Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Chapel of St Ignatius, and the Tension Between Comfort & Challenge

Years ago, when I took myself very seriously as student body president at Seattle University, a new chapel was built on campus.  During his life, St Ignatius, the founder of the Jesuits, said that he had seven different points of light that were profound; they directed the rest of his life.  The Chapel of St. Ignatius, designed by architect Steven Holl, used "a gathering of different lights" as his inspiration for the space.   Created with significant student input, Holl declared it would be a design that was "forward-looking, but rooted in the past."  It was mostly built during the summer between my junior and senior year; I was there that summer, so I watched as it was built.
The Chapel of St Ignatius at Seattle University

Giant slabs of concrete were poured, and then lifted and put into place.  The other main construction material was glass.  These two things did not seem complimentary in nature; I watched curiously as they were combined for the construction of the chapel.  The angles of the chapel were so unusual that I couldn't help but stop and watch the workers build it to try and figure out how things worked together.  All summer long, local reporters and distant architects came to check it out; all were curious, and many had critical things to say.  Even those who hated it had to admit that it was exciting--the design was so intriguing there's no way a person wouldn't wander inside to get a better look.

When Fall rolled around and the Chapel of St Ignatius was complete, I attended the blessing of the chapel.  After walking through smaller of the two massive doors, the first glance of it took my breath away.  The different lights concept was incredible--at each different point during the day, the sun would beam through a specific glass on the exterior that would shade the interior a different color.

It is, in short, a masterpiece of modern art.

After the archbishop of Seattle blessed the chapel with holy water, I sat in a middle pew while a visiting Jesuit spoke of the building.  I'll never forget his words:

All year long, we've heard how different this chapel is going to be.  And those naysayers were right: this building challenges our eyes.  It challenges our mind, makes us wonder what is going on, forces us to engage to figure out an element in construction that does not initially make sense.  But at the same time, this same building comforts us.  With Holl's design, the outside sun shines down throughout the day in different ways, but it is always there to comfort us. Especially in the small prayer room, with unique beeswax walls, you get the sense of being enveloped by the space, of being held in a comforting way.  
And so it is with our religion.  Our Catholicism is meant to both challenge and comfort us.  Challenge us to do better, to be better, to become better people while also comforting us in times of turmoil, angst, and rage.

Spoken in 1997, I've remembered these words like they were delivered yesterday.  Challenge and comfort.  How much should life challenge me?  How much should it comfort me?  How can I best remember to push myself to strive to be and do better but also remember to pause, cradle myself, and listen with gentle empathy to my own struggles and worries and fears?  I doubt I'll ever find the answers, but my journey is enriched and deepened as I search for them.


  1. Wow. That is an impressive building, and I notice the lighting that brings a sense of openness and spaces to the structure. Interesting how architecture, if done right, becomes literary in a way.

  2. What s wise speech given on that day. I like how you included that in your post. It helps to imagine the peace in the chapel and the beautiful light that was so cleverly created. I would like to sit in that building, I am sure it is a wonderful place to think.

  3. Spent time there during my years in Seattle, loved it.