Several weeks ago I spent four days on my winter spiritual retreat at St. Gregory’s Abbey in Three Rivers. One afternoon I sat alone in the Abbey Church reflecting on my many years of visiting there. Much has changed over the years with a new guest house, library, refectory, offices, and quarters for the monks. St. Deny’s, the old farmhouse, and the Abbey Church are now all that remain from my first visit in 1982.
I love the Abbey Church. Dom Francis Bacon, the same monk who designed the monks’ worship space, would design our worship space a decade later. We both have wrought iron appointments fashioned by the same monk. We have the same engineered trusses and both smell of wood polish, candle wax and incense. Both are prayer-filled, quiet, welcoming spaces.
A major difference between the two worship spaces is our stunning stone temple wall behind the altar. Because St. Gregory’s was built during a time when the altar was traditionally built against the east wall of the church, with a reredos and hood surrounding it, the priest celebrated the Eucharist with his back to the congregation. Unlike St. Gregory’s, our altar has always been free-standing, even though it was not used that way for more than ten years.
As a result of Vatican II changes, when the altar in the Abbey Church was moved forward to make it free-standing, the reredos and hood were removed. All that remains is the wooden frame, made of the same wood as the entire back wall. Standing sentinel behind the altar, the frame looks very much like the casing of a huge 20-plus-foot set of doors. There is one problem with this “door. There is no hardware on it to open it.
For many years I thought, “Why don’t the monks remove the casing or at least do something to transform the old reredos into a fresh backdrop to the free standing altar,” something that would act like our stone wall to make a statement.
This time, during my retreat, I had a totally new insight. One normally enters the Abbey Church through one of three normal-sized sets of doors. For special occasions such as Palm Sunday, there is a much larger ceremonial set of doors. These doors must be 10 feet tall and 8 feet wide. People are currently only able to enter the church through one of these four sets of doors, each with their hammered wrought iron hardware.
The fifth set, and by far the largest, is the doors behind the Altar with no hardware. These are the doors we can enter only by invitation of Christ. As we pass through this world from baptism, through the Eucharist, into the death and resurrection of Christ, when our time on this earth is done, then and only then will this last set of doors be opened to us.
C. S. Lewis understood this reality when, in his final book of the Narnia series The Last Battle, he talks about a small dirty stable that contained in it the door to a world within a world, within a world. To C. S. Lewis, heaven is a glorious wonderful world where the further in one goes, the bigger it gets. A world within a world, within a world, each more real than anything we can imagine.
I hope to have many more fruitful years in this world loving you, doing ministry with you, celebrating your joy, crying with you in your sorrows. I do know that when my time here is done, I will go through those huge doors with no hardware on our side, all because Jesus was willing to die for me. He alone can open the doors. Each of you has been invited to enter as well.
May God always bless and keep you.
With deepest affection.