Deo gratias! Thank God, you have come!
Some of you will know of St. Benedict, considered by many the founder of Western monasticism. In the year 530 of the Common Era St. Benedict composed a rule, “The Rule of Benedict,” by which his monks would live an ordered, holy and monastic life.
The entire 66th Chapter of Benedict’s Rule is devoted to explicating in detail the duties of the monastery’s porter … the gatekeeper or doorman. As Joan Chittister comments, it is a remarkable thing that one of the great spiritual documents of the Western world has an entire chapter devoted to how to answer the door.i
Remarkable, yes, but also understandable.
Among all the brothers in the monastery, the porter alone straddles two worlds. With one foot he is firmly located within the monastic enclosure: the world to which he has vowed his body and soul. The monastery is a regulated, all male world … a world of black tunics, scapulas and hoods … a world of silence, simplicity, poverty, chastity and habitual prayer.
However, the Porter, alone among his brother monks, also has a foot in the world without: the world as it flows by the monastery’s door, bearing with it its flotsam and jetsam of noise, bustle, color, confusion, disorder and temptation.
It is the porter’s main duty to exercise the Christian art of hospitality. At the sound of a footfall, or horse hoof, or knock—no matter what time of day or night—the Porter scurries to the door, flings it open and cries out: Deo gratias! Thank God you have come!
For the Benedictine, the art of hospitality is a theological necessity. Genuine hospitality is the warm and practical evidence of the presence of God’s love.
For the Benedictine, the art of hospitality is something else as well: it exposes to all manner of persons and experiences. It is a way of living that renders us available to the world.
In the Benedictine world, the job of porter is assigned to one person. Not so for us. In our world, hospitality is every Christian’s duty.
Like Benedict’s porter we, too, stand with one foot firmly planted in God’s realm, in the kingdom of God. After all, here we are. We are in God’s house! Here, in God’s house, we willingly if, haltingly, submit to a world governed by prayer, the rhythms of worship, the daily habits of sacrifice, generosity, reconciliation, forgiveness, peace and justice. This is a world marked by a special tenderness for the frail, the lost, the broken and the poor. Here we are! One foot firmly planted in holy time, in sacred space, in the kingdom of God.
At the same time every single one of us has a foot firmly planted in the world: where might makes right, where wealth rules, where skin color and accent, bank account and education, nationality and ability, define us and all but prescribe our lives.
Like Benedict’s porter, when any in the world come knocking at the doors of the Church, the doors of faith, let it be our joy, our duty and our delight to fling open the door, to cry out: Deo gratias!
Thank God you have come! Then to welcome them in, introduce to them the Christian life. And, more: to be touched and changed by who they are and what they bring to our lives.
Here’s the thing: in this household of God, we are porters all.
I have sometimes stood in the Narthex and watched visitors, tourists and strangers approach this sanctuary. Outside they are laughing and rushing. Once inside they slow down, grow quiet and fairly tip-toe toward the sanctuary. They stop at the threshold between the narthex and the sanctuary … their feet on the marble sill, but not touching the sanctuary’s carpet. Remaining outside, careful not to cross the threshold, they bend over, craning their necks to look in. They peer left, then right, then up.
Some never step inside. Instead, before ever crossing the threshold, they retreat: beating a hasty exit back out into the effusive city.
What are they afraid of, I wonder? Are they afraid of God? Death? Baptism? Joy? Forgiveness? Love? Surrender?
I’ll tell you this: they are right to be afraid. They are right to fear a place and a people who are so candid about death and suffering … so candid about justice and generosity. They are right to fear a place and a people so candid about the brevity of life, about the challenge to live heroically … so candid about the claim of God upon our time and our treasure.
They are right to feel timid in the presence of the God of Abraham and Sarah, the God of the Exodus … the God of Jesus who died that we might live. It takes no small measure of courage to come into God’s house!
You know that. You know what it is like to dwell in the borderland between worlds. You are well acquainted with living at the threshold between the world’s attractions and God’s righteousness, between living for self and living for others, between the sweet delight of nursing resentments and the difficult soul-shaping work of forgiveness, between hording all your treasure and sharing it gladly and generously with God.
You know that. You live in this borderland every day. As Christians, by definition, we live at the threshold between worlds. Because of that: we are porters all. We are greeters and welcomers, offering the warmth and kindness of the gospel in a cold, cruel world.
This season we are in—this in-between time—between the earth’s harvest and a killing frost, is an uneasy, anxious season. The power of the sun to provide warmth and light and growth is waning, and the months of darkness, of deep winter, of killing cold are fast encroaching.ii
The tissue between this world and the next has grown thin. There is a general restlessness, an anxiety, and a sense that the spirit-world is near.
Christians engage the anxiety of this season with All Souls Day and All Saints Day: All Hallows Eve … as the culture knows it: Halloween.
For Christians, it is in this thin time, this sacred season that we draw near to those who have preceded us in death … those who have crossed the threshold.
On Ash Wednesday we are candid. We declare this, “You are dust and to dust you shall return.” (Gen. 3:19) At baptism we are candid about what is happening: we are held under water, dying to self.
But the church’s peculiar claim is this: that in dying we live; that to be baptized into Christ’s death
is at once to be united with him in his resurrection!
The church’s claim is that the baptismal font is a threshold … an entryway from this world to the next… from death to life, from sin to grace.
It is the church’s peculiar work to pry our fingers loose, one by one, from those alleged securities to which we cling so desperately, so tenaciously. The church is the string tied to our finger to remind us that our things, our kings, our empires, our programs and projects don’t last. Health insurance, life insurance, home insurance, flood insurance, car insurance … are not, in the end, any more than transitory insurance again transitory threats.
The church is the string tied to our finger to remind us that the baptismal font is not a tomb, but a womb, a dying that is a birthing. When we submit to Christian baptism, we do not fall back into the bottomless deep. No! We fall into God’s everlasting arms.
Christians: it is by virtue of our baptisms that we take up our post at the font, at that that threshold that leads from tomb to womb, from death to life, from falling to rising.
Reflected in the baptismal waters we see images of our beloved departed: the communion of saints, those who crossed the threshold ahead of us … who still rejoice with us, but upon a farther shore and in a greater light.
So, here’s the thing: in the Protestant tradition, there is no single person assigned to the door. We have greeters. We have ushers. But as the priesthood of all believers, when it comes to the realm of God, we are porters all. We are all porters, greeters, hosts and docents in the household of faith.
When the curious crane to see what is in the water, when they ask about the hope that is in us, when they notice the joy that sustains, when they comment the courage that inspires us or the generosity that brings us so much delight … it is as a knock on the doors of faith, the time to cry out: Deo gratias! Thank God you have come. And then invite them in.
In the household of God, at the rim of the font, at the threshold of faith, we are porters all.
i Chittiser, Joan. The Rule of Benedict: Insights for the Ages. Crossroads, New York, (2001)
ii Long, Thomas G., “Halloween: the Killing Frost and the Gospel” (from Journal for Preachers, Vol. XXXIV, No. 1, (Advent 2010)