Companions in Light – Br. James Koester
I don’t look at the clerestory windows so much as they look at me.
A line in our Rule, which speaks about our predecessors in the Society, says that “they are not dead figures from the past. Risen in Christ, they belong to the great cloud of witnesses who spur us on by their prayers.” Therefore just as we can pray for them, they pray for us. When I look at the clerestory windows, I experience this duality: I know that they are historic figures who have a place in history, a specific place and time. Yet as the Rule suggests, I also know that they’re not dead figures in the past, rather they’re risen in Christ. They continue to live. While I can gaze up at them, I experience them gazing down on me.
Taken literally, the figures in the clerestory are representative of religious life through the ages, but I experienced them more personally than that. It’s no accident that these men appear in the windows of our Chapel. They are not in our windows simply because they were early monastics, or founders of monastic orders; it’s not simply that each of these men helped to shape monasticism. More to the point, these men helped to shape Father Benson, and in shaping him, they have profoundly shaped us Brothers and our common life. All of the figures have something to say to us, to SSJE, and I would suggest, to all those who find their way into our chapel.
If SSJE were a Benedictine community, it would make perfect sense for all of our windows to be of Benedictine saints. If we were a Franciscan community, it would make perfect sense for all of our windows to be of Franciscan saints. In the same way, if we were Jesuits, it would make perfect sense for all of our windows to be of Jesuits saints.
In our clerestory, we have Benedict, and Francis, and Dominic, and Ignatius of Loyola, and Francis de Sales, and Bruno, and Anthony of Egypt. Looking at the clerestory windows, you can actually see all the different strands that inform our life. The St. Benedict window reminds us that there is that really strong Benedictine ethos in the community. But opposite Benedict, on the other side, is St. Ignatius of Loyola, reminding us that we have a really deep Ignatian influence. And then down the aisle from St. Benedict is St. Francis of Assisi, calling out to us and reminding us that while it is great to have wonderful liturgies, we have to take that prayer out into the world and allow the world to come in. In these three windows you can see the constant dialogue between our contemplative side, our communal side, and our apostolic side. As a group, these windows speak to us about the balance of our common life.
And this dialogue is not only going on between us and the windows. I also think there is a dialogue going on among the windows themselves. Francis is talking to Benedict, saying, “Don’t forget the leper.” And then Benedict is saying, “Don’t forget the rule of hospitality,” or “Don’t forget the importance of the Daily Office and the community life.” And then Dominic chimes in, saying, “Remember that study and the intellectual life is really important too, especially for preaching so don’t forget that.”
These windows are more than simply pictures on glass: We can actually have a dialogue with them and we can enter into the dialogue that they are having with each other as well.
This is what you do with an icon. You enter into dialogue with it. In an icon, you are in a sense looking through the icon into the light. With a window, the light shines through the window down onto you. In the Transfiguration, Jesus was clothed with light, which revealed his true nature. So too, when the light is allowed to glow through us, like windows, then our true nature is revealed. Thus the light streaming through these windows reminds us that the light also needs to stream through us, until we become windows ourselves. The saints may be the windows up there, in the clerestory, but we need to be the windows down here, to reveal God’s glory on the ground.
This may be the reason that my favorite windows in the chapel are not the Monastic Fathers in the clerestory, nor the Rosary windows in the Lady Chapel, which are truly the most beautiful of all, but the Workmen’s Windows. Benedict and all those Fathers up there, in the grand scheme of things, are pretty cosmic. But the workman in the Workmen’s Windows, are actually just carpenters and masons and plumbers. Along the borders of the Workmen’s Windows there is a stone mason and a carpenter, and my favourite, a plumber with a drippy tap. It reminds me that the ordinary guy, the ordinary woman are windows too—like these plumbers and masons and carpenters in the Workmen’s Windows, we can let the light shine through our lives as well.
So the windows teach us something about how the work of human hands is sacred and how it can be sanctified. The work of human hands can reveal for us, can be to us, the Body of Christ. It’s the work of human hands that becomes for us the Body of Christ and the Bread of Heaven at the Eucharist. I love the fact that something that I have helped produce—the honey from the bee hives at Emery House—ends up on the altar everyday and comes back to us as the Bread of Life. The whole Monastery Chapel is like that. Ordinary things that ordinary people produced come together to produce a transcendent reality.
The Chapel windows, made by the glass workers’ hands, contribute to the transcendent reality that this Chapel communicates. Cram’s original intention was to have not colored glass, but rather opaque glass and whitewashed walls. You can get a sense of what the chapel would have looked like by visiting the Cram chapel at the Order of the Holy Cross in West Park, New York. It’s a very different experience, because the building is much brighter, much lighter, much airier. There’s a real sense here, in the Monastery Chapel, that you can go tuck yourself in a corner and be held in it. This is amazing because, of course, there are also lots of hard surfaces in the chapel, marble and stone everywhere. Even the arches and the pillars are big and heavy and strong. There’s no delicate tracery, not miles of fabric hanging here and there. It’s a place of hard, strong surfaces. Yet the chapel is also filled with shadows, and the shadows allow you to tuck yourself away and be held by this strong force. In many ways, this chapel is very intimate, very womb-like. The windows help in this. They give us shadows, and color, and companionship, and a real sense of intimacy.
Because of the windows, there is a real sense of companionship in this Chapel. Even when you are in the Chapel by yourself, you’re not alone, because the folks in the clerestory are up there, looking down at you. When you enter the Chapel, think how you’re being companioned, encouraged, illuminated, and even held by those folks in the clerestory (and in the Workmen’s Windows, too). That for me is the one of the great joys of our chapel, that when we go in it to pray, we are upheld by its sheer beauty and supported by the prayers of all the ages and whether you are concerned with weighty matters of life and faith, or mundane matters like drippy taps, the windows invite you to offer all your cares to God in prayer.
This article is taken from a book about the Monastery Chapel, STONE & Light, available for purchase online here.