Archive for October 5th, 2006

The Gates of Heaven

Last Saturday our family drove the hour and a half to Steubenville for
Franciscan University’s annual St Francis festivities, an annual medieval fest
where I have for the last three years had a booth selling icons.

The festival is similar to the renaissance and medieval festivals that are
popular around the country, though it is smaller and lacks the neopagan and
off-color elements common to those festivals.

The children love it, and spent the preceding week making costumes and
weapons, for most of the day is spent by the young boys present fighting pitched
battles with wooden swords and shields.

Remarkably, there are only minor injuries.

So they spent the whole day running and fighting.

Even my only daughter, Maria, who is three and a half, though she was a
fairy princess and wore a velvet cloak and the ivy and flower garland I wove her
insisted on carrying a sword, being a shield maiden by nature.

And I spent most of the day trying to protect my dozen or so icons from the
intermittent drizzle.

The rain kept the crowd smaller than previous years, when I had done very
well, but I did sell one icon at day’s end, which more than paid for the day’s

A day of battle will wear one out, and Sunday morning I did not have the
heart to wake the boys for the 9:30 Divine Liturgy at St. Nicholas, our parish.
They would have to attend the Roman church around the corner.

Maria, though, was up and wanted to go to church with Daddy, who can barely
stand to miss the Byzantine liturgy.

Time with Maria is always a delight.

She was in her mother’s womb during my Year of Ill Health, and there was a
time when I was not sure I would live to meet this new baby. She was born
shortly after I underwent major surgery, and her birth signaled a great and good
change in fortune.

She is fine and fair and fiery and funny, inheriting her mother’s beauty
and my curly hair.

And she has a very rich inner life.

Many children have imaginary friends, but Maria has an imaginary community,
and she will spend, literally, hours regaling us with elaborate stories of the
adventures of her bad dog  Scratchy, who bites, and her good dog Rosie, who has
hearts and flowers in her eyes, and of her bad kitty Hook, who runs away and is
always entangled in misadventure, and of her horses, and pig and seven babies
and all the rest.

So the half hour drive to St. Nicholas was a running tale about horses with
wings, magic "ammils" and sharks that kiss you and don’t bite.

When the Liturgy began, Maria made a pretty good effort to participate,
chanting "Lord have mercy" and "Through the prayers of the Mother of God, oh
Savior save us" and "To You, oh Lord, to You, oh Lord", though she also spent a
lot of time resting her tired head on my shoulder.

When I first began attending the Byzantine Divine Liturgy regularly, four
and a half years ago, I was wide awake and attentive from the beginning: the
mysterious sound of the belled censer behind the iconostasis and the muted
prayers of the Rite of Preparation- basically the Offertory, which in the
Byzantine Rite is conducted before the Liturgy proper, hidden from view.

Contrast this with my experience in the typical Latin liturgy, where I have
been known to be completely oblivious from the opening sign of the cross until I
find myself in line to receive Communion. (Note: when I refer to the "Latin
liturgy" I refer to the common rite of the Western liturgical family, typically
in the vernacular, not to the Latin Mass.)

Time, though, and familiarity have dulled my senses and I must admit I now
find myself distracted from time to time, though never as badly as in the Latin
rite, where I often am only attentive because of some aesthetic or theological

Byzantine worship carries a sort of antidote to distraction by its nature:
one is always chanting, there is much physical activity- bowing, crossing
oneself, and so on- and  long prayers on the part of the priest are few.

But last Sunday I was more adrift than usual, thinking of Saturday’s
medieval battles, people I had run into, some of whom I had not seen in nearly
twenty years, and of course the geopolitical worries that have been much on my
mind in recent years.

So I don’t recall much of the homily, though our pastor is a fine and
passionate preacher.

But then, immediately after the homily, during the Litany of Supplication,
one of the many repetitive Byzantine litanies, with its "Lord have mercy"
refrain, Maria turned to me and pointed to the Royal Doors, in the center of the
iconostasis, and asked "Are those the Gates of Heaven?"

And I was awakened.

"Yes, sweetheart, those are the Gates of Heaven."

And so they are: the Royal Doors are understood to symbolize the entry into
the Holy of Holies, and their opening at the beginning of the Divine Liturgy
links Heaven- the altar- with earth- the congregation.

Ordinarly, only the priest, or a deacon accompanied by a priest, can enter
through the Royal Doors.

The only exception to this is when a newly married couple receives
communion after exchanging vows, standing just inside the doors, or when a newly
baptized and chrismated baby or catechumen receives their first communion, again
just inside the doors.

The iconostasis- the altar screen- that holds the icons of Christ, the
Theotokos, and the saints- is often misunderstood by Western Christians as a
barrier separating the faithful from the Mysteries. In fact it is a bridge, not
a barrier, and connects the two realities. And in the center of the iconostasis
is the Royal Doors, bearing the icon of the Annunciation, the moment when the
Gates of Heaven were opened to man.

Needless to say, thanks to Maria, for the rest of the Liturgy I was
attentive indeed.

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