The Snowmass Trip: A Rothko Chapel Interlude

So, the dorm where I am staying at the University of St. Thomas is immediately next to Rothko Chapel–one of the most sincere and focused places of prayer I have ever visited.  Here is a photo of the statue, Broken Obelisk, from in front, given in memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

It is an extraordinary space.

Last year, Ed and Barbara Taylor gave me a small booklet on Rothko Chapel that described its origins, its mission–and the hope for a space that seeks to integrate an embodiment of justice and peace that is grounded in a deep contemplative awareness.  It was only a booklet then; now, I have witnessed it firsthand, and it was a profound experience.

One of the 14 Rothko murals especially hooked me.  It’s the one in the center of the photo here.

I can’t describe to you what I saw, really, when I sat for thirty minutes and focused on this canvas.  It is not purple.  Or violet.  It is everything.  It is a swirl of deep compassion.

And not that fluffy, overly-sentimental compassion that tells us “everything is going to be alright.” “Don’t worry.”  Not that kind that oozes a superficiality.  Saccharine.  The compassion embodied in this canvas is the real one.  It’s the compassion of a parent whose child is ill, with a high fever.  It reminds me of when our daughter Evelyn had breathing problems with a bout of pneumonia when she was two and the tips of her fingers turned blue and we had to use the breathing treatment.  It’s that space of deep calm.  Of sincere focus and awareness of exactly where you are at this precise moment.  Compassion in this space is real.  There’s nothing fluffy about it.  Rather than being saturated with an overly-emotive weepiness, it is steeped in a holy determinism and contemplative posture.  You are not alone.

At least that is what came to me as I sat there, along with the words to the wonderful Taize’ chant, Nada te turbe.  Let nothing trouble you, from the moving prayer of St. Teresa of Jesus.

Let nothing disturb you,
let nothing frighten you,
everything passes,
but God stays.
Pacience reaches it all;
he who has God
nothing lacks:
God alone suffices.
He who has God lacks nothing.
I just soaked it all in:
The mother with the young son who couldn’t wait to run up and plop down on the meditation cushion.
The young yoga hipster girl who sat there for as long as I did.
The middle-aged woman who came in and sat in front of me, whose legs wouldn’t stop shaking.  She eventually got up and went to a cushion and prostrated herself, taking deep breaths.
The man standing on my right side with his hands on top of his head.
All of us…together.  Being in that moment and sharing this space together.  There were no words, and it was of the most sincere embodiments of community I have ever experienced.

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