Friends often seem to me not only puritanically suspicious of beauty, unless it occurs in nature—trees, landscapes, sunrises—but actually disapproving of it, as if encountering an arrangement of flowers, for example, were a distraction, not a gift. Especially we Quakers eschew art of any kind in our meetinghouses, though we tend to welcome whatever light comes through clear windows, light integral to the architecture, particularly if it allows us to see leaves, blossoms, sky. Our recognition of natural beauty seen because of daylight mollifies us, since we can understand light as metaphor for what is inward. And many of us in meditation close our eyes to it anyhow, without a qualm.
And how if a meetinghouse is made of light? The new meetinghouse in Houston, Texas, is such a structure. Initially some members of Live Oak Meeting reported themselves "uncomfortable" about worshiping inside of a work of art. The building was designed by James Turrell, an architect, a genius, and a Quaker, whose chief building material has been called light itself, prompting in some Friends the natural and ironic query, "Well, if that’s true, why did this meetinghouse cost so much?" Given what can be thought of as our sometimes gray-minded attitude toward beauty, what does it mean to go to meeting where there is so much attention to light?
It’s true that before a good number of us became Quakers we were accustomed to worship in beautiful structures without a single pang of guilt about their beauty. We could readily grasp these Christian churches and cathedrals as metaphors for our faith, since they reflected in their design the cross on which Jesus died—nave and transept, clerestory, chancel and apse, windows of stained glass, towers and spires erected toward what we imagined to be heaven. We loved their beauty, and when we became Quakers, our love of music, poetry, architecture did not change. But, though still Christian, we no longer worshiped where such forms of beauty were accessible to us every First Day. Their place was taken by the other forms we had chosen—simplicity, silence, and inward light, the unmediated experience of God.
As for me, I grasped that I had to get my habitual beauty fix elsewhere, in a sense go outside of worship, though I have always felt the experience of art to be an experience of worship. I attended concerts, I read poetry, I visited the Baptistry in Florence, St. Paul’s in London, and Kawaiaha’o in Honolulu. And the Live Oak Meetinghouse in Houston.
The building is open to the public on Fridays for an hour around sunset. A little while ago I went to see what it was like to worship as a Friend not in the usual adapted house but inside of a work of art. My friend and I, arriving early, caught sight of two Friends. I asked one of them, "Is watching the sunset here like a meeting for worship?"
"Well, no," he answered, and then, "Well, yes. Kind of." He didn’t offer anything further. As we had 30 minutes to wait we spent the interim strolling around outside the simple, balanced rectangle of the building. Two years earlier I had seen the empty wooded lot where it now stood. As every human structure changes the place where it is located, the meetinghouse also had modified its surroundings. They are now less "natural," of course, and more human. But I could not say they are more beautiful. Or less so.
As opening time drew closer, more and more people arrived to crowd around the closed entry to the meetinghouse proper. And it was a crowd, not a line, though there was a semblance of a line approaching a box set out for donations—and there seemed a goodly number of people offering those. The noise level increased the nearer we got to opening time—5:45 the day we went; it changes as the time of sunset changes, and the meeting handily provides Houston’s sunset schedule.
The doors were opened. We entered. Several rows of comfortable, facing wooden benches flank all four sides of the building. We chose to sit directly opposite the entry. Very soon every seat on every bench was filled, and the later arrivals found places to stand around the windowed walls or near the doors. For the whole hour or more, people kept arriving, taking the spaces vacated by those who chose not to stay for—I want to say—the entire meeting for worship.
That’s what it was. At first everyone was looking up into the "skyspace"—the 12-foot-square opening in the roof, a frame for the sky and the air, the light outside that becomes transformed into the light within. Then the silence came down. That was what I found so extraordinary about the gathering. The chatter had, within three minutes, entirely ceased. And it remained silent until the last.
As for the light: recessed lights where the ceiling meets the walls make a frame for the skyspace and a base for arched curves at either end. Thus there is not only the light of the skyspace to watch as it darkens in a clear, gentle, and infinitely subtle change of atmosphere, but also an image as of a setting or a rising sun, such as I have seen in Hawaii quietly emerging from or falling below the clean line of ocean horizon. The clear panes of the long doors on both sides of the building also let in the daylight.
And the skyspace—the Light enters the waiting spirit, almost tangible as it falls on uplifted eyes. Many of us assembled there kept looking up. Even a very young baby, crying in his father’s arms as he came into the room, turned to the Light and stopped crying. Yet others closed their eyes in meditation, as I did for a while, and when I opened them again, there was the Light still shining, as metaphorical as any more canonically sanctified cruciform structure I had ever experienced.
The Light is quite unlike various newspaper photographs I have seen of it. It’s not pinkish, as reported in the New York Times, nor purple, as in the Houston Chronicle. The gray of a black-and-white photo comes closer to the reality, but the experience is one of changing light, unlikely to be captured on film. Now it darkened slowly to deepest blue, and at length the very darkness felt like a cover, a seal drawn over us, between us and the night. I had at last found myself in a building that was the living image of my own faith.
The Live Oak Meetinghouse is a place of extraordinary beauty—a work of art, yes, but no distraction from worship, a bringer of calm, rather, a celebration of the Light within and the Light outside of us, shaped by us, which surrounds us and is at the same time and everywhere one with us.