Small boys, golden doors and great cathedrals

St. Paul's Cathedral lit up at night. Photo by Diego Perez used under a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license.
 on October 6, 2022

When I was a small boy, I was a member of a Bible study group led by Mr. Turner, someone who was wise enough to know that while small boys get restless with study, they actually love stories. So, stories it was at Boys Brigade Bible class every Sunday evening, and we loved it. I have remained grateful to Mr. Turner ever since. Some of the stories are still deep in the memory banks of this now ancient retiree. Here are two of them. I think the reason I never forgot them is that there is a kind of magic about both. I’m not sure what it means to say that, but then, if we knew what magic was, it wouldn’t be magic, would it?

“In the year 1675,” began Mr. Turner, “anyone in the Ludgate Hill area of London would have seen a group of men breaking large stones. It seems that one day someone watching these men got curious and asked one of them what he was doing. The worker put down his big heavy hammer and gave a rather blunt reply. He said, ‘Can’t you see what I’m doing? I’m breaking stones.’” Probably the man included an expletive in that reply, but in 1937 small boys were not expected to know certain words, and anyway, it was Bible class.

“The visitor to the hill went on and asked another man who likewise was wielding a big heavy hammer. He asked exactly the same question, but this time the reply was a little more gracious. The man said,
‘This is what I do to support my family, my wife and children.’ Then the passerby approached the third man. Once again, he asked, ‘What are you doing?’ This time the questioner actually got a smile, a weary one but, nevertheless, a smile. Leaning on his mallet, the man looked all around the hill. Then he said, ‘Well, I suppose you could say I’m helping Christopher Wren to build St Paul’s Cathedral.’”


A simple story a child could understand. However, as you wise adult readers probably realized immediately, the story contains a message about something very important to the human experience. It’s about having a sense of meaning about what we do, and the huge difference that sense of meaning can make when life becomes a bore and a slog and a burden, which it sometimes does.

Mr. Turner had promised us two stories, so we waited and were not disappointed. “Rabindranath Tagore,” he began, then paused and waited for the wonder and romance and magic of that name to reverberate in our minds. “Rabindranath Tagore is an Indian writer, and he once wrote a wonderful story called The Golden Door.” Again, he paused. Absolute silence.

“Once, there was a poor man who lived in a small hut on the side of a great forested valley. Flowing through the valley was a fast river. One morning when the poor man got up, his eye was caught by what looked like a golden door on the other side of the valley. Excited, he decided to make the journey down to the valley floor, search for a ford across the river, then climb up the side of the valley to the spot where he had seen the golden door.

“The journey took him most of the day. At last, toward sunset, weary but excited, he approached the place where he had seen the golden door. When he found nothing more than a deserted shack rather like his own, its door and single window hanging half broken, he was deeply disappointed. He turned away to begin the long journey home. But no sooner had he turned than he saw, far across the valley, exactly where his own hut stood, a golden door, bathed in the light of the setting sun.”

Once again one of Mr. Turner’s stories taught a small boy something he would remember for the rest of his life: that it was important to realize that some wonderful things in his life can easily be taken for granted, and some things that seem very ordinary can shine with a beauty you could treasure for your whole life, and it would never fade.

  • Herbert O’Driscoll

    Herb O’Driscoll is a retired priest, conference leader and prolific author of books, hymns and radio scripts. His newest book of memoirs, I Will Arise and Go Now: Reflections on the Meaning of Places and People, was released in 2021 by Morehouse Publishing. 

    View all posts [email protected]
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