A Retreat at the Rubin

Inspired by a museum visit, we may scold ourselves for our previous belief that a salad bowl is only a salad bowl, rather than, in truth, an object over which there linger faint but meaningful associations of wholeness, the feminine and the infinite. 

 – Alain de Botton, The Architecture of Happiness

Once a month the sisters take a “retreat day” to be in silence, dispensed from work and prayer offices, to do individual soul-work.  My taking retreat days is much more random and usually involves leaving the farm because I can’t stay home and not work.

So on Wednesday I went to New York City to spend the day at the Rubin Museum of Art (devoted to Tibetan and other Himalayan art) 7th Avenue and 17th Street. http://www.rmanyc.org/  

Here’s my small museum strategy: I begin at the gift shop/ book store, to see if a post card catches my eye.  A post card often presents me with a clue to exhibit pieces I might miss if I don’t pay attention.   The books on sale tell me what spheres of scholarship and interests cross in this place.  Children’s books, educational materials, toys suggest the care behind the vision: do the curators envision the whole family, the whole person engaged in this art?  (At the Rubin, yes!  Without condescending to children, thought toward a child’s interaction is considered.  In the Mandala exhibit, for example, a well-made Activity Guide was available for studying Mandala with instructions of what to look for layer by layer, what to notice and build from.  I used one!  I also listened in on a class for  teenagers of diverse backgrounds.  The young guide said, “After this class, you’ll be able to give this talk yourself!” meaning the students learn and integrate the principles of the art they studied.)  

After scanning the gift shop, my museum strategy is to check out the eating situation (will I have to go out?  can I afford to eat in?  non-gluten? vegetarian? Can I eat when I feel I need to? ) so that I won’t be distracted by my physical needs.  Then I take a walk through the building, paying attention to the ambient sound, the atmosphere, the sense of place, like settling into a retreat or meditation time, so that I won’t be distracted once I start concentrating.  For me, if I’m alone, museums create the perfect retreat.

For my walk-through I began at the top floor and worked my way down, letting myself  be drawn to one piece or another, but trying to sense the overall visionary scope and logic, noting along the way where I want to spend my time.   I should have begun at the second floor, because here was the key for the beginner – a short course in looking at Himalayan art – how to see what you are seeing.

Clearly two places called to me and although I glanced at everything,  I spent my immersion time in these two places.

First, Mandala: The Perfect Circle  (through January 11, 2010).  Brother Bede and Sister Gail each told me about seeing this exhibit themselves, encouraging me to hurry down to New York, knowing my interest in architecture and prayer, prayer structures, memory palaces, meditation maps, the “Interior Castle” and the Christian Mystical path.   Mandalas, although painted upon parchment or fabric in two dimensions, invite the person meditating into a three-dimensional world.  Like St. Teresa’ of Avila’s Interior Castle, through your prayer and its many obstacles, your goal is to eventually reach the presence of God in the very heart of the castle, the infinite center of your own soul. 

In each Mandala, you make your way through purifying rings of fire, along charnel houses full of bones and scenes of torture (the overcoming of ego and the fear of pain and death) through lotus petals and other symbols of spiritual progress to reach the particular deity within.  Thousands of deities exist in Tibetan Buddhism, and aligning oneself to one or another, and meditating upon those charisms embodied by the deity helps the person to merge with those charisms and traits.  Not unlike the Christian’s continual striving toward Christ-likeness, I thought, as I watched the Mandalas.   Ummm, interesting that I wrote “watched” the Mandalas, because that’s what you do, I think.  You don’t just “look at” them.  You “watch” them.  You’re drawn into them.  You travel through the layers.

An ingenious technological help with “watching” are the two monitors simulating a journey through a Mandala.  The computer simulation presents the Mandala, then turns it sideways, revealing its three-dimensional architecture and allowing you to explore level by level of the construction.  You don’t perceive the meaning in these simulations, but you get the sense of movement, succession of levels of achievement, balance, symmetry and thoroughness necessary to complete the whole. 


Three-dimensional Mandala of Guhyasamaja; Nepal; 20th century; brass; Collection of Namgyal Monastery, Dharamsala, India

(Instead of leading retreats, I’d much rather send people to study in a museum on their own.  Because, well, how do you “teach” prayer, really?  I mean, over a weekend?)

The other place I needed to spend time: with The Red Book of C.G. Jung: Creation of a New Cosmology (through January 25, 2010).  [Here’s a link to an article about The Red Book in the New York Times Magazine, including an explanation of the politics of bringing the work from the Jung family safe to the scholars and public anxious to see it.  http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/20/magazine/20jung-t.html?ref=magazine. ]


Page 105 of The Red Book

The Red Book is Jung’s notebook of dreams, his active imagination interactions with them, with color paintings of the images his dreams presented, what he called a “confrontation with the unconscious”.  Jung worked on this project from 1914-1930, writing the text in calligraphy like an illuminated prayer book, and finally having it bound in red leather.  The actual book is on display, with Jung’s psychological paintings on the wall, including some drafts of personal Mandalas. Facsimiles of the Red Book which is about to be published by W.W.Norton & Company were available to study. 

For me, The Red Book  is a challenge to “go deeper”.  I admire the sisters I live with who brave this journey.  My retreat at the Rubin helped me see how I skirt along the surface of reality, like a waterbug on top of a pond, rarely even getting wet in the unconscious.  The other challange was to think about friends’ voices telling me over and over to try to “do the art” in my own Book of Hours myself. 

If you can, try to visit the Rubin before these exhibits close.  Plan to spend a day in prayer.

One Response to “A Retreat at the Rubin”

  1. Su Murdock Says:

    I love the idea of a retreat at a museum. I hope I can catch this display before it moves on.

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