Glory to God for All Things

The Doors of the Heart

In the summer of 1952, an obscure event took place in London that would have a profound impact on the future of Orthodox Christianity in the English-speaking world. A seventeen year-old English lad walked through the doors of St. Philip’s Russian Orthodox Church on Buckingham Palace Road (the Church has long since been torn down). Today he is known as Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, one of the most important figures in the contemporary Orthodox world. His own worlds vividly recount his experience:

I can remember exactly when my personal journey to Orthodoxy began. It happened quite unexpectedly one Saturday afternoon in the summer of 1952, when I was seventeen. I was walking along Buckingham Palace Road, close to Victoria Station in central London, when I passed a nineteenth-century Gothic church, large and somewhat dilapidated, that I had never noticed before. There was no proper notice-board outside it — public relations have never been the strong point of Orthodoxy in the Western world! — but I recall that there was a brass plate which simply said “Russian Church.”As I entered St Philip’s — for that was the name of the church — at first I thought that it was entirely empty. Outside in the street there had been brilliant sunshine, but inside it was cool, cavernous and dark. As my eyes grew accustomed to the gloom, the first thing that caught my attention was an absence. There were no pews, no chairs in neat rows; in front of me stretched a wide and vacant expanse of polished floor.Then I realized that the church was not altogether empty. Scattered in the nave and aisles there were a few worshipers, most of them elderly. Along the walls there were icons, with flickering lamps in front of them, and at the east end there were burning candles in front of the icon screen. Somewhere out of sight a choir was singing. After a while a deacon came out from the sanctuary and went round the church censing the icons and the people, and I noticed that his brocade vestment was old and slightly torn.My initial impression of an absence was now replaced, with a sudden rush, by an overwhelming sense of presence. I felt that the church, so far from being empty, was full — full of countless unseen worshipers, surrounding me on every side. Intuitively I realized that we, the visible congregation, were part of a much larger whole, and that as we prayed we were being taken up into an action far greater than ourselves, into an undivided, all-embracing celebration that united time and eternity, things below with things above….

…Before the service had ended, I left the church; and as I emerged I was struck by two things. First, I found that I had no idea how long I had been inside. It might have been only twenty minutes, it might have been two hours; I could not say. I had been existing on a level at which clock-time was unimportant. Secondly, as I stepped out on the pavement the roar of the London traffic engulfed me all at once like a huge wave. The sound must have been audible within the church, but I had not noticed it. I had been in another world where time and traffic had no meaning; a world that was more real — I would almost say more solid — than that of twentieth-century London to which I now abruptly returned.

Everything at the Vigil Service was in Slavonic, and so with my conscious brain I could understand not a single word. Yet, as I left the church, I said to myself with a clear sense of conviction: This is where I belong; I have come home. Sometimes it happens — is it not curious? — that, before we have learnt anything in detail about a person, place or subject, we know with certainty: This is the person that I shall love, this is the place where I need to go, this is the subject that, above all others, I must spend my life exploring. From the moment of attending that service at St Philip’s, Buckingham Palace Road, I felt deep in my heart that I was marked out for the Orthodox Church.

The full account may be read here.

A young man and his curiosity take him through a door – behind which are both an absence and a fullness. There are a large variety of doors within our lives – some are marked by time and place – others inexpressible except in the silence of the heart. There are a number of stories told of doors in the life of the Church. St. Mary of Egypt, a prostitute and drunkard, found herself unable to enter the door of the Church of the Resurrection in Jerusalem – prevented by an unseen hand. The obstacle of that doorway became the occasion for her conversion. The patriarch Jacob’s dream-encounter with a ladder to heaven is greeted upon waking with the exclamation, “This is none other than the gate of heaven!” Jacob enters into covenant with God.

Like Jacob’s dream, not all doors are physical. My own “doorway” was the first time I heard Rachmaninov’s Vespers. It was being played on the radio – and I heard it by chance. Both my wife and myself were utterly struck by the music. We listened carefully until it ended, wanting above all to find out what music this was. It was like nothing I had heard before – and opened the door to a deep longing that years later found its fulfillment in the Orthodox Church.

Doors commonly play a large role in the services of the Orthodox Church. The doors of the iconostasis open and close both for practical reasons and for mystical reasons (frequently “practicality” carries a mystery within). The doors are not essential – liturgies have been celebrated without them – but the doors of the heart are utterly essential – we cannot enter the Kingdom of God except we go through them.

Christ refers to Himself as “the Door,” and encourages us to “knock.”

In my experience, the doors of the heart are rather exceptional. We are not always able to find them (or certainly not without difficulty). They are encounters with God and His kingdom and are thus not subject to our beck and call. Instead, such doors are a call to us, an invitation to enter.

Lift up your heads, O you gates!
Lift up, you everlasting doors!
And the King of glory shall come in.
Who is this King of glory?
The Lord of hosts, He is the King of glory (Psalm 24:9-10).

22 Responses to “The Doors of the Heart”

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  1. Barbara Schmidt says:

    Just wow, Father Stephen. I am reminded of my own doorway to the Church, and humbled.

  2. Wonderful as always. I love reading your writing.

  3. NW Nikolai says:

    It is amazing to me how many testimonies of contact and entrance into the Orthodox Church convey the aspect of being “home”. We have such a need for belonging and in Christ’s Church His Body we find that place.

  4. NW Juliana says:

    An acquaintance recently made comment about Rachmaninov’s Vespers and I am now quite interested in experiencing it. The beginning of my conversion story is not as beautiful as Kallistos Ware’s, nor yours — mine involves a common thrift store and a used book that caught my eye (one not even about Orthodoxy, but about Roman Catholicism). It was two years ago this month I came home with that “find” — which our gracious Lord used to lead this heart down the path to His church. And yes, it was a coming home. There really is no place like home.

  5. Martha says:

    Dear Father, many thanks again for a piece of writing that forces the reader towards constructive introspection.
    Will be sending this permalink around . . . a blessed fast & happy Thanksgiving to you and yours!
    Martha

  6. Romanós says:

    Why is it that many of us, no matter in which Orthodox church we first set foot, have the same experience? This is what I wrote about my first encounter with Orthodoxy…

    When I set foot in an Orthodox church for the first time probably as a young man of about 22 or 23 years, it was a small, rustic country church in the Ukrainian village of Bellis (“White Woods”) Alberta, and I was overcome at first by the utter simplicity of the house of God itself. Then, the service began, and from behind an ikonostasis made of white-painted garden trellis a deep voice chanted in a Slavic tongue that reminded me of my native Polish, and a sweet fragrance and clouds of smoke emanated from there as well. As the service continued, my earthly eyes saw many things that were strange, though beautiful. At one point the priest emerged with two covered golden vessels and walked carefully through the small crowd of farmers and their families kneeling with heads deeply bowed or down on the floor. As he passed through them, he seemed to hover the cups over each of their heads, and he looked at them with love, respect and awe, as if to say by his actions, “these are the people for whom Christ died.” Throughout the rest of the service, that was what struck me the most—love, respect and awe—not just for God, but for one another. This was before I had even come to that point where I was ready to follow Jesus. To me up till now Christianity had been nothing more than a religious exercise with little meaning. I remember thinking to myself, “If Christ is real, and if Christianity is true, this has to be it.”

    If anyone wants to read further, my full testimony is here:
    http://cost-of-discipleship.blogspot.com/2009/10/love-respect-and-awe.html

    I’ve been Orthodox from age 37 till today, 22 years by God’s mercy, and not without paying an unexpected price. But the holy faith and church is what it is, and I am what I am, by God’s grace. Once He calls us and we respond with “Yes, Lord” He never fails us. But the call never changes, “Take up your cross daily, and follow Me” (cf. Luke 9:23). We don’t carry those crosses forever, but we must die on them.

  7. Ibn Battenti says:

    Amen, God bless you Father!

  8. Protestant Boy says:

    Fantastic, as always. Thank you and bless you!

  9. Yannis says:

    The obstacle that prevented St Mary to enter the Church was in fact, her very own Self. She strongly felt that there was something deep and all-important in the Church, but she also realised that to the person she was at that point, it was inaccessible.

    Interestingly enough, the slip of the tongue you did at the beginning of the post in saying “worlds” instead of words, transmitted the point better.

  10. Cheryl/Miriam says:

    For me, it was the Icon of the Resurrection and the hymns of Pascha–though I didn’t attend a Paschal service until much much later. I look at that icon every Sunday as we sing “Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal” and think “THAT icon is why I came home.”

    Thanks for sharing this story, Father. And thank you also, for your blog was an important part of actually GETTING me to go to liturgy. I had fallen in love with Orthodoxy so that I could no longer bear to not go. It’s actually quite a wonderful feeling.

    All thanks be to God,

    Miriam

  11. Fr. S. -

    If the doors to our heart are ‘exceptional’, as you say, then how is it we know God is there? Why then is our Divine Liturgy anymore Divine than shopping at a mall, or gazing at a sunset?

    Are not the doors to our heart the seed of our faith? I’m sorry for my ignorance, but I don’t understand why we see our heart as inaccessible. We have just sealed it behind the steel doors protecting our ego (our sense of self).

    The heart is there… hidden in the quiet and stillness of each one of us. Waiting.

  12. Prudence,
    Please note the introductory words to the statement: “In my experience.” I find that many people have a difficult time accessing their heart. And indeed, as far as their inner experience goes, the Liturgy may seem no more Divine than other things. It is sin that closes our hearts. It is the blindness of a culture that secularizes even Christians and makes the heart seem utterly opaque. The Divine Liturgy, of course, is truly Divine. Learning the inner life (not mistaking it for the ego, etc.) is not easy for many. Your point, that the heart is there…hidden in the quiet and the stillness of each one of us – seems to me to say what I was trying to say.

    Interestingly, I know of a great iconographer and priest, a Russian, whose story of faith in God began with the sight of a sunset near Moscow. God is with us.

    Thank you for your reflection.

  13. easton says:

    thank you, father stephen. in my understanding, the words “not subject to our beck and call” are important to remember.

  14. Yannis says:

    It seems to me that the point of the Liturgy is to percisely reveal the true dimension of all things as sacramental. Holy men do everything as if it was a sacrament. In that sense your point “Why then is our Divine Liturgy anymore Divine than shopping at a mall, or gazing at a sunset?” Prudence is in fact exactly true – not because the Liturgy is less than we make it to be, but because indeed everyhting else is as Divine.

    In that sense, formal worship is a point in space and time that makes sense if one expands it in his life proper. People who relegate worship at a particular time and space end up relegating their relationship to God, and so God himself in a particular time and space – namely following the letter and not the spirit of the law.

    That sort of of relationship is exhibited in the incident between Jesus and the fig tree. The fig tree represents the “particular time and places”; that is made all the more apparent by the authors of Scripture who mention that “it wasn’t yet the time for figs”. Jesus curses the tree, because the ” particular time and places” ie the Rules of spiritual life, are useful if they lead men to be fruitful spiritually – ie the tree is meant to be producing fruits fit for God at all times and not just at certain times, while the rest only exhibiting leaves.

  15. Anytime anyone takes what they are doing seriously, something astonishing happens. It seems that the life of the Church exists (even when imperfectly preserved or attended to by particular members) to foster a habit of such moments. That Christ dwells therein is something that is revealed to them that awaken.

    Hearts seeking such clarity are surprised by sanity in these moments. Even St Silouan was not instantly changed by a vision of Christ, he was tormented for 15 years afterwards as he sought to reclaim that sweetness which had departed. This is my personal interpretation (please burn it if it is unworthy) of, “Keep your mind in hell, but do no despair.” That is what I found when I entered an Orthodox Church for Vespers one evening. No grand enlightenment, merely hope.

    But I would not trade that hope for any vision or experience save the realization of that hope, the very face of God. Such “mere” hope can shake the foundations of the earth and trample down death itself.

  16. Ibn Battenti says:

    ….”Heart” in sense that Father Stephen has used it here, is a circumlocution for “heaven”. It is an actual “place” that exists insofar as it is underpinned, indeed filled, with the reality (actually the only reality) of God’s presence. This explains why it is so difficult (impossible) to locate when that presence is spurned.

    God is indeed with us!

  17. Lina says:

    Sunday May 17th 2009 I walked into an Orthodox Church and somehow heard the words, “You have come home.” Working through this produced a great upheaval in my life. The dust has settled and it is great to be home.

  18. MrsMutton says:

    I won’t say that Rachmaninoff’s Vespers was my introduction — that took place when I was sixteen — but almost thirty years after that initial experience, the Vespers was the catalyst for helping me to make that decision. I have never regretted it.

    If you are going to purchase the Vespers, TRY to get the Alexander Sveshnikov recording, considered by experts to be the very best. If that’s not available, then a close second is the Corydon Singers, Matthew Best conducting — I purchased that on Amazon.com. At one time, Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville, NY, had the Sveshnikov recording available on CD, but I don’t know if they’ve sold out of it by now.

  19. kay says:

    Thank you David, your comment was a ‘keeper!’

  20. Mrs. Mutton, I absolutely agree about the Sveshnikov recording. It was that specific recording that I first heard in 1976.

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