Thursday, February 17, 2011

Sacred Spaces and the Folk Chapel

     The congregation recently gave me a generous graduation gift in honor of the completion of my DMin. Part of the gift was a stole with pine trees on it.  The other part was meant to help defray the costs of a vacation.  Recently we made use of this second part. 

     Many folks like to go south during the winter.  Honestly, I have trouble seeing the attraction.  My family likes to go out in the snow.  You can't beat the winter.  Retreating from it just makes you more isolated.  Therefore instead of some warm spot like Florida, we went north to Stowe, Vermont.  It is one of our favorite places.  We stayed in town at one of the many motels, but we spent much of our time on skis and snowshoes.  The kids love it.  We love it, too.

     Of course, even though it was a vacation, I couldn't completely remove my minister hat.  On one of the days, I took Norm and Son #3 on a hike to the Chapel at Trapp Lodge.  The chapel was built by Werner von Trapp to commemorate his coming through the Second World War in one piece.  Part of this story is, of course, told in (or adapted to) the "Sound of Music" movie.  In real life, Werner was one of the Trapp kids who escaped Austria and the Nazis.  He was also a musician and a farmer.  During the war, however, he served in the 10th Mountain Division.  He was, not surprisingly, happy to get back home.

     The chapel is an interesting place.  It is small. It fits only four or five people at a time.  There is no electricity, so all the light comes from the "windows" along the walls. The images inside are mostly Christian.  There are crosses, as you can see in the picture.  Also, a strangely beat-up Gideon Bible lies on the table.  There is a place to put your written prayers, too.  In that sense it reflects the religion of the Trapps at the time it was built.  Though there is no reason to believe that the family is more religious than any other, the main lodge has quite a bit of religious imagery in the public spaces as well.  It isn't overwhelming, but there is enough for a minister to notice without trying too hard.

     However, there is another vibe that works its way through the chapel scene that, I think, is what continues to make it a sort of pilgrimage spot for a variety of people.  It is set in a beautiful location and its presence accentuates the spiritual element of the natural world that surrounds it.  That is, it transcends sect and helps us reach the religious sense that exists in all humans regardless of their interest or creedal affiliation.  One of my mentors in the ministry--a Presbyterian--once told me that all Mainers are at least half pantheist.  He meant it as a compliment.  I am pretty sure that it was true when he said it and that it is true today for many folks.  People who live in Northern New England may have an easier time of seeing this dimension of their lives than folks from Burbania.  Still, deep down, Burbanians have this tendency, too.

     Perhaps it is true, though, that rural people are bigger chapel builders.  There is certainly less fear of being considered different.  Having some sort of shrine outdoors can make one stand out a bit.  In my time in Maine (all my childhood and a good chunk of my adulthood) I have encountered a great many shrines and markers that folks have put up for the purpose of devotion.  I have built a few myself.  I don't see that happening as much where I live now.  There is the expense of owning a large enough piece of Burbanian land.  There is the effort of construction.  There is also the sense of faith as being intensely private.  If there is any outward sign of a religious life, it is usually kept inside the Burbanian home. 

     Also, there is a greater connection to the land in rural places.  There just is.  Working outdoors, or knowing a large number of people who do changes your relationship with the earth.  That relationship has grown with time and with contact in a way that a few camping trips and a lift ticket cannot replicate.  Our relationship with the earth benefits more from "quantity time" than "quality time."  This can be said about many other kinds of relationships.  If we are really half-pantheists at heart, it would make sense that shrines and chapels would be built by those most comfortable with the imagery and the language of the natural settings these objects rest in.

     It should be noted that many of these shrines that I have seen are not built by terribly religious folks.  Or, rather, they are terribly religious (as most people are) but they are not big into organized religion.  People who go to Werner's chapel may go to church or synagogue, but I bet most do not.  It still means something to them.  It still brings them closer to the Divine, whatever that might mean for them.  Chapel building is a form of democratic folk worship.  We should be doing more of this, even in places where the societal structure is less flexible than it is in Stowe, Vermont.

     Incidentally, it would be a great place for a wedding.  I bet it would cost a whole lot of money unless--of course--it was a "guerrilla wedding.".  I always wanted to do one of those...


  1. Beautiful! Thanks for this reflection and the pictures to go with it.

    It seems to me that nature often creates chapel-ish places that can easily be found in wooded areas. Places that engender a sense of pantheistic connectedness. It seems quite natural to me that people make enclosures that reflect that while expressing the place of humanity in it all and holding a few sacred objects for future visits.

    I didn't know this remote New England practice, but I've observed it in Eurasia - every high spot has a chapel - sometimes used for communal pilgrimage, other times only serving the solitary mountain climber. Every spring is blessed by a shrine.

    Thank you!

  2. And Thank You!

    What I like the best about many of the shrines I have seen in New England is that they seem spontaneous and yet we know that they must have put thought into them. That is, they come from a depth of feeling...

    Incidentally, I have always liked that picture you have on the title page of your blog. Is that the sort of enclosure you mean?