Years ago, when my mother lay in a hospital bed recuperating from a heart attack, she showed her couch habits. Without even thinking about it, she always had her legs crossed at the ankles. Whenever the cardiologist visited, upon his entry and exit, he would gently and without a word, uncross her feet so as to improve her circulation.
I’m reminded of this whenever I visit a parish church for Mass or another liturgical rite. I replicate the kind doctor’s approach, though it’s hard not to be as obvious about what I’m doing when I close all the inside doors to the church. Greeters open them, and I close them — in what can sometimes be an endless dance of the doors.
Doing that may seem like a quirk (one of my many), but the doors exist for more than decorative reasons. They are a physical demarcation between the world outside and the church inside. The provide a barrier between the loud busyness of society and the quiet prayerfulness of being in God’s presence. Or at least that’s the theory.
In practice, though, church spaces are taking on the character of common social places. Just recently, I visited a local parish and took the opportunity, before the rituals began, to observe the goings-on from my seat in the pews. A cell phone rang loudly, and the answerer told the caller that it was OK to chat because she was in the back of the church — a conversation that everyone inside also heard! Then a few little ones entered and ran up and down the slopped aisles — to their delight and everyone else’s distraction. Finally, a few folks in a front pew decided to chat with their neighbors — who were five pews behind them!
Of course, church is “social” — the People of God gathering to give thank and praise. Being a “welcoming” community remains vitally important to the parish experience. So, it is always good for the fellowship of believers to encounter and engage one another, especially on occasions of worshipping together.
But the proper place for doing that is outside the worship space. Most churches, or at least newer ones, include an ample narthex — the area between the outer doors of the building and the inner doors of the worship space — where folks can meet and greet, catch up and converse, and even take care of valuable parish business.
Once inside, though, conversations should shift to that communication with God known as prayer. To facilitate this more spiritual environment, quiet is necessary. Stillness aids in cultivating a recollection of mind and heart. Silence allows worshippers to enter into that colloquy with God that takes place without words spoken.
Without a prayerful ambience, where the divine Spirit inspires and the human spirit aspires, our encounter with God risks becoming merely another activity we do, a Sunday program, distinct from other days of the week only in the place in which it happens. But that place is designed to be different, to be set apart, to be holy. That’s where church doors make a difference — for the sake of our spiritual circulation.
Granted, the ecclesiology of Pope Francis rightly exhorts us to open wide the doors, so that the believers who constitute the church can go out and bring Christ to the world, rather than remain closed in on themselves. But when it comes time to worship, let’s keep the inside doors closed so that we, and others, can experience a bit of prayerful solitude that is increasingly difficult to find in our otherwise hectic lives.
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