I have found it eminently convenient that the offices of the Diocese of Springfield are housed in a building just across an alley from the cathedral church. On weekdays when I am not traveling, it has been my custom to begin and end my days with prayer in the cathedral — prayer that is anchored in the daily office, supplemented by some personal devotions.
In the morning, I go first to a rack of votive candles in the rear of the nave, underneath a large wooden crucifix mounted on the wall. I light two candles — one to represent my intercessions and petitions, and the other to represent the needs of the cathedral community. I then make my way up the center aisle (usually with the Latin verse from Psalm 43 quietly on my lips — Introibo ad altare Dei, “I will go to the altar of God”). I end up kneeling at the Communion rail, in front of the high altar and the tabernacle behind it that houses our Lord’s sacramental presence. There I offer my personal petitions and intercessions before retiring to a pew near the front of the nave to read Morning Prayer.
Over time, as this all became a habitual routine, I began to be more attentive to my surroundings as I moved from the votive candle rack to the Communion rail. St Paul’s Cathedral is laid out in a very traditional manner. So I pass the baptismal font at the back of the aisle, near the entrance. I walk past 19 rows of pews as I traverse the nave. Then there is a short stretch of empty space — about 10 feet — between the front row and the two steps leading into the choir/chancel. Finally, I end up at the Communion rail that separates the chancel from the sanctuary.
The symbolic reason baptismal fonts are customarily placed near church entrances is fairly obvious: baptism is the medium of one’s entrance into the community of the Church. And the altar, 19 rows and a choir/chancel away, stands in for the beatific vision, the consummation of the human soul’s journey back to God that began in the waters of baptism.
I am coming to understand each weekday morning pilgrimage between the font and the altar as a potent sign of my soul’s journey through this world and into the next, until I find my final rest in the One who made me, redeemed me, and (by then) sanctified me. To be sure, it’s a bit of an idealized sign of my life or anyone else’s — arguably typical though not universal, since I might die later today and the full symbolic cycle will be short-circuited. Nonetheless, it is spiritually instructive.
The first few rows of pews in the rear of the nave evoke my childhood and youth. The next several rows — all the way to the front pew, in fact — represent my family-raising years and my prime productive adulthood. So, as I reach maybe the second or third pew from the front, that represents where I am at this moment in my life — résumé-building and child-rearing well behind me, in the midst of what will probably turn out to be the most vocationally fruitful period of my life, with retirement not imminent but looming large on the horizon.
At that place in the aisle, what’s behind me is all memory, already “in the can,” so to speak. Although I might be able to manipulate the symbol by walking back and imagining doing certain things differently, the territory between that spot and the baptismal font is what has made me who I am today. Yes, I have my share of regrets, but this is the spot — the present — where regret gives way to the ubiquitous presence of redeeming grace. God’s capacity to exploit the events that I regret and rue, both those of my own making and those of which I was a victim, is beyond measure.
And as I turn and look ahead of me from that position, I see dimly into a future that is unknown, but some of the contours of which might be plausibly discerned based on what lies behind. As I cross the front pew and stride into the 10-foot gap between there and the chancel steps, I envision a period of retirement. Thanks to the inimitable Church Pension Fund, my material anxiety about retirement is minimal. I have a reasonable hope of a season when I have the time and resources to have some rest and travel and perhaps some short-term ministries, while still vigorous enough to enjoy it all. But, most likely, there will be a period of painful decline and loss of health. This is sobering to contemplate, and I pray even now that grace will abound for me in that time when moving between the front pew and the chancel is no longer symbolic.
As I walk up the steps into the chancel, I envision that moment, assuredly in my future at a time yet uncertain, when I pass through the “grave and gate of death” (per the Burial Rite collect on the bottom of p. 480 in the 1979 BCP). Death is not a deflating prospect for one who holds a gospel hope, but dying is another matter. It’s intimidating. This is where a lifetime of spiritual discipline, one hopes, will yield the fruit of “the way of the cross” being found as “none other than the way of life and peace” (Collect for the Monday in Holy Week).
What, now, of the long stretch between the chancel steps and the altar rail? Anglicans may not formally profess belief in a “place” called Purgatory, but, if we are to take seriously the language of our liturgical prayers addressing death and burial, some experience of purgation is very much on the table. Life in Christ is, from its inception in the font, configured to conformity to Christ, a process that, for most of us, is maddeningly incremental. I fully anticipate that, at the moment of my death, that process will be far from complete. It is only when I can look in a mirror and see Jesus that I will know my salvation has come to fruition. It is difficult to speak with precision about the “how” of the process of purgation, since we don’t know how the dimension of time, the absence of which we cannot now imagine, interacts with life beyond this current one. Nonetheless, we can still approach it symbolically through sacred space and the time it takes to traverse it. My daily journey through the chancel to the altar puts me in mind of cooperating with grace in the work of sanctification, of “cast[ing] away the works of darkness and put[ting] on the armor of light” (Collect for Advent Sunday).
Finally, I arrive at the gate leading into the sanctuary — the altar and the tabernacle. I am conditioned there to hear in my mind’s ear the words from Matthew 25: “Enter into the joy of my Father.” The object of all we do is to reach the point of being able to look on the glory of God and not be pulverized, turned to dust. This alone is true joy. Only souls who have themselves been made holy are able to tolerate the unmediated holiness of God. To behold God in self-forgetful contemplation is the consummation of human bliss, the fulfillment of that for which we were created.
Walking this route regularly, with its successive visual cues that become portals into spiritual reality, has become quite precious to me. It is a repeated opportunity for an exercise in self-awareness and gratitude. About 95 percent of the way up the nave, I am made aware that it is grace alone that has brought me this far — and, in spite of my regrets and griefs, and because of that grace, there is nothing I would go back and change even if I had the opportunity. The rest of the way toward the altar offers me a bit of a subliminal rehearsal for having to traverse that territory “for real” in whatever lies ahead for me.
And this is all entirely consistent with the meaning of the Eucharist. As we come to the altar each Lord’s Day and holy day, we mystically and sacramentally “visit heaven.” Even though we must return to the nave, return to reality, come down from the mountain, after our moment of holy koinonia (“Communion”) with both the Head and the members of the body of Christ, we have in truth visited our true and native land. We have been fed from the table of the Celestial Banquet. Is there any greater impetus toward thanksgiving and hope?