerged, wished me good morning and went on his way. He had slept the night behind a door and a door frame.
It was a comical, theatrical moment, as if an ancient Greek house servant had come back to life to greet me. Like Silas and St. Paul, I was wondering what signs or messengers might show up in my dreams, to send me off on a more purposeful path.
It is not unusual to let spiritual curiosity lead us. We may drift fairly casually through what seems like a new religious doorway, assuming that we are well equipped to sort out the genuine advice from delusions. We talk cheerfully with ‘Christian Scientists’ about quirky theories of healing which have little genuinely prayerful support to offer. Here is an even more extreme example, a shop just across the road from Forest Gate Station in East London.
There is something alarming about the calm assurance of the message spelling out a way of life on which the owner will give advice. Preparing for marriage is indicated as an available service, requiring consultation with an astrologer and ‘new age’ remedies against whatever might go wrong.
Most troubling, though, is the overriding motto: “Only Luck is Powerful – Neither Education nor Hard Work”. What place does this fatalism have, in an area of London where the cultural mix of recent arrivals, many with a poor grasp of English, will severely stretch the abilities of any teacher to guide their children towards educated competence? This outlook struck me as both sadly lacking in the advantages of faith and irresponsible. Promises of emotional ambiguity and mental failure are being promoted as ancient wisdom.
What chance would a couple have, of setting children out on a life of creative achievements, or even sympathetic and supportive friendships, if they trusted only horoscopes? Prayers for the floundering youth of East London are sorely needed!
Lift up your heads, O ye gates; and be ye lift up, ye everlasting doors; and the King of glory shall come in. Psalm 24:7
Words of Pope Francis in Bangui when he opened the Holy Door.
God has brought me here among you, in this land, while the universal Church is preparing for the opening of the Jubilee Year of Mercy. I am especially pleased that my pastoral visit coincides with the opening of this Jubilee Year in your country. From this cathedral I reach out, in mind and heart, and with great affection, to all the priests, consecrated men and women, and pastoral workers of the nation, who are spiritually united with us at this moment. Through you, I would greet all the people of the Central African Republic: the sick, the elderly, those who have experienced life’s hurts. Some of them are perhaps despairing and listless, asking only for alms, the alms of bread, the alms of justice, the alms of attention and goodness.
But like the Apostles Peter and John on their way to the Temple, who had neither gold nor silver to give to the paralytic in need, I have come to offer God’s strength and power; for these bring us healing, set us on our feet and enable us to embark on a new life, to “go across to the other side” (cf. Luke 8:22).
Jesus does not make us cross to the other side alone; instead, he asks us to make the crossing with him, as each of us responds to his or her own specific vocation. We need to realize that making this crossing can only be done with him, by freeing ourselves of divisive notions of family and blood in order to build a Church which is God’s family, open to everyone, concerned for those most in need. This presupposes closeness to our brothers and sisters; it implies a spirit of communion. It is not primarily a question of financial means; it is enough just to share in the life of God’s people, in accounting for the hope which is in us (cf. 1 Peter 3:15), in testifying to the infinite mercy of God who is “good [and] instructs sinners in the way” (Psalm 24:8). Jesus teaches us that our heavenly Father “makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good” (Matthew 5:45). Having experienced forgiveness ourselves, we must forgive others in turn. This is our fundamental vocation: “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).
One of the essential characteristics of this vocation to perfection is the love of our enemies, which protects us from the temptation to seek revenge and from the spiral of endless retaliation. Jesus placed special emphasis on this aspect of the Christian testimony (cf. Matthew 5:46-47). Those who evangelize must therefore be first and foremost practitioners of forgiveness, specialists in reconciliation, experts in mercy. This is how we can help our brothers and sisters to “cross to the other side” – by showing them the secret of our strength, our hope, and our joy, all of which have their source in God, for they are grounded in the certainty that he is in the boat with us.
We are, somewhat belatedly perhaps, addressing the year of Mercy. Pope Francis began the year in Bangui, Central African Republic, opening the Holy Door in the Cathedral there. But open any door or gate, open any book, and you could find something new, something beautiful, when you cross the threshold.
Are you going in to spend time in a friend’s house, or leaving home on a mission – even if it’s only to the shop for bread, you can be walking out, or walking in, for God, alongside him. Feeding the family may be your mission for today, either buying the daily bread or working to afford it. Out you go to your work, come back to your home, and remember he is at your side as he was with the disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24). Open your gate, and let him in!
Lift up your heads, O ye gates; and be ye lift up, ye everlasting doors; and the King of glory shall come in. PS 24:7
Various members of our team will be writing about mercy in the next few weeks, but we start today with Pope Francis’s words as he threw open the Holy Door of Mercy at Bangui Cathedral.
We have seen most of this picture before: the disciples crowding around the risen Jesus with Thomas among them, touching him, supporting each other as they come to grips with this unlooked-for reality. The Church comes to birth in solidarity.
The right hand frame though shows how determinedly the disciples kept themselves safe: that massive door, fit for a castle keep, and their dog, faithfully guarding the threshold. His ears are pricked; he knows something is going on inside, but wears the resigned look of a puzzled dog who knows he does not understand, although he’s been among them on the road, eating the scraps that fell from their table (Matthew 15:26).
Just once open the door and watch him bound in, greeting his old friend without inhibition, without question, without needing to understand. He would know with every doggy sense; now, with the door shut, he knows that he does not know!
“If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.”
William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.
So, let us pray that we may open ourselves up, or better allow the risen Lord to come in through the chinks of our cavern, bringing with him eternity, infinity, joy; that we may rejoice, even if we do not understand.