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 preceeding 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 expenses.
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 outrage.
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 repetative 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.
By Daniel Nichols