Excerpts from The Monk’s Cell Chapter 2: Antechapel
Gathering and Grounding Contemplative Christians in a Pluralistic Society
Continuing with the series of excerpts from The Monk’s Cell: Ritual and Knowledge in American Contemplative Christianity (Oxford University Press, 2018), the second chapter, Antechapel, describes how monastic and non-monastic teachers convey contemplative principles, like detachment and humility, and offer tools, such as rules of life, to help stabilize their students’ intentions to follow alternative life ways.
A teacher in the American contemplative Christian movement, Br. Curtis Almquist of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist used the motifs of detachment and humility to get across the contemplative Christian ethos. Through them, he showed how the intentional cultivation of ambiguity and paradox can prompt people to see past their usual boundaries. In a public lecture about his monastery’s stained-glass windows, Br. Curtis described how the glass artist and the architect together created structural juxtapositions that fostered a feeling of liminality. Their work prompted those who entered the chapel to cross the limen (Latin for threshold) into another way of being. When one passes over the threshold, he said, one enters a “place of in-between” that brings together earthly and divine realms. This ambiguous place of “both/and” potentially acts as an “icon,” he said, a kind of window or conduit through which the human and the divine make contact.
Expanding on the notion that ambiguity and paradox have the transformative potential to take people beyond usual frames of knowledge and experience, Br. Curtis highlighted the chapel’s contrasting architectural qualities. The paradoxical union of weighty stone and weightless light, for example, simultaneously fostered stability and effervescence. He said,
“Nothing could be heavier than a floor of undressed slate and polished marble, and the serene walls of granite. No matter how much you may feel your life is adrift, when you come into this space, you are grounded . . . but then the limestone Gothic arches, columns, pillars, and capitals lift your gaze to the light of the heavens with the beautiful rose window that crowns the antechapel, and the clerestory windows that line the choir.”
The designers intentionally created an admixture of darkness and light in the chapel, which further expands a feeling of in-betweenness, unknowing, and wonder. Shadowy recesses contrasted with the danger of too much light, said Br. Curtis, the glare and exposure that he called “the wound of knowledge” after the words of Welsh poet, R.S. Thomas. Sanctification and holiness come through “an intermingling of light and darkness, enough of both.” The mystery of ambiguous “holy shadow” is as primary to awakening to the divine as the dazzle of overt knowledge.