Journey to understanding

"Christ does not call us to an unchanging state of safety and comfort, but to ask, seek, knock. To look beyond our first impressions for meaning within."

In early October I visited friends and Outlook supporters in Houston. The day I arrived, my host told me the Rothko Chapel was at the top of the list of Houston sites I must visit. The name “Rothko” meant little to me. One of those famous artists I probably should know more about but didn’t. But I welcomed the chance to visit the chapel, which I imagined would be inspiring and full of colorful sacred art.

From the outside, the building was a plain brick box — more administrative than artistic. My host guided me inside, into a large octagonal room with a domed ceiling. Huge black canvases covered each wall. Finding her way to a bench near the center of the room, my host sat without a word of explanation. I followed, thinking, When is she going to take me to the chapel?

It took a few minutes of sitting in silence to realize this was the Rothko Chapel. This was all it was. Black canvases on eight walls. No stained glass. No color. No sacramental table or font or objects of ritual. No background music. Just me, my host, another woman who looked like me – confused – and a woman sitting on a meditation cushion in front of one of the black murals, her legs crossed, palms resting upward on each knee.

The interior of Rothko Chapel. Photo by Rothko Chapel.

Once I realized I was supposed to be doing something spiritual, I looked around again. The canvases were not all black. They were also not the same. Brush strokes turned into shapes unique to each painting and revealed undercoat colors — shades of purple, blue and red. As I sat staring, the paintings morphed into images and landscapes — the face of a lion emerged, reminding me of Aslan in C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia.

We didn’t stay long. My host knew I was tired from a long day of travel. On our way out I picked up a brochure on the chapel and bought a book. I wanted to understand more of what I just experienced.

Christopher Rothko writes that this chapel represented his father Mark’s struggle to make sense of the world around him. The chapel serves as a puzzling place of deconstruction, stripping us of preconceived ideas and expectations, opening us to receiving what the art and silence inspire. Built in the heart of Houston, a bustling city full of many religions, the Rothko Chapel is celebrated as a spiritual site for all who seek understanding.

In creating this interfaith chapel, Mark Rothko meant to invite seekers to a plurality of interpretation and experience. Built as an octagon, the Rothko chapel has no specific direction, no reference point outside of itself. Instead, it directs attention back to the viewer at the center of the chapel, asking through the art, “Where are you?” Or more universally, “Where are we?” Seekers are not alone in these questions. These are human questions, common as we journey to understand who we are, the meaning of our lives, our purpose for being. These questions are the “stuff of being alive,” Christopher Rothko writes, and “the very stuff of which the Chapel was constructed.”

I appreciate art for the way it makes me pause to seek understanding — the way it makes questions about meaning and purpose come alive within me. Art takes me on unexpected journeys. Books do this, too. This quest for understanding is sacred. My faith calls me to seek new experiences through the eyes of artists and writers because Christ calls me to become new, to grow and learn and develop each day of my life. To encounter ideas and visions that may take concentration, focus, or just openness and time to sink in. Christ does not call us to an unchanging state of safety and comfort, but to ask, seek, knock. To look beyond our first impressions for meaning within. We are to journey to understanding in every moment and every opportunity with which we are graced. I pray this Winter Books issue of the Outlook is such an opportunity for you.