Speaking of Silence: The Languages of Sacred Space

October 21, 2009

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House of PrayerIt’s tempting to assume that personal prayer, meditation, and contemplation are taking place in local faith communities. Congregations do many things well in group settings; however, personal prayer is often taken for granted. How can a faith community support personal prayer as well as weekly assembly for Eucharist and other group activities? One answer lies in creating or setting aside space designated for contemplation. Space set aside for silent prayer is usually called an “oratory,” from the Latin word to speak or pray. This article describes the inspiration and design of an oratory at the Episcopal House of Prayer on the grounds of St. John’s Abbey (Roman Catholic) at Collegeville, Minnesota.

Early in 1996, David Keller, the Steward of the House of Prayer, and John Cuningham, the architect who designed this small retreat center, met to brainstorm. Keller was impressed with the House’s living, dining and sleeping spaces, but he felt an oratory was needed as a place to focus the inward and silent spiritual journeys of participants. This need was congruent with the House’s primary mission to mentor people who live busy lives in various forms of contemplative prayer.

Oratory Floor planKeller began the discussions by recounting his experiences living among the Athabaskan Indians in central Alaska. He created drawings of the village gathering and liturgical space called a “kashime.” In the kashime, people sat along three walls with drummers along the fourth. In the center was a space dug in the earth that could be used as a fire pit. For some liturgies (with dancers, drumming, and singing) swan and duck feathers hung from the ceiling as metaphors for the night sky (the cosmos). At the center of the kashime’s ceiling was a skylight that also served as a smoke hole. The earthen center and skylight formed an axis-mundi, joining earth and heavens. The kashime was the physical center of this tribe’s religious life. What happened in the kashime influenced every aspect of their daily lives. As Cuningham and Keller reflected on this, the more Cuningham saw parallels with the work his firm was doing for a Minnesota tribe of Native Americans in creating their Ceremonial Buildings. Other inspirational spaces were the abbey churches of St. John’s Abbey, Collegeville and the Big Sur Camaldolese Benedictine community in California. In both, daylight from above shines on the altar and the Eucharistic assembly. The common ideas of natural light, earthen center, and the concept of a spiritual quest done in a circle or around a central space became guiding principles in planning the Oratory.

As Cuningham’s design team considered these precedents, initial drawings included a central skylight, a rounded space, and the idea of earth being in the heart of the space. Keller suggested the overall floor plan be in the shape of a cross formed by a central meditation circle with alcoves off that center. This would inspire guests to contemplate a holy union and become part of the corpus on the cross. The earth at the center would be a constant reminder that incarnation is central to Christian experience and the intent of contemplative prayer is to never flee from or reject the earth or our bodies. We also concluded that there should be no visible mechanical or electrical systems. All lighting would be concealed and indirect and any air movement would be as silent as possible to promote peace and serenity. One unique touch was the decision to provide in-floor heating given that most guests will sit or kneel. Finally, the building would be constructed of natural and local materials. At this point in our planning we realized that the “languages” of an architect and a theologian were being spoken simultaneously to create physical space that was a threshold to the deep interior mysteries of life and each person’s journey into the heart of God.

Oratory elevationOne of the more contentious design elements was the exterior boardwalk from the retreat center’s main building to the Oratory. The design team decided it should be open to the outdoors and the elements, even cold Minnesota winters. We wanted guests to go through an intentional walking pilgrimage from the activities in the House of Prayer to the contemplative experience of the Oratory. No matter the weather, the short walk allows one to reflect on the physical dimensions of earth as a preparation for entering this life-changing space.

Once in the Oratory, coats and shoes are removed in a vestibule—a symbolic removal of life’s burdens and emptying of self in God’s presence. Most people note surprise upon discovering the comfort and warmth of the heated floor. The design team saw this as a perfect first impression as guests bind mind and heart in an intense experience of silence.

As people gather, many kneel or sit on cushions or in chairs. One type of meditation inspired by Keller is called “walking meditation” where guests walk slowly around the center, one person following another in total silence. Typically a passage is read prior to the walking. Usually meditation in the Oratory includes the sound of a bell, chanting, and long periods of silence. The central circle is flanked by meditation niches for those preferring to meditate by themselves. Each niche has an altar and sitting space with a candle and an Eastern Orthodox icon. Keller was especially interested in the unique type of contemplative reflection that icons invoke.

The Oratory is open to people of all faiths. The only requirement is that it beOratory interior treated with respect and largely occupied in silence. As the Oratory celebrates its tenth anniversary in 2009, the success of the design and the mystical grace present in the building is expressed by a variety of people and their unique experiences. Comments received over the years attest to the authenticity of the space:

“I’m not a religious person, but if I were, this is the kind of church I would worship in.”

“The feeling of reverence is unmistakable as one enters this space.”

“The light coming in from above, combined with the actual earth at the center creates a remarkable sense of the axis mundi between the sky and earth, between heaven and earth.”

The Oratory has always had a life of its own. It began in images during meditation, the inspiration of other sacred spaces, and through the practical needs of meditation experience at the House of Prayer. It then evolved through the creativity of architects and the skills of builders. Like the process guiding the formation of ancient icons, ordinary materials of the earth were transformed through the crucible of prayer and labor into an object that leads us beyond itself into the heart of God.

John W. Cuningham, FAIA is founder of Cuningham Group Architecture, P.A. and a Fellow in the American Institute of Architects. His design philosophy over 41 years of practice promotes responsible architecture that is about serving society and building community all within the framework of sustainable design principles.

David Keller was Steward of the Episcopal House of Prayer from 1994-2002. With Thomas Keating, OCSO, he co-founded and now directs The Contemplative Ministry Project. Keller is Adjunct Professor of Ascetical Theology at The General Theological Seminary in New York City and the author of Come & See: The Transformation of Personal Prayer published in 2009 by Morehouse Publishing.

Since collaborating on the House of Prayer Oratory in Collegeville, MN in 1998-1999, John and David have led several silent retreats and inward focused meditation sessions. They have shared this story and many other sacred space stories with a variety of audiences.

Photos provided by Cunningham Group Architecture, P.A.

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