Are Sacred Places Important? The Labyrinth at Chartres

Are Sacred Places Important? The Labyrinth at Chartres

In our present time, there seems to be a huge market for “buying” your way to enlightenment. Everyone is peddling a secret. Chant this mantra. Hold this crystal. Buy some incense. Rub that oil. Say these words. Go to this retreat. Some of these things may have some value. Spiritual longing is a real part of the human experience. Labyrinths hold a special attraction for me. Can a labyrinth really be a tool for enlightenment? Are sacred places important?

The first labyrinth that I ever experienced was a Chartres Labyrinth, although I was not lucky enough to be in at the famous labyrinth in Chartres, France. I liked it so much I began to investigate labyrinths in general and the Chartres Labyrinth in particular.

Chartres Cathedral was built one thousand years ago to be the site of a Mystery School. Not only was the cathedral an architectural feat but was one of the leading learning centers at the time. The edifice combined the visionary teachings of Plato with Christian mysticism. You must walk the entire labyrinth path before gaining entrance to the Temple. It is the “way in,” if you will, a Chamber of Reflection of sorts.

Those who have been to the actual site in France say that the effect of the Cathedral is peaceful and nurturing. You are at rest, left to wander or to meditate in tranquility. The atmosphere suggests that the veil between the human and celestial worlds is thin, and God is very near. It represents the ideal of a sacred space: a blending of the divine and material. The impact of Chartres on people at that time must have been enormous. How can a place be so heavenly?

Sacred Geometry

The Divine mystery of the labyrinth walk might be due in part to the magical pattern. One path leads inwards to the center, and the same path leads back out again. Chartres has an eleven-circuit design, divided into four quadrants. They are encircled by an outer ring of lunations, thought to represent a type of lunar calendar. The quadrants suggest the even armed cross. At the center is a Rosette pattern of 6 petals which is the place of 14761614336_92dabf6bf4_zrest. It reminds us of the sacred lotus, symbol of enlightenment.

In medieval times, the path was considered a substitute for a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. It is symbolic of the pilgrim’s journey into his Soul: the Center. It must be a two-way journey, which ends at the starting point. The pilgrim must not seek to remain inside. He goes and comes back. He visits. He walks from the unreal to the real, from the periphery to the center, from the mundane to the spiritual and back. Is this not life?

Symmetry of the Design

In his book, The Mysteries of Chartres Cathedral, Louis Charpentier recalls his first experience of being inside the cathedral. He was immediately struck with the impression that “everything contained its opposite in itself.” He said that the same balance contained in the secret of the Chinese Tai Chi, is at work in Chartres where the “proportions, orientation, position and symbolism have all been designed to alert the psyche and refresh the spirit.”

This idea is hinted at in Chapter 14 of the Tao Te Ching

LabyrinthWhat we look for beyond seeing 
And call the unseen,
Listen for beyond hearing
And call the unheard.
Grasp for beyond reaching
And call the withheld,
Merge beyond understanding
In a oneness
Which does not merely rise and give light,
Does not merely set and leave darkness,
But forever sends forth a succession of living things as mysterious
As the unbegotten existence to which they return.

Charpentier further states:

“If the pilgrim experienced the entire sensuousness of the cathedral, it would be because the body’s senses had apprehended all the musical and geometrical proportions, and all the numbers and lines expressed in the building’s interior.”

Geometric forms that exist in the labyrinth or even the Masonic Temple such as the cube, triangle, sphere, square, or oblong square could act as a doorway into various states of awareness. “God Geometrizes.” Sacred Temples can be said to stand for an unseen condition of something that can be known.

Beauty as an Expression of Truth

Divine archetypes are said to be not only doorways to the unknown, but as Plato has indicated, they are the very essence of beauty. The nature of beauty cannot always be described in words, and so it is possible, that certain symbols act as a bridge between the visible and the invisible. Satisfying both a physical and metaphysical need, sacred architecture can:

2248714047_a3a0d5da4f_z

1. Provide an energetic focusing center on the physical plane wherein the mysteries are learned and enacted;

2. Serve those seekers who enter the building and become intellectually and spiritually stimulated.

The more beautiful the appearance in form – the more closely will it correspond with spiritual truth. Buckminster Fuller stated it like this, “When I am working on a problem, I never think about beauty, but when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong.”

My sense is that if a person does not appreciate beautiful or holy things, he will lose them. Without reverence, the sacred feeling will diminish and then be forgotten. Thereafter, his only concern will be his personal comfort and selfish desires.

On the other hand, as we honor holy places we will be entrusted with holy things. Just the opposite of disbelief and despair, the goal is eternal life and peace. Contemplating art and architecture, the spiritual and the divine, moves us away from the mundane world of the daily round.

Do sacred spaces make us more enlightened? Some have scoffed at labyrinths, masonic temples, mantra, and things like crystals or incense for centuries. In times of need, I have tried all of them.

Inspired By Art: Nicholas Roerich’s Symbolic Journey

Inspired By Art: Nicholas Roerich’s Symbolic Journey

The Himalayan paintings of Nicholas Roerich (1874 – 1947), Russian painter and philosopher, mesmerized me when I first laid eyes on the collection. I stared at them for hours. I feel a bit as though these paintings knew me better than anyone. It’s like I understood them, and in turn, they understood me. I became interested in why. 

It could be that as a child my imagination was captured by the breathtaking views of mountains. I was inspired as much by the physical grandeur of their peaks as by the spiritual mysteries harbored within them. Indeed, for me the towering peaks represented the very summit of beauty and spirituality. The tallest mountains I ever climbed were in Zermatt, Switzerland.  I had a truly a remarkable time discovering certain wonders in nature such as glaciers and rich vegetation along with snow-capped points. I would take a rest at several spots which were beautiful and magnificent. There were always more heights to scale, another plateau or peak above, views of the Matterhorn.

Was it this experience that caused me to have a connection with Roerich’s art or something else? Are we drawn to art that mirrors a part of our inner self? What was it specifically about Roerich’s art?

Mount of Five TreasuresIt is virtually impossible to separate the artist’s art from his philosophy. Many contemporaries were skeptical of Roerich’s spiritual mission and tended to dismiss his work as being repetitive and unoriginal. However, those who embraced his philosophy experienced something transformative in those same canvases – never ending spiritual realizations.  A brief survey of his life reveals that Roerich was not an adherent of any one established religion or philosophical movement. His name is universally known not only as Master of the brush but also as a thinker and a builder of life.  His art and writings are an evocation to Beauty, to Knowledge, and to Culture. Art education would pave the way to universal beauty and open the gates to spiritual enlightenment. This vision is nicely captured in his philosophical statement of the Master Institute of United Arts which he formed in New York in 1921:

“Art will unify all humanity.  Art is one – indivisible. Art has its many branches, yet all are one.  Art is the manifestation of the coming synthesis. Art is for all.”

Regardless of whether his lofty ideals will ever be realized, or if you agree with the artist’s art philosophy, his paintings are replete with rich symbolic jewels that are a pure delight for anyone to reflect upon.

19284963678_72350b9c8f_oFor example, Roerich refers often to the great treasures stored deep within the Himalayas. The very name Kanchenjunga, he tells us, means, “the Five Treasures of the Great Snow,” because it contains the five most precious things in the world.  He alludes to them in the painting, Treasure of the Mountain. The setting is deep inside a mountain cave.  Roerich causes us to question what treasures he is referring to? Are they rubies, gold, and diamonds?  Or, upon deeper reflection, is he talking about other more inner treasures?

The gurus hold a lamp. Does it suggest that the Light of Wisdom is the treasure of the mountain?   Roerich reminds us that we must think about what we hold valuable. And – taking this to the deeper level of reflection – we should think very clearly about how we find these symbolic jewels.  What does it take?

Pearl of Searching Flickr mediumIn the Pearl of Searching, another journey is pictured. The teacher-student relationship is a theme in many of Roerich’s paintings. Our eye is drawn to the figures and we identify with them, experiencing the panorama that unfolds behind from their perspective. They have reached a plateau and are celebrating the view and a treasure they have found. What is it? What symbolic meaning do we see?

Perhaps the “Pearl of Great Price” is what gives purpose to life.   The mountains themselves symbolize a spiritual world separate from earth but accessible to those who are attuned to the higher realities. The necklace – a symbol of eternity – signifies that this daily seeking is destined to go on forever, an emblem of immortality. This all causes us to consider, “Why are we here?”

Unquestionably Roerich is one of the most interesting 20th century figures. It seems to me that his life was a symbolic journey documented in his massive body of works, each canvas a masterpiece of daring composition, glowing with color. Himalayan is the word not only for his art, but also a metaphor for his thoughts on the process of transformation.

The path to enlightenment, spiritual ascent, the sacred signs of Satyum, Shivam, Sundaram (Peace, Beauty, Truth) – these are the symbolic themes at the heart of Roerich’s paintings and writings, also at the heart of Freemasonry.  They continually cast a spell on me.  Once we begin on this infinite and exponential journey of discovery, we might stop for a moment to enjoy the view or a treasure found, but there is no turning back. Ultimately, we choose the next plateau we want to rise to.

From Roerich’s “Realm of Light”:

“Let us abandon the past for the future. Let us impel our entire consciousness into the future and let us suffuse it with radiance, for this is within the access of humanity.”

Note: To read further on Nicholas Roerich, check out the Nicholas Roerich Museum.

Beethoven’s Last Work – Ode to Joy

Beethoven’s Last Work – Ode to Joy

As a classically trained musician, I often frame the way I think about the mysteries of the universe in terms of music. I love the quote of Einstein where he says, “I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music.” A world without music would be lifeless, silent, and depressing. Almost every moment in a person’s life is continually underscored by music — from birth to death, at weddings and other celebrations. The ancients were convinced that music could become internalized by the individual; the music influencing, as it were, the manner of our thoughts, feelings, and actions.  

Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and Ode to Joy 

The “Ode to Joy” in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, first performed on May 7, 1824, is one of those musical treasures that invites me to dream, to turn within and to contemplate my mortal coil. The chorus was the finale in the “last work” that Beethoven ever composed.

The idea for “Ode to Joy,” and the words for the chorus, came to Beethoven in his early 20’s.  The famous poet Friedrich Schiller had written in 1785 an excessively cheerful drinking song, and Beethoven was creatively impressed to set the poem to music. He was the first major composer to include a chorus and vocal soloists in the last movement of a symphony. In the chorus, we hear the joy of a man who, through suffering and compassion, embraced all.  

It is such a glorious moment. So shocking. So hopeful: even though we know the violence and burdens of the world are out there surrounding us, waiting for us. The joyful lyrics ring true the message of uniting all people in universal brotherhood. Beethoven’s little introduction to the poem also mentions not dwelling on sad things but being happy instead.

The last words direct themselves to heaven, and in some amazing m34481589172_8d767a068a_o 1usical craftsmanship, the movement ends with a sublime message:

Be embraced, ye millions!
For the universe, this kiss!
Brothers – above the canopy of stars
A loving Father surely dwells.

Millions, do you fall upon our knees?
Do you sense the Creator, world?
Seek him above the canopy of stars!
Surely he dwells above the stars!

Just imagine that Beethoven was fully deaf and writing about being happy!  He was acquainted with a deep compassion that swept through him for others in a destitute situation. He dearly loved mankind and his skill as a master musician provided the means to reveal to us the hidden nature of the world within us, touching our souls.  Could this message possibly be a metaphor in itself? Who is really hard of hearing — him or us?

Beethoven’s music has been said to awaken compassion and the desire for universal brotherhood.  Because of the feelings contained in Beethoven’s music, his works can stir crowds to higher levels of realization. One wonders what power graced Beethoven that he could write such music. His joyful message still has the ability to lift the souls of all who hear it. How does this piece or any music tend to shape and mold us?  I have wondered that so many times and questioned myself. I have tried to touch the heart of the composer; Tried to turn my life into an “Ode to Joy.”352228023_28f8dd197a_o

Ancient Philosophers and the Mysteries of Music

David Tame, in his excellent book on The Secret Power of Music describes how a select group of composers have been able to show us what the ancient philosophers knew about the mysteries of music:

Pythagoras’ understanding of music was far more than a merely materialistic, academic one, and such an understanding is lamentably rare today. Yet we discover something of this timeless flame of ageless wisdom preserved in that small minority of musicians who still today have combined academic knowledge and the practical experience of music with a genuine and earnest inner spiritual development.

A Modern Take on Immortal Beloved

I consider Beethoven to be among this elite group.  In the 90’s, there was a film that came out about Beethoven’s life called “Immortal Beloved.”  Critics disagree with much of the movie’s historical contents, but there is one scene that took my breath away. I have pondered the meaning of it ever since. 

It begins by showing Beethoven standing before the orchestra while he is conducting the finale of the Ninth Symphony. He finds himself thinking back to a childhood memory of running away from his abusive father. The film draws us in as this young boy runs through the woods to escape the awful beatings that have plagued him all his life. His journey leads him to a lake where he wades in to float on his back to look up at the stars. The whole scene is illumined by a radiant full moon. 

Suddenly, we are transported to a change of perspective as the camera pans back.  The lake becomes a reflection of the sky, making Beethoven look as if he is suspended amid the stars until eventually his young body has merged with the heavens. He finds himself in his own universe, yet above the pain and uncertainty of his troubled adolescence. From this, we are left to wonder if Beethoven was truly alone and if his immortal beloved was music: his music. 

An Ode to Joy and Freemasonry 

There are many times that I have given myself over to Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” masterpiece.  I bathe in the sounds, leave the troubles of my world behind and allow the joy to slowly purify me.  Freemasonry is much like any beautiful well-crafted piece of music in that the ceremonies and rituals give inspiration and perspective.  While the millions of stars in the sky may make us feel small in comparison, Freemasonry teaches that we are capable of so much.  We are truly a significant part of this very same Universe, and we have within us capacity to behold a sacred moment of transcendent power.

____________________________________________________________________________________________

Footnote:  Some say that Beethoven was a Freemason, although there is a lack of absolute evidence to that fact. Further exploration of this theory can be found in the article: http://freemasonry.bcy.ca/biography/beethoven_l/beethoven_l.html