Cistercian architecture has been called the architecture of silence: austere and simple, focusing on stone and light, with open, proportional space, and visual harmony. The early Cistercian architecture drew inspiration from Romanesque, then Gothic architecture, two traditions which also inspired the architect of the Monastery Chapel, Ralph Adams Cram. I’d like to trace several architectural features of Cistercian monasteries, which are also found here in this beautiful monastic chapel.
Romanesque architecture, a style of Medieval Europe, is particularly characterized by semi-circular arches. You see these here in the antechapel, the back of the chapel. The Romanesque style evolved into the Gothic style, beginning in the 12th century. The Gothic style was characterized by pointed arches, which you see in the choir. So many people guess that this chapel is much older than it actually is. The chapel was completed in 1936, but it does look much older. One significant reason is this subtle change in the progression of the arches: beginning in the rear with the round Romanesque arches, and then moving forward to the pointed Gothic-style arches, which visually moves you along several hundred years.
Arches do several things, very powerfully. For one, they lift the eye, but not like in the way the eye follows a bird in flight. Rather, arches are grounded and they lift the eye and raise the soul to a higher plane without our losing a sense of space and time, of here and now. Arches convey the soul’s longing to be both grounded and lifted up. The psalmist prays, “I call upon you, [O God], from the ends of the earth with heaviness in my heart; set me upon the rock that is higher than I” (Psalm 61:2). “You are my glory, the one who lifts up my head” (Psalm 3:3). Arches do that. They lift our perspective to a higher plane and so they elicit hope.
Arches also carry a great deal of weight in a very particular way. Something extraordinary is happening to allow an ascending stone wall, which also bears the weight of wooden roof beams and a slate roof, to be supported by so much empty space. Arches are amazing. Arches can carry a tremendous load solely because the solid stones are complementary and interdependent. The stones are cut to lean into each other; they absolutely need each other. Remove any one stone in the arch, whatever its size or placement, and the arch will fall, along with everything that is above. Architecturally, arches create the visual structure of a spiritual truth repeated many times in the Epistles and Gospel according to John. Jesus calls us to abide with one another, that is, to make our abode with one another. And Jesus calls us to love one another – love, not as a feeling but an action. It’s to love one another by laying down our life for one another, which is very much like stones of an arch. The individual stones which comprise arches are a symbol of that kind of deference in love for one another: abiding with one another; holding one another up.
Another characteristic of Cistercian monasteries is a sense of liminality. Our word “liminal” comes from the Latin, limen, a threshold over which you must pass to enter a space. You don’t simply end up in a Cistercian chapel accidentally, nor do you this chapel. You enter and your stride is intentionally broken. Here you enter by an outside doorway, and then you must turn (to the left) to cross a threshold to enter the chapel. Entering this space is actually an architectural experience of conversion. The church word “conversion” comes from the Greek which literally means both a physical turning of your body and a change in attitude or perspective towards God. This architectural feature requires you to turn – to convert – before you come into this holy space. You enter it with intention and direction and obeisance. And you experience a firm foundation with the slate and marble floors, the granite walls, and limestone pillars and arches. The psalmist says, “God is my rock and my salvation” (Psalm 62:2,7). Meanwhile the arches remind you that you are not alone, that you belong, and that you’re created to soar.
Like the arch, which invites you to be grounded and to rise, this monastery chapel also holds a tension: the beautiful tension between stone and light. The stone is undressed and unadorned, smooth and pale in the simple beauty of its creation. And the other quality: light. We here use electricity to light our way, a technology, of course, unknown in the medieval Cistercian monasteries. Nonetheless, we still light candles at the altar as a reminder of primordial light, the very first thing God creates in the Genesis creation account. The electric lights above us help us read; the candle lights at the altar help us remember, remember our need for light to enlighten our hearts and to enlighten our way. The psalmist prays, “You, O Lord, are my lamp; my God, you make my darkness bright” (Psalm 36:9). The lighted candles at the altar lift up our hearts. The high clerestory windows and the rose window at the back lift up our eyes, to behold God’s glory, in whose light we see light. Jesus said, “I am the light of the world.” And he invites us to receive that light and then to bear that light as we go into the world. Here you see an architecture of light, where stones carve out spaces to let in light, which raises your eyes and your soul from the material to the immaterial.
Cistercian monasteries, built out of stone and light, use these materials to foster two qualities that architecture can encourage, but not provide: silence and contemplation. For Cistercians, and for us, there is the Greater Silence of the night and the Lesser Silence of the day. Each day space is hallowed just for listening deeply within one’s soul, not conversing. Then there are times demarcated when speaking may happen, if it is necessary and edifying. The point of this discipline is not that there’s little to be said. Quite to the contrary. It’s the recognition that words are so powerful and need to be used with discretion and discipline, and there is so much to be listened to. Some of this listening comes from memory, and that takes space. Monks – Cistercian monks and we here – live under a vow of obedience. The English word obedience comes from Latin, ob + audire: to listen deeply. This beautiful space of stone and light in which we worship invites and enables silence and deep listening. The psalmist prays, “For God alone my soul in silence waits; from him comes my salvation” (Psalm 62:1). This chapel, and its silence, is an outward sign of that inner grace of longing for and meeting God.
During his years teaching at Harvard, T. S. Eliot was a frequent visitor to our Monastery Chapel. He observed that people come “to kneel where prayer has been valid.” For these many decades, this Monastery has been well prayed in, made holy as much by the monks who have lived and prayed here, as by all the guests and visitors who bring Christ to us, into this place. This place, as our guests tell us, has become a holy place, even for some, a place of pilgrimage.
There is tremendous spiritual hunger, and we Brothers pray and work to be men of the moment, that we and this monastery will be up to the mark of the times for service to all, and to God’s glory. We pray to make this holy space of stone and light available for the generations to come.
This article is taken from a book about the Monastery Chapel, STONE & Light, available for purchase online here.