Sunday, September 16, 2007

A Golden Floor

Every once in a while a small moment comes along that opens up a perspective on everything - a moment I wasn't expecting and couldn't have anticipated. That happened one afternoon about a week ago when I was looking at the new floor of our church in the afternoon sunlight.

For three years we have been intensely involved in the renewal of the physical plant of the monastery and the guesthouse. We've raised money (we're going for a million and a half at this point) and an extraordinary amount of work has been done:

The first year we tackled the basic inhospitality of the buildings caused by the fact that, like a certain number of Victorian structures, our buildings were built to have steps going down so that you could also have steps going up. In our case the entrance to the original chapel (which later became the library and then the room we call the Pilgrim Hall, now the social center of the guesthouse) had three steps going down to the entrance so that there would be three steps going up to the altar - and not having those three steps going up to the altar would have been unthinkable at the time. This meant, of course, that when the next set of buildings was built, including the present monastery church, there had to be another set of steps going down so that............ you guessed it............... there could be steps going up to the altar of the new church.

People at the time oohed and aahed at the design; going up to the altar was a very important symbol in those days, and accessibility was simply nowhere on the agenda. If you got old or crippled and your mobility was limited you stayed at home. This this is another age, and people now expect to continue to move, even when they have more difficulty in getting around, and it became more and more important to address the fact that we had a ministry of hospitality and a set of very inhospitable buildings.

It took a lot of dreaming and some very skilled planning, but in the end we got it figured out - a way to make the floors level from one end of the property to the other. We began three years ago with the first stage of the project, the leveling of the main traffic-bearing floors. We did it with fear and trembling because we couldn't be sure before we saw the result that the final result would look right. We worried a lot about how the new level of the floors would relate to the windows: would it disturb the integrity of the proportions of the building? In the end we seem to have revealed a design that lay hidden in the original architect's mind. Not only did it look all right, it looked to most of us as though it should have been that way in the beginning. Almost no one who comes to the guesthouse now remembers that it has ever been any other way.

The next year two more projects were undertaken: the new entrance and the repair of the bell tower. We needed an accessible entrance to match our outside to our inside and a very handsome and functional one was designed for us and constructed in the second year. It is so successful that almost no one remembers that it too is not an original part of the building. And then there's the bell tower - our great nemesis. It was supposed to be a minor project of passing interest. We thought it needed a bit of repointing. It would be a matter of a month of so and we'd be done. Instead, when the scaffolding went up we were presented with what our engineer referred to as "a most interesting example of structural failure". Translation - it was about to fall down. It took nine months instead of one month to fix it and now it is very handsome. It ought to be - every single brick in the structure is new. It also took (a lot) more money than we had planned.

This summer we've had two projects. One is the replacing of the roof on the church, and the other is the interior floor of the church. The church roof is quite straightforward, except that the roof is Spanish tile and that isn't straightforward - each individual piece has to be lifted, inspected, repaired and either put back or replaced. Some of the tiles have had to be custom manufactured. Part of the roof in which the original tiles proved to be unworkable is also being replaced with copper. It's a good way along and we hope it will be finished before the snow flies.

And then there's the church floor. It needed to be removed, the under-structure inspected and repaired and then a radiant floor heating system installed and a new floor put down. This also raised the level of the floor and eliminated, at last, all of the up-and-down aspect of these buildings. There were, of course, some surprises. Part of the floor proved to be inadequately constructed and had to be propped up before we could proceed. And, in one of those marvelous moments that you sometimes get in work like this, we discovered a course of foundation wall just sitting there, not related to anything else. No one knew that it was there. When was it built? What was it for? Was it something the original architect changed his mind about? Was it for some structure we don't know about? We'll probably never know. It sits there, under our floor, as a mute testimony to the things we don't know about the past.

When I left for my vacation at the end of last month the new floor was just beginning to go down. When I came back it was a radiant presence: it was obviously new. A brand-new Douglas fir floor with a deep oil finish, it is a golden honey color which is quite breathtaking and sets off the deeper oak of the choir stalls very beautifully. A deep red carpet now sets off the lectern from which the Word is proclaimed day by day and the standard candle that provides a basic symbol of what we are about.

And it was there, in the church one afternoon last week, that I was sitting in the Prior's stall and looking at our new floor in the afternoon sun when I finally realized how much we have done. I knew it all, of course, but I finally felt it. I felt how much has changed, how far we have come, what we have made possible. I looked over the guest court and in my mind's eye saw the people who have been coming since we began our work and realized the number of them who are on canes, on walkers or in wheel chairs. This isn't because the guests are getting older (because, in fact, a growing number of them are younger). It's because we have made it possible for people to come who can't go up and down all those steps. The first week after we reopened this month one of our guests was wheelchair-bound, the first such person we have ever been able to accommodate, and she seemed completely happy with her time here. What we have done here is beautiful - a very talented architect and a wonderfully skilled crew of contractors have insured that. The much of the beauty is not the visible kind. It lies in our determination to be serious about our ministry - our ministry of hospitality. We've finally heard the call - and had the grace to respond - to welcome a whole group of people whom the structure of our buildings prevented from coming here until how.

There were tears in my eyes when I realized how far we have come.

There is more to do, of course. We still have an elevator to install and that is going to involve a good deal of demolishing, reconstruction and remodeling. It will be expensive. The bell tower took much more money than we had expected, so we haven't got the money to do it. But people have been amazingly generous and we are arriving at this stage of our construction with more left in our fund that we had thought we might have. So we will raise what we need. I don't know how long it will take, but we will do it. We will get there. The vision of an accessible facility is too important to leave unfinished.

And our honey-colored church floor will be there to witness to that as we go on our way.

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