Art: “Rothko Chapel paintings” by Mark Rothko

Available online at: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Rothko_chapel_interior.jpg

Written by Leah Wise, Curate at Grace Episcopal Church in Houston, TX

Art: “Rothko Chapel paintings” by Mark Rothko Available online at: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Rothko_chapel_interior.jpg
Art: “Rothko Chapel paintings” by Mark Rothko

“There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night…”                                                

John 3:1

There is in God, some say,
A deep but dazzling darkness.

Henry Vaughan, “The Night”

When I reluctantly agreed to visit Houston’s ecumenical Rothko Chapel with a friend on an overcast day in November, I was prepared to be underwhelmed. The chapel is known for its gigantic canvas panels painted by modern artist, Mark Rothko. The chapel paintings are a sharp departure from Rothko’s more famous works that incorporate bright, jewel-tone hues. At first glance, they are simply…black. Nothing else. Just black paint. In fact, when visitors first enter the chapel, one source says they often ask, “Where are the paintings?”

I entered the chapel and took my place on a bench facing a triptych of black canvases. The room was nearly as dark as dusk, lit primarily by a central skylight. I waited for my eyes to adjust. After a minute, the black paint betrayed subtle paint strokes. After a couple minutes, I started to see gradations of color, then deep greens and blues. Something was happening in the midst of the blackness, of the void.

John of the Cross, like other Mystics, taught that the felt absence of God – the darkness of God or the “dark night of the soul” – was the truest path to full communion with God. In this tradition, suffering becomes a conduit to divine revelation. It turns us into the parched kindling most suitable to enlighten the fire of God. This is not to say that suffering is intrinsically good, or that we should place ourselves in harm’s way. What it gives us is the reassurance that God is active in the worst, most painful parts of our lives.

In other words, God paints brushstrokes on our black canvases. If we let our eyes adjust to the darkness, we can begin to see the Spirit’s movement, the gradations of God’s activity, the saturation of God’s presence as God paints in the midst of our confusion, sorrow, and loneliness.

Where are the paintings? Sit down and let your eyes adjust – they’re right here. Where is God? “God takes you by the hand and guides you in the darkness” – God is right here.

Find previous “Picturing God” entries here:

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