30 April 2012

Those Moving Pews

BanG Studio's Jacob's Ladder in Progress
Last night while closing up the sanctuary for the night, the architects Henry Grosman and Babak Bryan and I stood around, under a clear and dark blue, star-filled sky, talking about Jacob's Ladder.

A student of one of the architects, a young man named Ahmed who was helping set up the project, is a practicing Muslim, and he was very interested in the narrative as depicted in Torah.  We compared notes on the Torah and the Koran's story of the life of Jacob.

Jacob, as is well known, had his dream at a critical juncture in his ongoing sibling rivalry with his brother Esau, from whom he acquired the birthright.  With his own measure of guile, some assistance from his doting mother Rebecca, as well as neglect and apathy from Esau, Jacob emerged from the household triumphant.  Finally realizing his loss, Esau is overwhelmed with anger and pursues his brother, threatening his life.

It is at this point, in flight, where Jacob lays down his head on the desert floor and dreams his dream.  A ladder springs forth from where his head rests while angels ascend and descend the ladder.  When he awakens, he realizes that his repose is upon holy ground.  "Surely the Eternal is present in this place and I did not know it!  How awesome is this place!  This is none other than בית אלוהים the House of God, and that is the gateway to heaven."

Serendipity; the chance encounter; here is where God can be found.  And for Jacob, this moment is particularly fraught with the tension of familial conflict.  This is the beginning of a reconciliation between the brothers that will take years (and considerable toil and struggle on Jacob's part) before the two can come together again.

One of the ideas that interested us in asking BanG Studios to create an architectural installation referencing Jacob's Ladder (by the way, did you vote for CBE today at Partners in Preservation?) as depicted in our stained glass window in the Main Sanctuary of CBE, was the notion of how space, particularly sacred space, though designed for a sacred idea, must also contain in it the seeds of potentiality of chance encounter.  Pews are ordered in rows; memorial candles are lit; bronze plaques are polished just so; the organ, when it worked, was set to play tunes designed to evoke contemplation, joy, or mourning.  And yet a sanctuary is only relevant in so far as the Divine can be made to dwell by chance, upon invitation, as it were, by one ready to accept it.

The funny thing about moving some pews and building a conceptual ladder in their place is that the very idea evokes the willful participation of the seeker with the Divine potential inherent in the space itself.  Perhaps in this construct, the pews are an illusion--the hard desert floor which reveals only sand and stone; but the dream of the architects reveals the ladder that reaches up to God.

Cars, bikers, and late night dog walkers went strolling past as four architects and a rabbi talked about ancient narratives.  It was decided that at one point this week, we'd have our afternoon Minchah prayers in the Main Sanctuary, next to the work in progress, to be followed by Muslim prayers.

This will likely be a first for this House of God; but hopefully, in our shared, ongoing efforts at making peace, it will be far from the last.

After all, the "gateway to heaven" is a lofty aspiration.  One might as well expend some effort on the journey.


Don't forget to vote for CBE at Partners in Preservation.  You can help us win up to $250,000 from American Express to restore our historic stained-glass windows.  Thanks!

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