Back in 2007, my husband and I went on pilgrimage to Scotland. We planned our day trips and stays around the former and current locations of the relics of St. Andrew. Many of the places we visited were in ruins. Iona Abbey is partly restored. We spent a few days on the island of Iona exploring its rich history of saints and holy living. The place feels enchanted and probably is. It’s one of the oldest places on earth. While we were touring the Abbey one day, I noticed the little room where the porter used to keep watch. It wasn’t a tall or wide room. Just a little stone enclosed place with room for a chair and a candle. It was probably beautiful once, with some sort of sacred art for the contemplation and prayers of the porter while he waited.

The author in the porter's nook at Iona Abbey.

The author in the porter’s nook at Iona Abbey.

I was taken by the porter’s room. The view overlooked the approach to the West Doors of the church from the medieval road. Any pilgrims or unwanted guests (invaders) could be seen from afar so the porter could pop down the stairs to open the doors (or maybe could warn the brothers about invaders). I had romantic visions of kindly old monks welcoming pilgrims in the  night with light and warm food.

Thinking about the doorkeepers of old.

Thinking about the doorkeepers of old.

But the main reason I was fascinated by the little room was due to a line from one of my favorite Psalms (Psalm 84:10, RSV):

For a day in thy courts is better     than a thousand elsewhere. I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God     than dwell in the tents of wickedness.

Growing up, I found refuge in the church. It was an orderly place in times of chaos for me. I loved the music and the beautiful words I found there, and through the beauty, God drew me close, in time, by joy. Psalm 84 was a favorite because of its sense of homecoming. Sacred space opened to me when I read those early lines:

Even the sparrow finds a home,     and the swallow a nest for herself,     where she may lay her young, at thy altars, O Lord of hosts,     my King and my God. Blessed are those who dwell in thy house,     ever singing thy praise!

I grew up in the company of Baptists and Pentecostals who often sang the gospel hymn, “His Eye is on the Sparrow,” echoing Jesus’ words about God’s providence, which in turn echoed the Psalm. I didn’t always feel small except in importance. The universal and humble welcome God extended to me in those words – even the sparrow! – overcame my fear of rejection. I sat in that tiny room in Iona and listened deeply, remembering the monks who sang the Psalter every day. The porters would have sat there sometimes, his mind tucked around the quiet smile of memory at those words. “I’d rather be a doorkeeper in the house of the Lord…”

Taking in the peace of old prayers.

Taking in the peace of old prayers.

For many years, I tried to extend that deep sense of welcome and belonging to others in the parishes to which I belonged. While I was Methodist, I led Vacation Bible School and Saturday Bible studies and sang in the choir. While we were Episcopalian, I served for many years among the leadership for the catechumen program and led or helped lead special events. But my heart was restless. I loved (and still love) the people, but I kept longing for greater depth of the Christian tradition. For over a decade, my feet and face had turned East. My graduate degrees focused on early Christian history and theology, and I wanted to find in the present the richness I found in the texts. We prayed with icons in our home for some twelve years, and we grew to miss them when they weren’t a focal point in church. I’ve written before about our long journey to the Orthodox Church. Now that we’ve been members for a year, the journey comes to mind again. In coming to Orthodoxy, I was following the voice of the One who welcomes sparrows at His altars.  This past summer, I had the privilege of helping to introduce others to that welcome. Our kind priest asked me to help lead the church tours at our parish’s Greek Festival.

Plenty good room for sparrows here.

Plenty good room for sparrows here.

When we came to Orthodoxy, we came as paupers, knowing that we were coming into a faith filled with riches. I was vastly pregnant with twins, and we were nervous about converting at such an intersection of big life changes. Nonetheless, we felt compelled by love to come. The kindness we met was overwhelming. I dedicated my most recent novel (The Salvation of Jeffrey Lapin), to “those that welcome strangers” with our parish and godfamily in mind. What was amazing to me, besides the welcome, was the way I recognized so much in the strangeness. There was a familiar grace, a grace that makes one family, at work in the prayers, the building, and the people. It was easy to tell visitors some of the stories hidden in plain sight in the building, when each story echoed welcome. Even a sparrow can sing a good song about its home.

Flocking in.

Flocking in.

The festival tours aren’t attempts to convert people. They are meant to help others understand the meaning behind the building and customs of the church. Guiding the curious around the church building, I was walking again in the shoes of the porters from long ago. I looked out for them, offered them light.

Many of those who came lit candles and offered prayers.

Many of those who came lit candles and offered prayers.

Any good porter knows that the pilgrims bring the light with them; making welcome allows people to shine. I don’t know if I’ll be invited to give church tours again, but I’m grateful for the experience last year. We have so many choices in how we treat others each day. To close doors to faithful seeking or to slam them shut, to welcome or forbid, to take the chance to show someone how they might shine or to turn away and hide their light. It’s a new year for me. I’m one year and a couple of weeks old in the Orthodox faith. We have a new baby, and we are about to celebrate the first year birthday of our twins. I hope this year to be a doorkeeper. Not a gatekeeper or goalkeeper or score keeper, but a doorkeeper. I want to open doors to good things for my family, friends, parish, and readers. It’s the least I can do, having such a place to sing from.

How lovely is thy dwelling place, O Lord of hosts! My soul longs, yea, faints     for the courts of the Lord; my heart and flesh sing for joy     to the living God.

Even the sparrow finds a home,     and the swallow a nest for herself,     where she may lay her young, at thy altars, O Lord of hosts,     my King and my God. Blessed are those who dwell in thy house,     ever singing thy praise!