The Gargoyle, the Steeple and the Magic Keyhole: On the Outside, Looking In

If you’ve been away from the Church, it’s time to come home

The Aventine Keyhole
The Aventine Keyhole (photo: Galen Crout / Wikimedia Commons)

Look up, look around. That’s what we do, really, we Christians, during this Advent season. We look up to our heavenly Father, and to the Son who came to us in Bethlehem as a tiny baby, and who comes to us still today. And we look around at the world in which we live — at sparkling lights in the still, expectant winter nights, rich with promise; and at the people whose love shapes us, and whom we celebrate later this month with gifts from the heart.


Malcolm Muggeridge’s Divided Attention

Malcolm Muggeridge, the British journalist and satirist, wrote of this two-directional focus, comparing it to the steeple and the gargoyle which top a great cathedral. “The steeple,” he asserted, “is this beautiful thing reaching up into the sky admitting, as it were, its own inadequacy.” The steeple attempts something utterly impossible — to climb up to heaven. The gargoyle, meanwhile, looks down, grinning and laughing at the absurd behavior, the vain strivings, of men on earth. Both of these structures — one aspiring to the heavens, and one drawn inexorably toward mankind here at ground level — are integral to the design of the cathedral; hence, both are intended for the glory of God. 

Muggeridge saw, in the analogy of the steeple and the gargoyle, his own life in a mirror. An avowed atheist for most of his life, he examined religion and faith with the eyes of a journalist, from the outside — looking down, like the gargoyle, without venturing in to meet the faithful on their own terms. Although he did finally come to the Catholic Faith in his later years, the steeple and the gargoyle exemplified his own life, and the great gulf he found between his heavenly vision and his earthly attainment. He tried to be faithful to the reality of Christ; but like the rest of us, Muggeridge was a sinner whose attempts fell short. He needed the Babe of Bethlehem.


The Magic Keyhole

If you ever visit Rome, you may want to drive up to the Priory of the Knights of Malta, situated on the Aventine Hill, on the left side of the Tiber River near the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See. The Knights of Malta property enjoys extraterritorial status, so it’s essentially an independent entity. On the hillside, the Knights maintain a private garden which is protected by a massive wooden gate; and in that gate is a keyhole which has become known as the “Magic Keyhole.” Through the Magic Keyhole one can see into the garden, where a long gravel path runs between two rows of carefully pruned hedges. Beyond the hedges one can gaze across the hillside, through three nations, across tops of buildings, until — several miles away — there lies the great Dome of St. Peter’s Basilica, perfectly centered in view. It looks like an artist’s impressionistic image, or perhaps like a well-framed souvenir postcard. 

Malcolm Muggeridge might have smiled at this mysterious image, echoing his “gargoyle on the steeple.” From the Aventine Hill you can see the Vatican, the locus of the Catholic Church; but you can’t go in, you can’t approach and join in the prayer and adoration which are ongoing there. 


An Invitation to Come On In!

I have a friend who speaks of the “Christmas and Easter Catholics” — those people who count themselves among the faithful, but whose absence through eleven months of the year belies any real interest in encountering the living Christ in the Holy Eucharist, which occurs inside their local church each Sunday morning. Advent is an excellent time to change all that. You’ve been busy — but he’s been waiting. Come home!

If you are a Catholic who has been away from your religious home for a while, or if you are interested in learning more about the Catholic faith, I encourage you to check out Catholics Come Home, a website designed to help you begin or continue your faith journey so you can find true peace, happiness and purpose in life. Go to