Chapelle du Rosarie: Questions of Resurrection and Rebirth
An essay by Subhana Barzaghi, first published in Mind Moon Circle Spring 2016 edition.
One of my primary reasons for coming to the old historic village of Vence which is located on the slopes of the Côte d’Azur France was to see and to sit in the Chapelle du Rosarie, also known as Matisse’s Chapelle. It was everything and more than I had dreamed of or expected. While I had heard that everything in the Chapelle from the grand design down to the particular, even the priests vestments were designed by Matisse, this did not however prepare me for the overwhelming beauty and presence of the place. As soon as I walked into the light filled Chapelle it’s serenity and artistic beauty held me in silent awe. Every angle, window, colour, object, design and symbol had been thoughtfully executed to create a sacred effect. The large stone slabs for the altar were chosen to represent the colour of the earth… teachings that ground us. Walls of floor to ceiling blue, green and yellow stained glass windows with their bold nature motifs cast a purple-aqua light across the floor and turned the white walled tiles a soft opal essence. As the sun’s arc reached across the sky the white Chapelle walls became a theatre for light to animate itself playfully.
Three elegant slender brass candle holders stood either side of the carved, minimalist statue of Christ on the cross. All this combined conveyed such humbleness and simplicity. The elegant simplicity of the place left a far greater impression on me than some rather ornate Barocco style Cathedral, it stripped me back to a quiet presence.
As I sat on the Quaker like wooden bench and felt graced by the golden tinged light from the magnificent stained glass windows, I wondered why Matisse had orchestrated all this, why had he made such efforts over four years to design this Chapelle? I was touched when I realised, he had designed it late in his life at the ripe age of 77 when his eyes were failing him and his hands were crippled with arthritis. I suddenly realised it was for love, pure love, everything here was a testament, it had the signature and imprint of a whole-hearted expression of love. My eyes welled up and tears streamed down my cheeks unashamedly. There were many facets to his love. Love for Monique Bourgeois his nurse who cared for him with a great tenderness while he was recovering from cancer. She also modelled for Matisse and appears in a number of his paintings. Their friendship continued and some years later she choose to enter the Dominican convent and became Sister Jacques Marie. It was sister Jacques Marie that requested Matisse to design the Chapel. He accepted this request as an artistic challenge. It is a love story of collaboration and friendship. Love that is expressed in the holy Mother and child, the Ave Maria, – a love that is perennial and circles back again and again and is intimately present if you listen and see with your heart.
On the back wall was a striking if not shocking depiction of the 14 stations of the cross – the crucifixion, the agony, the revelations and resurrection of Christ that Matisse drew in simple but strong black lines on white tiles. This harsh, almost aggressive line drawing conveyed; the pain, grief, the violence, suffering and ugliness which is the back drop and sometimes the foreground of a life and this was in direct contrast to the subtlety and lightness of spirit that beamed in from the stained glass windows opposite. I was reminded that Matisse designed the Chapelle after the Second World War and was deeply affected by the violence, suffering and destruction of war. I was grateful for the inclusion of the shadow, pathos and suffering and the compassionate response to suffering, this added a realistic sense of wholeness to the Chapel of life.
I then noticed to the side and below the 14 stations of the cross a small white Arabic motif doorway to the confessional. Matisse had lived in Morocco for several years and one can recognise these Arabic motifs in his paintings of that period. The doorway design had meaning too, like the veil or hajhib. The person behind the screen can see out, but if you are standing on the outside of the screen you cannot see in. The screen protects our private inner sanctum, a contemplative space where we can find solace, forgiveness, draw nourishment and then are carried forward out into the day, each with our sovereign piece of light.
I came here to experience one of the world’s great impressionist artists, Matisse’s passion and dedication to his art and how he utilised his artistic ability to express; love, serenity, peace and simplicity…a divine presence. Matisse considered this his masterpiece.
The whole Chapelle was a living, sculptured sacred book, it was a spiritually, uplifting experience of the heart. It brought together two of my great loves, a reverence for art and the sacred and how one can intimately inform and celebrate the other.
While the Christian path offers salvation and transcendence through the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ the Buddhist path of immanence offers liberation from suffering through the cultivation of Shila, Samadhi and Prajna. While vastly different philosophical and theologically a common ground for both religions is the compassionate heart that mediates suffering.
You might wonder how all of this is related to rebirth, the theme of this issue. The romantic in me chose France and Italy for a sabbatical, a writing holiday, a time for some space and renewal, reflection outside my familiar roles and responsibilities. The Chapelle experience reinvigorated my spirit, it was soulful and nourishing. I could say a form of rebirthing of consciousness the kind of renewal that I am inspired by. The resurrection of Christ and tapping into the Cosmic Christ consciousness is a sense of rebirth and awakening of the spirit which can rise above the quagmire, the chaos, stress and noise of the world. Clarified by the statement, “I am in the world but not of the world”. The Chapelle hit the refresh button again and I found a sense of serenity here.
What these cumbersome notions of resurrection, re-incarnation and rebirth all have in common is the belief of transcendence, a belief of continuity of life after death, as oppose to a belief of discontinuity, that life ends at death. Perhaps it’s a stretch to think of rebirth in Christian terms or existential terms and non traditional ways, but I struggle with the traditional Buddhist terms of a soul passing from one life to another due to their past karma. Being a Buddhist teacher, I am often met with stunned shocked gazes as I declare my doubts and honest disbelief in rebirth. When I rub up against conservative Buddhists and their uncritical ideas of rebirth I want to throw open the louvers and widen the conversation. This traditional interpretation raises too many unresolved questions for me, about what is a soul and how does consciousness pass from the death of one body to a new life form? Tibetan Buddhists would have us believe that after we die there is some ethereal Bardo land a temporary waiting lounge out there where souls are lined up to pop into some newly formed embryo.
Sometimes I wonder if rebirth similar to a process of refraction? The physics definition of refraction is the change of direction of a ray of light, sound, heat, or the like, in passing obliquely from one medium into another.
Perhaps I am too much of an agnostic pragmatist but there is no clear articulation in the Pali Cannon how this happens, particularly as this argument comes up against the core part of the teachings of ‘anatta’ – which states that there is no permanent, separate, abiding entity called self. The ‘self’ is a living, changing dynamic process of mind/body states, it is fluid and impermanent. So then what is reborn?
Another related potent question is, what is consciousness? Scientists have about 5 working theories of consciousness and not even Buddhist scholars and teachers can agree with each other. Is it all pervading? Does it migrate from one being to another? If so then how does it stay bound in this hairy bag and bone shop of a body? We could say that all things turn to dust and disintegrate to ashes, that is a kind of rebirth too, but not one that is terribly palatable for those invested in beliefs of ‘continuity’ – life after death. My perspective is that we are embodied beings our experience is layered down, uniquely and unrepeatable, cell by cell hair follicle by hair follicle. Consciousness is an embodied phenomena and process of the six senses (eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, thought/mind) engagement with its environment, moment by moment. Is there consciousness separate from the 6 senses? Who is dragging this body around?
I prefer to think of rebirth as being alive to this moment to moment flow of experience. The morning light filters through the French shutters, there are small birds here with sweet songs unlike the bold and brash squarks of the big birds back home. Everything and everyone is embedded in the law of flux and is danced by impermanence of song and light. We are made of star dust, we live in a world of dew drops. This is one of the great truths of our existence. If I look into my experience… there is the birth, death and rebirth of each moment; each sound, feeling, thought, image, smell, taste and sensation will step up and step down on the grand stage of experience.
As my gaze shifts, I am reborn this moment as -an opalescence tile on the Chappelle wall, then the violet light reflected on the floor, then the one black line joining mother and child. I die with this moment to the silence in the Chapelle, then comes the sound of footsteps down the isle, now a tear welling in my eye. An old Vendata Sage Nisagadata maharaja said, “Wisdom teaches me I am nothing, love teaches me I am everything”, with this understanding every person is me, is not separate from me, each thing confirms the self. It is also not me in the transcendence offered by the widest heart-mind embrace.
Change sits in the crucible of that time honoured question, “Given that all things are under the law of change, is there anything that does not change? What if there are multiple interpretations of rebirth and all of them have a slither of validity? Just like light refracting through a stained glass window, multiple reflections of the personal and universal within the great elephant of time and space. What then?
Do these questions of rebirth, whether they are true or false, or perhaps we simply don’t know. Do they help you live more fully Now? Does the belief of rebirth serve you to awaken and free yourself from suffering? If the answer is yes, it is helpful then hold it dear. It is my view that the questions of rebirth are speculative. I choose to live more fully in the gritty vulnerable presence of life as it is. Grow a compassionate heart to heal my own wounds and the courage to face the pain and sorrow in the world and hopefully help to alleviate that suffering where I can. I want to live with wisdom and see through the delusions and false anxious hungry preoccupations of the ‘I, me my” world, to live from this bigger space of selflessness that offers such relief and freedom. I am willing to fall in love with this transitory river of shadow and form, life and death that is braided through with this mysterious, unfathomable, unnameable presence. I’m heading back to the Chapelle du Rosaie for another dose of serenity.
Image source: Architectural Review