On a quiet block, in the quiet Montrose neighborhood of Houston, there sits a rather severe looking building shaped much like a Greek Cross, or is it an octagon superimposed on a Greek cross? It could be easily missed, and yet it is a space I treasure, a space of profound holiness.
This is the Rothko Chapel. Commissioned by Dominique deMenil and completed in the early 70s as a non-denominational chapel, open every day, open to all, it has become a center for interfaith dialogue. The interior consists of a quiet, some would say somber, modified octagon containing 14 paintings by Mark Rothko, paintings that are mostly black, or almost black, a blackness that I see as rich with depth and color and texture, rich with meaning.
I get that many people do not appreciate this place, and yet many do. The world is big enough for many understandings of what is holy. As I grow older I increasingly understand that every moment, every place and object holds its own share of that holiness, but we all too often are too preoccupied to see. And yet, for each of us there are places or spaces that are totems of holiness, places to which we yearn to return. For me, the Rothko Chapel is one such place. There are many who find peace in the reflecting pool, the Barnet Newman sculpture and the stand of bamboo, and there are those, like me, who find peace in the meditative silence and darkness of the chapel itself.
I discovered the Rothko Chapel the summer I turned twenty. At the time I had never experienced anything quite like it, and I was the only person, other than the docent, present in the space. I didn't know much about Mark Rothko then, but the paintings seemed to embody blackness, not as a slick of color on a canvas, but as an act of absorption, an act of containing all of experience and holding it in a holy reverence. I felt a profound sense of peace, a profound sense of contact not only with the divine, but with humanity, a link through all people and places and things through some divine thread.
When I was twenty, that sense of peace was something new and powerful for me and it was something I yearned for but which always seemed out of reach. The only way I knew to find it was to return to that one place. And I did return several times that summer, several times each summer I worked in Houston, each time I returned to Houston. I took George to the Rothko chapel before were married and we shared our experiences of profoundly layered depth and peace.
Although it had been many years since I had spent any time in Houston, I had not forgotten. When I planned my loop trip, beginning with Chihuly in Arkansas, I realized I could easily loop through Houston and end with Rothko. It had been an emotionally overwrought summer and I felt deeply in need of a quiet meditative space. I planned an afternoon, and I stopped in. The space was as meditative as I remembered, the paintings as rich with meaning. As I sat quietly, contemplating not so much the space, but the act of art, contemplating the colors of blackness, of darkened shades of color, I felt this attempt to reach out and into all that was and is and will be, all of human history and potential.
I also realized that I no longer need to seek out holy spaces to find that inner peace. It lives in me and with me and it always has, although I have not always been receptive to its presence. Even now I am not always receptive, and it was true that I had needed to distance myself from my daily routines in order to distance myself from my own emotional turmoil. But I had reconnected with that peace long before I arrived in Houston, and I will continue to carry it with me. Sitting in contemplation I recognized that I tend not to give myself enough space for gathering in and reflecting back. I tend to think of that time to fill personal needs as wasted time, but it is in fact not wasted, as it is that time that fuels all the rest, that times that keeps it all from spinning out of control.
I did not really sit at the reflecting pool on this visit, but I have. It was raining lightly. Perhaps I was feeling petulant at the wetness, although I do not melt. I watched a small child splashing a toy in the water, in the shadow of the obelisk, and I contemplated space and the way we interact with space, both the spaces we intentionally create, and the way our presence has shaped and formed even those places we label as "wild" or "natural". Our every thought, our every action simultaneously shapes and is shaped by the world. How then do we decide what is holy or sacred and what is not? How can we?
Photo of the Rothko Chapel from Wikipedia, here.
Photo of Dale Chihuly's Niijima Floats, from the Facebook page of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, here.