Tale of Two Chapels/ Christ of the Abyss
(this is an edited entry from my journal)
Wednesday, November 13, 2013
Today I had two visceral, spiritual experiences. I tried to attend vividly to them both - one was overwhelming and I could not escape its glory and would not have wanted to try. The other was like a vacuum into nothing. But in both, God was there. I’ll explain.
I don’t know anything about Houston, TX. I was invited to a small gathering of about 30 people. It was a lifegiving experience just to be around people like that, people who have vocations and are living into them daily.
At the start of our second day, we had a devotional moment in the Chapel of St. Basil on the University of St. Thomas campus.
The chapel stands at the head of a corridor of classrooms, it is a large contemporary art inspired structure with old-eastern symoblic shapes, naturally lit from sun only. Designed by architect Philip Johnson, this chapel has a parted curtain wall through which you enter, a golden dome roof flooding the room with orbs of natural light, and a wall has a giant window-shaped cross angled to one side, massively sprawling with the angle of Christ’s invisible body beneath it. The chapel is filled not only with geometric shapes of stone and carvings into stone, but also shapes of light, crossing the walls and careening smoothly over the white stone. It occurs to me now that the space is never quite the same two times in one day.
Below the cross-shaped window are negative impressions of the Stations of the Cross. Like hieroglyphs, these small figures have no numbers or words around them, you just have to know the journey. You just have to read the shapes. Some of the participants in our group reached into the stations cut of of the stone and felt the indentations of Christ’s hape. I did too and felt the holes in his palms in one. (Perhaps this was the artist’s reflection on the school’s namesake, Thomas?) Basil, the Chapel’s namesake, was pictured only in a pine green garb against a golden backdrop, the icon near the tabernacle where the host is held. This also without words, with small pictures of the miracles that made him a saint. The space was serene as we entered, only a nun was there silently saying prayers.
In my experience, the Stations are a discipline that requires emotional sensitivity, biblical understanding, and imagination. In particular it is a journey of the emotional imagination. Jesus is there, you follow him, from the time he gets the cross to the Tomb, you fall together, see his mother, feel the weight of Simon’s burden, cry with the women who are weeping. It is a very physical and emotional image you are conjuring as you step with your own body. And if you’re lucky, by the end, you’ve remembered the gospel: this Jesus was crucified, died, and was buried. Only to rise again.
The poetry of this miracle emphasizes the loss of Jesus’ humanity and God-ness. Both are being stripped and beaten and crushed in these moments. To realize Jesus’ suffering is to know our right relationship; i.e. following by faith. By faith, Christians follow him to his death. A death that, as the stations show, begins at condemnation and is continued down the via dolorosa, only to be completed on a Cross, a symbol of humiliation and torture.
In the serenity of St. Basil’s Chapel, these active symbols of our faith marched across the wall, a perfect piece of art to speak the fullness of the sacrifice on which Christian faith turns and lives. I loved that church, that art, for giving me such a remembrance, and such an experience of Christ.
I wept there. The beauty overcame me and the gift of this death that we celebrate for all. Someone in our group came over to me to comfort me, but I told her “I’m just happy,” which was true.
Later after the rest of our day, I went with two of the participants (one was an architect who gave us a lot of background on the chapel and local designs) on a short walk to see the Rothko Chapel.
Taking in the saturation, the beauty of St. Basil, I was struck instantly by the apparent non-descript facade of the Rothko Chapel. From the outside it looks like a window-less fortress, a yellow-brick building with zero ornamentation and only a large pool of brown water in front of it with a sculpture that appears to be a broken charcoal pencil overing over the point of a pyramid - both a jet black, the pool is surrounded by a fence of tall non-descript trees. Externally it might have been a mistaken for highly non-descript educational facility or an oversized and non-ornamented mausoleum.
Upon entering, the darkness overwhelmed me. The woman sitting at the front desk said, “Sign the Guestbook” in a strange European accent. We did and entered the “chapel.” Each wall had enormous plaques, appearing at first to be black or gray, initially I thought they were all the same maybe even copies. The ground and walls were all light gray and the pews were a dark brown wood. I looked up at the ceiling where the only light sources were slits - a large black obstruction, like a closed eye, squinting, just barely letting in the light. The light only dimly reaches the paintings. The room containing in it the sense of soot, ash, grey matter, sifting in the air. Philip Johnson, architect of St Basil Chapel, apparently signed on to this project but left when he could not compromise with Rothko on how to make the lighting. The way the light is intentionally obstructed in Rothko Chapel stands in direct contrast to the way the light floods and moves fluidly around the space in St Basil’s.
The colors of the paintings, the purples and the blues, emerged as my eyes adjusted. and I could see the grey panels were not all alike. (I have Makoto Fujimura’s work to thank for teaching me about that; that if you stand before the painting long enough, textures and colors, shades and light emerge phenomenologically).
I was struck by that, but then moreso by the depth of the darkness that came out of that. Rothko had created an environment of death. It felt like a place to go mourn. Not only the colors, but the endless room with no altar, no focus, everything turning in on the middle, with no where to go.
(not my photo)
To my soul, I felt I was having a truly opposite experience than I did in St. Basil’s airy, light room, filled with art, filled with stillness. In the Passion, the Christian celebration of death as a sacrifice, is a grotesque and humiliating story. And yet there is a resolve, a story of peace and overcoming, of resurrection, of trust. In the Rothko Chapel, the heaviness of the darkness felt like having your eyes closed to the certainty of that pain as physical and emotional. Instead, a fearfully dim shadow of an afterlife: some ever-expanding darkness, something that mimics the pain of this life, a darkness into infinitude. It is an homage to the death of a person who was still alive as it was being built. Someone with a death sentence that they were putting upon themself. The artist. Death without end. An abyss.
I went back into St Basil after the Rothko space. I noticed they were doing an adoration of the monstrance. It’s one of those “super-catholic” things that I can’t really see myself doing. I looked at the group, students and a Philipino couple It only just occured to me that they may have been there praying for their country - an enormous storm, the largest ever recorded hit there a week ago.
I cried at St Basil earlier because I love the Catholic Church and I love having Catholic ancestry, culture. It is a grace I can’t do without. I depend on the community of Sts to teach me how to live. I need the artfulness of depictions of Jesus to know who he is. I need to see the story. The story of the Passion of Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God. We’re deeply reminded there of the brokenness of the human world. None of that fear of death is “unspoken” in a room where Jesus’ cross is visible. The display of his wounds is what makes us unbelievers believe. His sufferings for our life. That’s how we got here - to him and to each other.
It’s a visual, living thing. It is in our imagination. We know what it is like to have a body, and so we know a little more about him, because we can imagine what his pain was like. Since he who bore the cross did not think of himself as worthy of the throne, but despised honor in exchange for glory. That is Jesus.
So what does that mean for the Rothko Chapel? I sat on one of the benches and looked around. You are looking for light in there because it “feels” like a church. But there is more of a vacuum of light, the gray that is soaking up the light into its leaden face. Death. “Where there is darkness, let me bring light,” I prayed.
It is valuable, I have found, to dwell on death as a Christian. Julian of Norwich had a devotional vision to the decaying body of Christ. In her “showings,” she sees the dying blue flesh of the scourged Jesus. Death is a part of life. It was a part of Jesus’ life. Not even God escaped the power of death.
And then, he conquered it forever.
And as for us, I think Wendell Berry says it nicely: There is no answer, but loving one another.
The organic response to the Suffering Servant is love. He is in pain, so we are . And pain often creates love in us, stirring to empathy. In fact to be in love is to be in some kind of pain. Because it is deep and sensory. And as humans we cannot behold very much beauty or pain or loneliness or joy or darkness. The extent to which we are overpowered by those emotions is the extent to which we may be called to external love, to empathy, to action.
In Rothko’s chapel, I felt very little. Besides maybe fear. Coldness and lifelessness. Dry death. The haunting feeling of being in someone else’s vast and empty house. A void. The absence of God, the death without God is like the tomb that the living person builds for themselves while they are still alive.
I remember two things. One, Mother Teresa said when she came into the presence of God that she would ask to be a Saint of the darkness (not demonic darkness), but a servant to those who are poor and forgotten, to the suffering in the grip of death and weakness. “If I ever become a Saint- I will surely be one of ‘darkness.’ I will continually be absent from Heaven- to light the light of those in darkness on Earth.” She lived such a long time in spiritual aridity. Like Christian Wiman talks about, that sometimes to follow God is to feel nothing of nearness to God. The “Holy Saturday” of the spiritual life. Without faith, without hope. For hope would be hope for the wrong thing.
Two, I remember Jesus: “Eloi Eloi Lama Sabachtani" Why do you forsake me?
Rothko committed suicide. Many, many artists have. And many other kinds of people. Sometimes at the height of fame. Why. There is not an answer to that. But the Rothko Chapel - after seeing it side by side with St Basil in Houston - is an expression of those words: “Why am I foresaken?” “Why am I alone?”
These too are important spiritual questions. They ought to be confessed and shared, not judged so severely.
"The LORD is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit."
There are no words in either of these chapels. There are no scriptural reminders or parables. There is death in both. Yet one invites into knowledge of forgiveness while the other isolates itself and says “Don’t get any closer.” One says, “Take this, all of you, and eat.” and one says “Don’t remember. Forget.” “I am here.” “I am gone.”
In the stations we have a story. The camera is rolling. The imagination is on. The Rothko chapel is a darkened movie theater, endlessly waiting for a story, but the projector never gets turned on. The lights are out. The hush is waiting: “Why am I alone?”
And yet a block away, a story is in full throttle, color, displayed upon a wall in vivid lights: “He humbled himself to death, even death on a cross” “He is the image of the invisible God” “The Creator, Maker of Heaven and Earth” “Of all that is seen and unseen” “For us and for our salvation” “The giver of life” “Who takes away the sins of the world.” “The darkness cannot overcome it.”
New King James Version (NKJV)
Do Not Judge
37 “Judge not, and you shall not be judged. Condemn not, and you shall not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.
There is a Jesus under the sea in Italy. The Christ of the Abyss. Do I know who that Christ is for? I don’t. Definitely not for people “living in the light.” God is preaching to creation in the midst of it. A quiet voice that is changing everything. Death cannot have victory for Jesus is the Lord over death. Indeed, the Victor, even in the deep abyss.
Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
and the light become night around me,”
even the darkness will not be dark to you;
the night will shine like the day,
for darkness is as light to you.