Liminal spaces between world and worship

The importance of accessibility of places of worship

I often reflect on the faith perspective by which I interpret the world, and use the metaphor of seeing the world “through stained glass.” I first used that title for a column in the Argosy 25 years ago, and I use it now as the title of my own blog as well. The particular stained glass of the University Chapel is inspirational to me, and I often photograph it. Recently, as I was looking through the pictures I have taken over the years, I ran across a picture of the main doors of the Chapel. The doors are also inspiring, and evoke many thoughts and memories for me.

The doors are heavy and not easy to open at the best of times; when the wind is blowing and there is a trace of frost or ice on the granite steps inhibiting good traction, it can be a struggle to get into the chapel. I suspect that this is not just poor engineering, but a careful and thoughtful design; there is effort involved, which enhances the sense of stepping from the mundane, profane world into the liminal – even sacred – space of the chapel. I often think about the many people who have stepped across that threshold into the quiet interior with its high ceiling and muted light tinged with the colours of the stained glass, and its holy presence and reminder of the things that are transcendent and eternal. I often think about that transition, from the things of this world into the realm of the holy, as one enters through the doors.

I think of the student, long since graduated, who came in every day at four o’clock and sat quietly for 20 minutes. I think of the hundreds of couples who have come in to be married during my time at Mount Allison. I recall a special service, held on the morning of Christmas Day. I wondered if anyone would want to attend, and I was surprised at the large number of people and how, in stillness, beautiful light, and quiet celebration of a holy day, we became a small community. I am aware of those who enter confused, wondering, unsure, and those who enter the Chapel at critical moments in their lives; I have wondered what they were looking for as they entered, and whether they found it.

I have shared in some powerful moments with those who have entered the chapel. They have come in alone, in the midst of crisis, needing hope; they have come wondering, needing direction; they have come in joy, wishing to give thanks. The doors have been opened to students in groups, who have attended vigils, memorial services, funerals and other momentous and difficult occasions, seeking solace in the space and the words shared in that space.

Sunday Vespers (the term for the service of worship that takes place in the evening, as the sun sets and the day turns to night) are still held in term time, and as light turns to darkness, candles are lit to hold the light and remind us that we need not fear the darkness – we can hold hope. The Chapel, in an increasingly secular world, becomes more and more a place that reminds me that we need sacred space, openness to the transcendent mystery, healing serenity and hope.

On the doors of the Church of St Stephen Walbrook in London, one can read the words of a prayer traditionally ascribed to Bishop Thomas Ken, the 17-century cleric. Perhaps these words should be inscribed on or near every church door:

“O God, make the door of this house wide enough to receive all who need human love and fellowship, narrow enough to shut out all envy, pride and strife.

Make its threshold smooth enough to be no stumbling-block to children, nor to straying feet, but rugged and strong enough to turn back the tempter’s power.

God make the door of this house the gateway to Thine eternal kingdom.”

Rev. John C. Perkin
Rev. John Perkin is Chaplain of Mount Allison University.