Doors

I love church doorways. It may have something to do with my admiration for the portal sculptures on the west entrance at Reims cathedral where the smiling, elegant figures seem to welcome you into paradise. Or maybe it’s because I was once captivated by the door handles at San Xavier de la Bac Mission in Tucson, which are in the shape of a serpent. (Since I’ve seen this, I’ve never really been able to get it out of my mind that in order to enter church you have to grasp the serpent.)

Yet even ordinary doorways of churches, simple entrances, and ones that have no narrative artwork, seem to me a natural symbol. The movement from outside to inside suggests so much—warmth, or coolness, journey to destination, the threshold of gathering. Just as surely, the movement from inside to outside is an evocative moment. Out to daylight, to world, to mission, to “the street”—a term that makes sense in my urban environment here in New York—with all that this implies.

It therefore has always seemed right and just to me that some of the Church’s liturgical rituals take place, not in the sanctuary, but at the entrance, at the doors. It is there that, according to our liturgical books, the priest meets the wedding couple, there that the coffin of the deceased is met and blessed. And it is there, in an act most foundational, that the Church signs with the cross those who will become catechumens and in a similar way welcomes parents and godparents bearing infants to be baptized. It is this last set of rituals that sparks my reflections here.

Why is it that so many priests and liturgy planners choose not to place those initiation rites at the doors? Sure, there are alternatives given in the ritual books. It’s a wise thing for the ritual books to do, as necessity sometimes does limit the ability to use spaces that one would like to use under better circumstances. But even when the entry is available and could be used, often it is not used. And no plans are made to overcome the obstacles when they could be overcome.

Maybe it’s just inertia. The reason I’ve heard most often is visibility and audibility. People can’t see. (Heaven forbid they should be asked to turn around in their pews, or move from their cherished spot for even a brief interval.) People can’t hear. (We can put a man on the moon, but we can’t put a microphone in the entryway of the church.) Occasionally I come across someone who wants everything to take place in the middle of church because it’s “in the midst of the people,” but this sadly suggests that the entryway must be too tiny for a gathering of people—a real problem in some churches.

After listening to a lot of discussion about celebrating the first catechumenal rite and the beginning of the baptismal rite for infants “up front” rather than at the doors however, I suspect there is something deeper going on beneath the surface of practical issues. There is a nagging sense that the altar area is the only “real” sacred space. Other places just don’t count. There is also, often enough, an unarticulated assumption that liturgy is about watching something rather than about doing something. The altar area functions like a proscenium stage, the assembly an audience in their pews. The entryway is referred to as “the back of church”—the lowest-ranking place, where the latecomers sit, and where the ushers stash their baskets.

“We can’t do it in the back of church!” The language itself gives the game away. I was talking to J Glenn Murray about this sort of thing one day and he told me “I never say ‘the back of church’ anymore. It’s the entry.”

There are many beautiful churches that have taken care that their threshold is used and fit for the rites we celebrate. There are places where the Rite of Acceptance into the Order of Catechumens is conducted beautifully, at the threshold, and I’ve seen the greeting of parents at the doors of the church done much in the same spirit. Yet I believe it is an ongoing challenge to actually value our worship spaces in their fullness and to understand how varied our ritual repertoire for using them really is. Everything does not have to happen “up front.” In fact, some things are better done at the doorway.

What do you think?

6 comments

  1. What a beautiful reflection, Rita – thanks for capturing some particularly salient points.

    As a liturgist, I have struggled with presiding priests who make the very arguments you cite: “we can’t welcome catechumens in ‘the back’ – what kind of welcome is that” or “people won’t turn around and face the opposite direction”, as if when we invite them, they’ll just laugh at us and ignore us; we simply choose not to ask!

    I once worked in a parish whose church building had multiple entrances, and no MAIN door to the worship space. For the procession from the fire at the Easter Vigil, people had been accustomed to going in 3 different doors – equidistant from the from the fire (and enabling people to claim THEIR seat most efficiently!) After witnessing this one year, I suggested that there was a significance not only of the assembly following the paschal candle in a more unified procession, but also to the assembly crossing a common threshold into the space. Neither pastor nor worship commission thought it mattered at all – SYMBOLIC FAIL!

    Thanks, Rita, for starting this prompt!

    J.

  2. Thanks for raising this issue, Rita! My pastor begins all infant baptisms at Mass at the door before the opening procession. Of course, this is a powerful symbol about the significance of Baptism as initiation into the community. BUT, he is reluctant to do this with the catechumens at the Rite of Acceptance whenever we have asked, but brings them forward in the opening procession and questions them in front. Wonder what the difference is in his mind? Why is it more natural for one and not the other?

  3. I think some of it comes from sheer laziness. Some priests/liturgical directors, etc. simply do not want to put in the effort hold the baptismal rite in the 4 different locations called for by the Church. Another reason is what you alluded to– the idea that everyone must be able to easily see everything at every possible moment (probably from a false notion or participation). My parish church is very limited (I still can’t figure out what the architect was thinking). Our doorway is very small. We start in a back chapel area, the priest/deacon uses a portable mic, and now we have a handheld mic we use for the couple to answer the questions. We then process (with real live music) to the place for the Word. The font is about 3 feet from the first pew so we only have the families come up when the child will be baptized, and then they are led to the front of the altar (staying on the floor outside the sanctuary because the sanctuary itself is the size of a postage stamp).

  4. It’s a work in progress, isn’t it. Yet it’s encouraging to hear your experiences.
    My favorite lines from the posts above:
    “SYMBOLIC FAIL!”
    “Of course, this is a powerful symbol”
    “I still can’t figure out what the architect was thinking”

  5. Rita, I’m always conscious of the points you raise when celebrating the baptismal liturgy for infants: in the Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church, alas, the presentation of the candidates is lumped in with the rest of the rite — after the homily and before the preparation of the altar and gifts. It’s all done, by design, up front.

    As written, the rite doesn’t lend itself to being extended in both time and space the way the Roman Rite does; and I’ve not been able to frame a work around for it successfully. It’s always one of those “painful moments” when I’m very conscious of how things could be different and better — symbolic fail, indeed.

  6. In Medieval England weddings were usually blessed by the priest in the south porch, and burial services often began under the covered lych gate at the churchyard entrance.
    What a pity we forsook our travelling ways and settled for the convenience of a static audience. Both Reformers and Victorians had a lot to do with it; they both wanted to improve and educate us, and for that we had to sit still.
    I once saw ‘Hamlet’ in an old factory where we followed the cast as it progressed from one space to another in that cavernous building. There were no seats, and you crowded eagerly round, caught up in the action. A bit like church used to be before we installed pews and settled down for an easy but dull life. Rita, you get us moving again!

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