Allan’s visit to the Rothko Chapel, Houston
3rd – 12th November 2013

The Rothko Chapel was founded by John and Dominique de Menil and was dedicated in 1971 as an intimate sanctuary for people of every belief. It is a tranquil meditative environment dominated by the fourteen monumental canvases of the Russian-born American painter Mark Rothko. The Chapel welcomes over 60,000 visitors each year. People of every faith and from all parts of the world come on pilgrimage to experience the transformative power of art and silence.

As an institution, the Rothko Chapel functions as chapel, museum and forum. It is a place where spirituality, art, architecture, hospitality and the voice of Human Rights intermingle. For over forty years the Chapel has provided diverse programmes to engage audiences intellectually, artistically and spiritually.

Dominique de Menil said:

It is a place where a great artist turned towards the Absolute, had the courage to paint almost nothing – and did it masterfully. It is a place blessed by the many people who gather there to meditate, to find themselves, and to go beyond themselves.

The Rothko Chapel is celebrated for its peaceful environment and offers a space of contemplative silence unlike any other I have ever encountered. It is experienced as an intimate yet universal sanctuary where time stands still. This space has inspired creativity, moved people to good works and changed people’s lives. My first reaction was of one of complete awe, not just of the paintings, but of the depth of the silence.

You are here to kneel where prayer has been valid. T.S.Eliot

In this first morning of experiencing the space, an experience that would be repeated many times over the week, I staggered outside into the bright Texan sunlight to recover, and sat by the rectangular reflecting pool overlooking the chapel. There I was able to view the American artist Barnett Newman’s colossal Broken Obelisk sculpture, a gift from the Menils in honour of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Newman suggested the reflecting pool and selected the location for the sculpture which is on an axis of alignment with the entry to the Chapel.

Sadly neither Mark Rothko nor Barnett Newman lived to see their art installed at the Chapel.

John and Dominique de Menil began collecting art intensively in the 1940’s, ultimately amassing more than 16,000 paintings, sculptures, decorative objects, prints, photographs and rare books. The Menil Collection’s diverse artefacts represent many world cultures and thousands of years of human creativity, from prehistoric times to the present.

The gifted artists are the great benefactors of the world. Life flows from their souls, and from their hearts……….they invites us to celebrate life and to meditate on the mystery of the world. They bring us back to the essentials.
Dominique de Menil, 1987

It was to this wonderful Collection, located in a quiet residential neighbourhood next to the Rothko Chapel, that I was invited on my first day in the city to have lunch with Joseph Newland, Director of Publishing at the Menil Collection. Joseph took me out locally to encounter a ‘TexMex’ meal which was an experience in itself! Over scrumptious food, which was a combination of American and Mexican cuisine, we talked about art, spirituality and I learned more about the vision of the de Menils. I was to meet Joseph again later in the week when he led a wonderful lunchtime Sufi meditation in the chapel.

Returning to the Chapel, I joined the staff for their weekly staff meeting that afternoon, and learned about their plans for the 2014-15 events programme. This was later followed by an introduction to the work of the Rothko Chapel by the Director, Emilee Whitehurst.

At sunset I sat by the pool again and waited until the darkness engulfed me before catching the bus back to my host’s home. Everyone seemed amazed that I was using the bus to get around, as in Houston it is often only the old, the poor, or ethnic minorities who use this kind of transport. Over the week I had some of my best conversations on the bus, as passengers seemed intrigued by this British visitor being among them. Also taking the bus grounded me, after climbing the dizzy heights of being at the Rothko Chapel!

Tuesday morning allowed me to do some private research and reading in the archive/library, and in the afternoon I engaged in general discussions with members of the team. After meditating in the stillness of the chapel in the early evening, I later had dinner with some young Americans who are living in a local community house for a year and working with the homeless in the centre of Houston as part of a church project. Shimon Peres, the President of Israel, wrote in a recent Sunday Times article:

…….. we have to do the peace process under new conditions - not so much between States as generations. Today if you want to do something you must turn to the young.

Generally I think this is true for all Western countries not just for Israel, as so many talented young people face unemployment, lack of opportunity and a sense of no Hope. Pope Francis has also spoken out about this situation so it seemed important for me as a priest to hear from the younger generation too. Over dinner I was deeply moved by their conversation, insights and willingness to align themselves with the dispossessed and poor, and I returned on the bus with much food for thought, and a challenge to my general perception of comfortable American life styles.

Reflection has always played a large part in my life so it was really good to have the time to sit by the pool or contemplate in the quiet of the Chapel. It was interesting to observe how the Chapel staff protected the silence by gently but skilfully reminding visitors to respect this sacred silent space by not talking, drinking or eating, using mobile phones and cameras, or getting too near to the Rothko paintings. I found this practice deeply moving and reassuring.

Once a month, at midday on Wednesdays, there is a spiritual practice programme based on the various world religions. Joseph Newland, whom I mentioned previously has been a long-time meditator, has sat with many groups and is a student of Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan and a representative of the Sufi Order International. Joseph is a lover of light, a believer in the unity of religious Ideals, and especially fond of the epiphany of the everyday. Participants used breathe practices, new frontiers of cosmology, the art of light, and light on art to enter into the meditation. I ‘returned’ to the chapel experiencing the universe in a completely new dimension – seeing its wonderful beauty and its vastness!

Back to earth, later that afternoon, I was invited to attend a Board meeting which gave me new insights into how people with power can use their influence to bring about change for the common good. This experience was a pertinent eye opener.

The Rothko Chapel has two vocations: contemplation and action. It is a place alive with ceremonies from all faiths and where the experience and understanding of all traditions are encouraged and made available.

Action takes the form of supporting Human Rights, and thus the Chapel has become a rallying place for all people concerned with peace, freedom and social justice throughout the world. Events at the Rothko Chapel have brought leaders, heroes, artists, musicians, scientists and scholars from all over the world such as Jonas Salk, Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama, Jimmy Carter and many others to share their knowledge, experience, talents and stories with the Houston community.

So in the evening it was a real honour to be able to join a packed Chapel to hear Elisa Massimino from the Human Right First organisation based in Washington, talk about women’s rights throughout the world. She gave examples of women activists in Cairo, Afghanistan and in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and showed how women are both uniquely vulnerable – and uniquely powerful - in the struggle for Human Rights. As an International lawyer for Human Rights, she opened my eyes, as a man, to how women suffer at the hand of my own gender. This was a very challenging realisation for a male.

We who enjoy freedom cannot accept that millions of people awake daily to suffering, to hopelessness, to deadly fear.

Meetings were arranged on Thursday with the Programme Director and the Communication and Advancement Director. Both gave me practical guidance and advice on how to further the work and development of Centre for Silence.

Later on in the twilight, I watched Tai Chi being practiced on the Plaza in front of the Chapel which I found most relaxing after a very busy day.

On my last day at the Chapel I spent the morning talking with Suna Umari who is the Chapel’s archivist and historian as well as having been a close friend to the de Menils. A lunch for invited guests followed by a talk enabled me to share my own ideas and vision for the Centre for Silence here in London.

For the rest of my stay in Houston I was able to see a wonderful performance of Aida at the Opera House; hear great jazz at a club near the Rothko Chapel; experience James Turrell’s Skyspace at Rice University viewed at dusk; speak to staff at the Jung Centre, and view great contemporary art at a city museum.

It only seems right that I end this missal by quoting Rothko himself, which certainly reflects my own experience:

I‘m not interested in relationships of colour or form or anything else…..I’m interested only in expressing basic human emotions – tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on – and the fact that lots of people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows that I communicate these basic human emotions ….….The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them, and if you, as you say, are moved only by their colour relationships, then the you miss the point.

The Reverend Allan Bell
Centre for Silence

November 2013