In Sophia's Garden: The Windows of Wisdom House Chapel
November 01, 2007
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The author of the Book of Ecclesiastes was right: "There is a time for everything." In 2004, it became evident that it was time to replace the windows in the chapel at Wisdom House Retreat and Conference Center in Litchfield, Connecticut.
Built in 1960, the chapel has had many "lives." It was the chapel for the novitiate and college of the American Province of the Catholic congregation of the Daughters of Wisdom. The first sounds heard here were the voices of more than 100 nuns, who prayed and sang in Latin, French, and English in their search of Divine Wisdom. As the identity of the center evolved into an interfaith center, the chapel continued to be an important reflection space for people of all faiths.
The Daughters of Wisdom were founded in 1703 in France by St. Louis Grignion de Montfort and Blessed Marie Louise Trichet. The congregation was founded to acquire Divine Wisdom and to give charitable services in accordance with the talents of the members. One of these services was to be the conducting of retreat houses.
Wisdom House Retreat and Conference Center is rooted in this initial inspiration of seeking Divine Wisdom. In the Hebrew Scriptures, Wisdom is found in creation and the cosmos (Wisdom 7:7ff). She, Wisdom, is a tree of life (Proverbs 3:18), an architect and hostess (Proverbs 9:1-6) inviting all to the table in her house. These are a few of the key scriptural texts which inspire the decisions and creative endeavors at Wisdom House.
Having endured the unpredictability of our New England weather all these years, the original non-descript chapel windows steadily cracked and the window frames deteriorated. Since our backgrounds did not prepare us to know the exact path to take, we proceeded by using both logic and intuition. We contacted some local church window renovation companies, which sent samples of sites they had restored. Although their work was commendable, it did not touch the spirit of the space we had hoped to create. However, this exploration helped us clarify what we did not want, as well as what we wanted.
We decided we wanted to create an environment that would surround our guests with an experience that would amplify the scripture texts: "Simply I learned about wisdom..." and "Wisdom is the tree of life for all who embrace her...," which are fundamental to the spirit of Wisdom House.*
Thus, we needed to approach those who would have a feel for the spirit of the project, a sense of art and environment, and an understanding of our vision. We had recently approached artist Hugh O'Donnell about having an exhibit of his work in our Marie Louise Trichet Gallery. We also asked his advice about resources we might go to in this stage of our "fact finding." We knew that his work at Boston University College of Fine Arts had brought him into the field of photonics, working with light. His interest in the windows project led us to add his proposal to our search, and ultimately, we selected him for the project.
We had a series of meetings with Hugh O'Donnell about the shaping of the understanding of Wisdom. We saw the new chapel windows as a way of renewing the sacred space and enhancing the spiritual growth of all our guests. As with any renovation, one change dictates the next. We realized along the way that the lighting needed to be upgraded, so we installed new energy efficient lighting in the chapel, using fixtures that would complement the windows.
We also realized that the wood-enclosed balcony was impeding the fuller view of the windows and the amount of light entering into the body of the chapel. This led to the replacement of the wood barrier with shatter-proof glass; the height of the balcony was also raised to comply with safety codes.
Today, the chapel is a worship space bathed in light and surrounded by creation. When people step into the chapel, they are truly "In Sophia's Garden," with spirits lifted by the colors, light, movements, and textures of creation.
We are grateful for the creativity of Hugh O'Donnell, the professional services of Clifford Cooper (Clifford A. Cooper AIA Architecture of Litchfield, CT), and the installation skills of Action Home Exterior (Torrington, CT). The generosity of over 300 individuals and organizations made the dream of this project a reality. This sacred space now welcomes all who seek God in this "garden of light."
* Resources on Wisdom Spirituality:
The Wisdom Literature (Message of Biblical Spirituality) by Kathleen O'Connor (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1988)
She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse by Elizabeth Johnson, CSJ (Herder and Herder, 1993).
Rosemarie Greco, DW is the Administrator of Wisdom House Retreat and Conference Center, and Jo-Ann Iannotti, OP is the Center's Art and Spirituality Coordinator.
In this project I was commissioned to create artworks for the nine windows of the Chapel at Wisdom House. The mission of the Daughters of Wisdom is to acquire Divine Wisdom through service to those rejected by society. In their Retreat Center, they are engaged in a process of interfaith reflection and action in order to live the justice of wisdom.
Creating a series of images for a whole room dedicated to meditation and contemplation is one of the best tasks a visual artist can undertake. The task was made even more exciting when it was clear that the inspiration of spiritual wisdom understood by the Daughters of Wisdom was at the heart of the commission.
The inspiration of this work comes from a reading of the Book of Wisdom. The window designs are intended to provide a context for reflecting on the order of nature as a reference that is constant and pervading all things. Over the past 15 years, my painting has come to center on the struggle for light and space happening on every level of life. The struggle for light and space is necessary for growth. Protecting life and creating the conditions for life are central to belief in God. The designs are intended to provide an island in the sea of faith beyond dogmatic belief systems that fragment the unity of life.
The methodology in this work combines the most direct and economical of means with that of computer assisted media to make these images. Traditional painting in oil on canvas has been combined with digital manipulation and laminated glass technology. The result is imagery that would never be otherwise possible. The very small has become greatly enlarged, allowing the spectator of the work to become immersed in an experience that is on a much larger scale than themselves. Slight nuances of paint manipulation are amplified and allowed to perform on a monumental scale. Very few examples of fine art deploy imagery in this way. The innovation opens the way for new uses of imagery beyond traditional stained glass.
The Book of Wisdom's inspiration to learn both what is secret and what is manifest also prompted me to create an ambient image to animate the room and promote a sense of immersion in the physicality, movement and rhythm of the work. It has taken me beyond the idea of a context between light and dark to something that transcends this. I particularly like the verse that refers to Sophia as: "She is more beautiful than the sun, and excels every constellation of the stars. Compared with the light, she is found superior, but, against wisdom, evil does not prevails" (Wisdom 7:29-30).
Hugh O'Donnell is an internationally recognized artist and professor at Boston University College of Fine Arts. He has recently published Body Echo, which chronicles a drawing project he developed to evolve a new practice of drawing from nature.
RELFECTIONS FROM WISDOM HOUSE RETREATANTS
During the summer of 2007, several persons on retreat shared their experience of praying "In Sophia's Garden":
Being Wrapped in God. For Sr. Lillian Belcher, DHS, the windows spoke of the Divine in a way that made her feel "wrapped in God." They envelope the chapel and provide a secure and comforting space in which to contemplate and worship.
Invitation from Creation. Sister of Mercy Ellen Smith's poem, "In Sophia's Garden," expressed her experience:
There's a hidden treasure
In this sacred space.
Splashes of color
Form a warm embrace
That leads me
To a deeper place.
To journey into.
The arms of
A Loving God.
Color and Flowing Movement. Methodist minister Ann P. Nelson says, "'In Sophia's Garden' invites persons of any faith, or of none, to recognize and feel the presence of the holy and, perhaps then, the Holy One."
Amazement and Surprise. Sister Susan Francois, CSJP, "felt transparent in the midst of Sophia's Garden. The scale of the blades of grass and flowers helped me imagine that I am the size of a small garden ant or bumble bee looking up at the splendor and glory of God's playful creation. This is truly sacred space."