The Thorncrown Chapel: spirituality of space through design

There was brief mention recently in the news of the Catholic clergy in localities here having had approached politicians for funds to build churches. Apart from the fact that this reeks of machine politics, it comes across as the Catholic clergy still caught in the vestiges of a traditional perspective of church design. But in this era of sustainable development, the Catholic clergy in their capacity as spiritual leaders cannot remain indifferent to adverse changes in the natural environment. And more importantly preachers cannot urge churchgoers to “protect the environment” without getting on the bandwagon themselves; it is insincere to tell churchgoers to “adapt a more sustainable lifestyle” on a pulpit made from a thousand bags of cement. Part of the spiritual change or more popularly, reform, that they are being called toward is to help bring back harmony between the human and natural worlds; after all, isn’t it that in order to get to one’s spiritual core one needs to leave behind, at least temporarily, the world of cement, steel, and artificial noise, and go into the world of green and quiet, the natural world? The “straying from the spiritual path” manifested for example in the occurrence of abject poverty right next to luxurious living is, I think, nothing more than the widening disconnect between these worlds: spaces for quiet and reflection – to tap into one’s innate goodness – are now almost non-existent in the cities. Perhaps the time for gargantuan – cement – structures like the cathedrals and basilicas of old is already up; perhaps this is the time/era for “natural churches”.

In Siem Reap, there’s a chapel (I’ve featured this in my other blog) built along local values and from local materials. Its interior design is consistent with locals’ practices of for instance leaving footwear at the door and sitting Indian-style on the floor; hence you go in barefooted and sit or kneel on the floor on the one huge mat. There is no raised altar. The priest is there on the floor as with the rest of the faithful. The experience in such a setting, I realized, is humbling in that it strips you off acquired artificiality, reminding you that you’re from the earth and so “naked”, you go forward on your knees to meet your God.

The point of the Siem Reap chapel example is that churches in the localities can be designed following local traditions and using locally available materials. The Cordilleras for example is a storehouse of indigenous practices, customs, dress, and architectural design. Similarly the Ilocandia region is another storehouse of Ilocano traditions, practices, dress, and architectural design. Churches in the areas can be designed along these. Toward this objective, if the Catholic clergy is to confer with local politicians it would be about preserving local culture and good practices which would contribute to place making (instead of stopping at building a structure).

Thorncrown Chapel rises forty-eight feet into the Ozark sky. This magnificent wooden structure contains 425 windows and over 6,000 square feet of glass. It sits atop over 100 tons of native stone and colored flagstone, making it blend perfectly with its setting.

via thorncrown

Thorncrown was the dream of Jim Reed, a native of Pine Bluff, Arkansas. In 1971 Jim purchased the land which is now the site of the chapel to build his retirement home. However, other people admired his location and would often stop at his property to gain a better view of the beautiful Ozark hills. Instead of fencing them out, Jim decided to invite them in. One day while walking up the hill to his house, the idea came to him that he and his wife should build a glass chapel in the woods to give wayfarers a place to relax in an inspiring way.

Shortly thereafter Jim met E. Fay Jones, a professor at the university of Arkansas at Fayetteville. Much to Jim’s surprise, Jones was quick to accept the proposal to design the chapel. On March 23, 1979 the construction crew broke ground on the mountain side. Jim’s dream looked like it would soon be a reality.

However, half way through the project, funds began to run out. Soon the building process ground to a halt. In his own words, it looked like Jim had made “…the biggest mistake of my life.” He desperately tried to raise the necessary funds to complete his dream, but all of his efforts failed.

Finally, one evening Jim took what he thought would be one last walk down to his half-finished chapel. He would take one last look and never return. Then the unexpected happened.

He said, “I am not proud of the fact, but the first time I ever got down on my knees was on the chapel floor. I prayed more seriously than ever before. All the trials and tribulations gave me the humility to get on my knees.”

This was a turning point in Jim’s life and in the construction of the chapel. In a few short days all the money Jim needed was made available. On July 10, 1980 Thorncrown Chapel opened. Since then over six million people have visited this little chapel on the hillside. Thorncrown has won numerous architectural awards. It has been featured on television programs such as NBC Nightly News and the 700 Club. Almost every major magazine in the country has carried a story about the chapel including Time, Newsweek, and Parade.

Read more at thorncrown


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