Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Spiritual Exercises in Glass: Seattle University

People have engaged in interpretation of The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius for over 450 years. There was a time, not so long ago, when the Exercises remained entirely within the purview of The Society of Jesus, and were presented to Jesuits in formation via a rigid program of daily preached sessions, in which the young men were instructed as to how and what they were to pray and how they were expected to respond.  Meetings with spiritual directors were rare, brief, and often uncomfortable.

I did not know any of this when I asked an older Jesuit to become my spiritual director and guide me through the Exercises.  I did not know that fifty years earlier he had been one of the men in the forefront of a massive re-thinking of the Exercises, of the rediscovery of the individual retreat -- one director, one retreatant, and a series of quiet meetings in which the retreatant does most of the talking, the director, most of the listening, and the Holy Spirit, all of the directing -- and of the opening of the door to the prayer of the Exercises to all sorts of people from all walks of life.  I did not know until much later that what I experienced in my Year of the Exercises would have been entirely off limits to me only a few decades earlier.

The reinterpretation of the Exercises has not been limited to the written page or spoken word, however.  Much of it has emerged in various artistic forms, forms which include the windows of the Chapel of St. Ignatius at Seattle University.

When we stopped by, my initial goal was to view the panels of St. Ignatius's life, painted by Dora Nikolova Bittau.  I have a set of postcards of the panels, given to me some years ago by spiritual director emeritus.  Once I had looked up directions to the university and chapel, I was also curious about the building, which has generated considerable controversy for its architectural style and its openness to interfaith expression.  I also discovered a brief reference to the Steven Holls windows depicting the four-week sequence of the Spiritual Exercises, and thought that I would like to see them as well.

I couldn't even find the windows at first, although they are on the wall to the left as you enter the building.  They didn't look anything at all like what I had expected.  Actually, once I figured out that they were, indeed, the windows, I still had no idea what they were intended to convey.  I stayed there a long time, staring and thinking my way through the four weeks of the Exercises, and finally came up with an interpretation that made sense to me.

As it turns out, the artist's own views differ somewhat from mine ~ but then that's the joy and challenge of art, isn't it?  You put your work out there, and people attach to it what significance they will.  I offer below my understanding of what I saw.  I'm sorry that the images are so poor; it's a difficult setting for photography, and the rain outside did not enhance the lighting.


Week One: Having spent preliminary time in what Ignatius calls the Principle and Foundation, a period of immersion in God's creative love, in Week 1 we pray over sin and sinfulness and their manifestations in our lives and in the world.  The jagged gash down the middle seemed to me to be representative of that week's focus.


Week 2: We encounter Jesus through his birth and life.  I saw the crosses, symbols of Jesus, as moving in and out and among of the circles, as indicative  of life and its many different episodes and encounters.


Week 3: Passion and Crucifixion.  This window is set high in the wall, and the sense it gives is one of everything falling apart and toppling downward.


Week 4: Resurrection.  An opening tomb?  An opening world?  The opening of the lid captivating human history to human sinfulness?  The breaking apart, opening up, and debunking of the old as all things are made new? 

Needless to say, I was entranced.  I'll add some photos of the chapel itself in another post.



12 comments:

  1. Interesting stuff - I've seen reproductions of Dora Nikolova Bittau's paintings from the chapel, but this is the first time that I've seen pictures of the windows there. Looking at Holls' windows makes me think about a set of windows inspired by the Exercises in the chapel of the old Jesuit novitiate in Milford, Ohio - very different in style and content, which shows what a variety of inspiration can come from a common source!

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    1. Milford is very near my original hometown; I wonder whether the chapel is open to the public?

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    2. I was last there six years ago, but I think the chapel is open to the public. The former novitiate is now a retirement home called Sem Villa; when I visited, I was able to simply walk through the front doors and into the chapel - which was still intact and apparently in regular use for religious services.

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  2. Fascinating. Of the set, I'm finding the first week my favorite, and wishing I could see them in person. The style brings to mind the Stations of the Cross at St. Basil's in Houston (http://www.flickr.com/photos/marylea/5507444963/) another spot I'd like to visit.

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  3. How cool is that. That surely woul be an interesting commission

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  4. Thank you for sharing. I hope to go to Spain on an Ignatian Pilgrimage to visit some of the places that were so significant in Saint Ignatius' life as I feel so grateful for the Spiritual Exercises.

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    1. Dripping with envy here. I was hoping to go next summer with a group from John Carroll, but the cost has turned out to be prohibitive. Maybe another year, a more economical journey. I am terribly disappointed, but apparently next summer will not be the time.

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  5. Thank you for introducing me to this glass! I had the opportunity to do the Annotation 19 when I worked at the University of Scranton in the early 90's and did not realize it was a relatively new thing for laypeople.

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  6. Beautiful glass. I didn't know about the history of the exercises at all - fascinating.

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  7. These really make you think ... And you're right, they don't look like windows at all - more like panels. I think week 2 is my favorite. Thanks for sharing this interpretation of the Exercises!

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  8. Hmmm. Week 4: sails or parachutes carrying tombstones up and away?

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