I am very fortunate to have recently enjoyed a week’s walking in Portugal, a land renowned for its relaxed and friendly hospitality, warm climate and excellent food and wine. Having wound my way up the steep hill above the town of Sintra, just to the north of Lisbon, I found myself gazing at the walls of the splendid 11th Century Moorish Castle. Across the valley was the mighty yellow and red edifice of the Palace of Pena, built in the 16th Century, by which time the Moorish castle had been conquered by Christians and magnificent Royal palaces had been built in the surrounding hills to accommodate the summer retreats of the Kings of Portugal and their retinues.
Crowds if not ‘hordes’ of people made the journey up the hillsides, mostly in coaches rather than on foot, eager to bask in the unusual splendour and beauty of these buildings. Five miles away deep into the forest stands a very different set of buildings. I made a small pilgrimage through the winding forest paths to find the Convent of the Capuchins, a Franciscan monastery built around 1540. There was nothing triumphant or magnificent about the rough simplicity of this small sacred space built into the landscape. In further contrast to the palaces of Sintra, the place was almost deserted and utterly tranquil.
The entrance to the monastery grounds is through a gap between two large boulders, leading to an open space called Golgotha, complete with three rough-hewn stone crosses, which leads on to a walkway past two large stone tables and a fountain – once places of rest and hospitality offered to the weary pilgrim. The monastery proper is reached via a small open chapel and an entranceway known as the ‘door of death’. For the monks entering the monastery this would be their entrance into a life of prayer, worship, contemplation and service, leaving the world and its struggles for conquest, power and wealth behind. Dead to the world, they were entering into a richer, fuller, more abundant life – an eternal life – made possible by the death of Christ.
The cells in which the monks lived are tiny, with only enough floorspace to lie crouched on the floor. What astonished me, however, was the size of the doorways. No more than a foot wide, and four feet high, it was necessary to crouch down to enter. This necessitated a posture of humility – the body must bow down before seeking to enter or exit. The entire building and its context in the landscape was designed to speak of the Christian life in contrast to the life of splendour and riches on display on the mountain tops. It made me think of Jesus’s response to an anxious question about salvation asked by an unidentified member of a crowd: “Strive to enter by the narrow door; for many, I tell you will try to enter and will not be able.” (Luke 13.24) Here in the monastery was indeed a narrow door, inviting a humble access. Vanishingly few people these days feel called to the monastic life, but all of us are called to find in ourselves the humility to acknowledge God as our Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer.
Jesus goes on to say that “people will come from east and west, north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God.” Perhaps we could say that our calling as Christians is to help signpost the crowds eager for a rich experience towards those narrow doors through which that feast is truly to be found.