The Rothko Chapel, Houston

“If you stare long enough, you are able to see the lighting in the room manipulate the multiple canvases aligning the walls of the Rothko Chapel”, I assure groups of teenagers and their adult sponsor counterparts before we head in, disconnect from technology and tune into the present. I spent a summer co-leading small groups week in and week out around the City of Houston for an inner city mission experience. Without fail, we found ourselves here having a similar discussion before entering. Some call it prayer. Some call it meditation. Some call it art. I call it an opportunity to reflect and recenter.

As I remind the groups that any talking, even in whispers, in the exhibit is considered disrespectful to the other patrons with “teacher eyes” (a furrowed brow that insinuates my level of seriousness) spanning the faces in the group. Eye contact is important in this moment. Yes, that means everyone including you, I preemptively assure the fidgety fifth grade student trying so very hard to still his swaying arms as we stand there. The ADHD meds that his parents packed away in his luggage conveniently didn’t make it to the trip nurse and so by Day 4, which this is, he just wants to be the life of the party despite not knowing what that means.

When you enter the chapel, there is a desk with information and a stand alone sign advising that electronics must be silenced and no photos are allowed. Stepping further inside, you can find benches and areas to kneel or sit with legs crossed. Everything is a shade of black, with the natural light from the sky around you peering into the space. There are a stack of religious texts to reflect on if that is your preference, but the still and calm silence greets you. Volunteer docents line the 2-3 side halls with smaller works inside. The high ceilings amplify every sound of the pattering of feet.

Some call it prayer. Some call it meditation. Some call it art. Some consider it an opportunity to reflect.

Generally speaking, I have a mind that has a hard time slowing down. I am thankful for that, though it makes certain nights harder than others to concentrate on getting sleep. I have the mind that wanders between possibilities. In corporate jargon, I would call that successful risk management. In more practical terms, it equates to having “The Worst Case Scenario’s Guide to the Brain”. (Soon to never be seen at a book retailer near you.) As a planner, this skill of preparing for the incidental mishap is immeasurable. As a leader, sometimes that makes it hard to let things run their natural course. Most commonly, I never fear an idea of boredom. The hard part for me is knowing when and how to edit this process. At what point can I measure a goal and know something has been achieved?

Personally, I find that contemplation continues to be an effective tool up to a point. Too much finds me circling a topic and then no longer being productive. To this end, taking time to reflect, even on the simplest of objects for a minute or two clears my head to refocus. It provides checkpoints, much needed, especially if I have any intention of being productive or even winding down each evening.

In 2004’s “Moment of Clarity” Jay Z describes through his chorus a moment of honesty that helps him articulate his truth and perspective across his career. At the time, “The Black Album” was commercially presented to consumers as the last official full length Jay Z solo record. Other tracks such as “Dirt Off Your Shoulder”, “Change Clothes” and “99 Problems” secured the radio airwaves, but “Moment of Clarity” was the track that I wanted to point to as identifiably different. Jay Z was easily regarded at the time as a lyrical giant in the rap world, able to compose full and well developed thoughts across verses in one take without having to write them down. Where hindsight shows that there were plenty more releases after 2004 from the artist, I still think that there is something about the composure of the content that is a spark of ingenuity. It is the manipulation of the light across a different kind of canvas.

After you have spent some time in the chapel, there is a beautiful steel sculpture piece featured in the forefront of the entrance way entitled “Broken Obelisk” by Barnet Newman, dedicated to Martin Luther King, Jr. The piece is one of four in Newman’s series, spread across the United States; One in Seattle, one in Houston, and two in New York.  As far as I measure, spreading the pieces out in this way, makes them in a sense like checkpoints across a map.

Houston’s “Broken Obelisk” does one thing that I think is fitting in front of the chapel, it provides reflection, with a small pool surrounding the base of the sculpture. Maybe this will spark another “Moment of Clarity”.


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