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I sit in the vast room and hear only silence — or, almost. Maybe I hear someone walking down the nave, soft footsteps echoing; maybe I hear someone settling into

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I sit in the vast room and hear only silence — or, almost. Maybe I hear someone walking down the nave, soft footsteps echoing; maybe I hear someone settling into

Seeking Peace in Sacred Spaces

I sit in the vast room and hear only silence — or, almost. Maybe I hear someone walking down the nave, soft footsteps echoing; maybe I hear someone settling into a pew, perhaps sighing. But in the quiet, I exhale. I relax, tilt my head back, and look up. Nearly 70 feet above me, the crossing ribs of the vaulted ceiling create a pattern that soothes my eyes, rests my mind. I trace the lines that appear almost like a maze, losing myself. Maybe an organ plays, but even if it doesn’t, I lose myself. I’m in Duke Chapel. Losing myself is the point.

This is the job of any place of worship — this stillness, this quiet, this focus. I’m surrounded by gray, by stone, by vaulted ceilings and columns marching down long aisles, by sun piercing stained glass. In a room of dimensions so enormous that they cloud any sense of proportion, I focus instead on spirit.

I’ve been sitting in Duke Chapel occasionally for decades, but since I began working at Duke in 2016, I’ve been sitting here about once a week. The sacred space is important. Whether you cleave to a particular religion, whether you even have a concept of God at all, an enormous space will speak to you. “You’re not so big,” it whispers in my ear. “What else is bigger? Look up.”

I need that call to look up. I was raised attending a synagogue with a huge Moorish dome. I gazed up at its tiled vastness in moments of both profound sacredness and profound boredom, grew used to finding peace in that immensity. It makes for an unusual connection with sacred spaces, though. As Jews, we’re a wandering people, defined more by our story, the Torah, than by place. That may be part of the reason why I feel at home in all sacred spaces, not just Jewish ones. Though perhaps any truly spiritual home offers, as part of its purpose, a welcome to all seekers, to help us find our way to the face of God as we understand it.

As my religious beliefs continue to change, the memory of the peaceful, soaring space of that temple has remained. Travels have taken me to places of worship all over the world, and homes in other cities have always seemed to lie within a short walk of a fine downtown cathedral, open to tourists and worshipers, where I could sit down and look up.

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For Duke, the chapel is central. Walk up the long Chapel Drive approaching Duke’s Gothic West Campus, and the chapel dominates the landscape, its stone tower piercing the sky like Dorothy’s first view of the Emerald City. That’s exactly its goal, by the way. When, in 1924, James Buchanan “Buck” Duke gave all that money to turn Trinity College into Duke University, he had a very clear vision. “I want the central building to be a church,” he said. “A great towering church which will dominate all of the surrounding buildings, because such an edifice would be bound to have a profound influence on the spiritual life of the young men and young women who come here.”

In the calming vastness of Duke Chapel, between its dramatic vaulted ceiling and chancel woodwork, a series of 77 stained-glass windows tells the biblical story from Creation to Revelation. photograph by John Crisp/Dallas, Texas

It works. The chapel dominates, its square, 210-foot tower the focal point, the directional sign you never miss. Wherever you look among Duke’s maze of quads, somewhere above you is that ornate, pinnacled tower. It’s the true north of Duke.

Caroline Bruzelius, Duke’s distinguished professor emerita of art and art history, tells me about the building’s scale: “The idea is to enter into another world.” The great period of cathedral building came about in the Middle Ages, she says, when most people lived in “dark, smoky holes without windows”; they’d venture to the nearest cathedral, “and it would have seemed like you were walking into heaven on earth. It really is about the transition from the world of normality to paradise.” A managed transition, mind you. There’s that first view of the chapel when you walk toward it. Then you walk up some stairs and enter the octagonal narthex, a sort of anteroom beneath the tower. Then more stairs. In the back of the chapel, you find yourself beneath the pipes of the organ. And only then, as you take your final steps into the nave, does the magnificent space open up for you, like Harry Potter rounding the bend in the forest and finally seeing Hogwarts.

All churches hark back to the great hall of so many shared religious beginnings.

Even today, that approach is unchanged. I walk that transition. I sit in that gray space, watch the sun filter through stained glass, listen to the organ. For a moment, I enter into that other world.

Though sometimes it’s not another world — it’s just a big place to be. And there are other big sacred spaces in the Triangle area. In 2017, the Catholic Diocese of Raleigh completed the Holy Name of Jesus Cathedral because tiny Sacred Heart, in downtown, lacked the space for Raleigh Catholics to gather. The new cathedral provides all of the space that a growing community needs. Along with, of course, an enormous, quiet sanctuary.

Whereas Duke Chapel is Gothic and dim, Holy Name of Jesus is bright and classical, a barrel-vaulted ceiling arcing above the open, clean lines of a cruciform space that seats 2,000, one of the largest cathedrals in the nation. But it’s quiet, it’s peaceful, and, of course, it draws your eye upward. Above all, its dome peeks over the trees at Dorothea Dix Park, and for me, this hints at the temple in which I grew up. Monsignor David Brockman notes the word “dome” itself: “It comes from the Latin domus,” he says, “which means house or home.” Sit in the cathedral’s vast, 1,000-seat nave, and your eye, like mine in my synagogue as a child, is drawn upward into that dome.

•••

Domus:Home. The chapel is peaceful and the cathedral vast, but neither is my home. These are troubling and troubled times, and we all need comfort. For my ultimate connection, I must go to the space that houses my own faith tradition. When my spirit is sore and I need to reach for the Great Unknowable to find comfort, I go to Temple Beth Or in north Raleigh.

In some ways, I think all churches hark back to the Temple in Jerusalem, the great hall of so many shared religious beginnings. But an essential part of the story of Judaism is the destruction of that Temple. We remind ourselves with every Torah reading that our conception of God lives in no bricks, in no hall. God dwells everywhere, and it is in our attempts to repair this broken world that we draw closest to God. We consider this obligation every week when we go back to our story, when we read Torah. So in the peaceful, open sanctuary of Temple Beth Or — house of light, in translation — my eyes are drawn toward the ark containing the Torah.

A smaller sacred space in Raleigh, Temple Beth Or is where the author has found his spiritual home. photograph by Audrey Priel/Rose Trail Images

It’s an old ark, as it turns out; it has wandered, as have we. When, in 1978, the congregation needed a home large enough to house its growing family, congregants and architect Michael Landau knew that they wanted to combine a modern building with an older, traditional ark. An ark was found in Michigan: wooden, intricately carved, 16 feet tall, with Corinthian columns on the sides and a stained-glass representation of the Ten Commandments above the doors. The ark is a thing of beauty, and yet, in its new placement, you see beyond it, for it is surrounded by windows. Not stained glass — simple panes, allowing you to look outside the building to the pines yonder.

That connection to the outdoors is one way in which the building reaches for the same transcendence that the chapel and the cathedral pursue. The ability to look out, Landau says, represents the ability to look within. Plus, those windows allow in light, light, light. You gaze both at and past the ark, your eyes drawn to both the scripture and what lies beyond. It’s a small area; the Jews are forever a small group of people, for whom intimate spaces suffice. But the intimate space doesn’t limit the spirit. Like the other buildings, Temple Beth Or guides you from the expanse of the outdoors, into the synagogue, then into the sanctuary, and finally to — and beyond — that ark. The goal is to bring you to your connection to the world beyond.

Always to — and always beyond. Sacred spaces share this desire to bring you to that great spiritual connection, whether for you that is God, nature, or dark matter. To remind you of wonder, and to reseat that wonder within you. In the chapel, in the cathedral, I see tourists and seekers, mothers with babies, and quiet old men. I join them in seeking. In the silence, in the sunlight, I seek that connection. In my own temple, I have seen my son read Torah, and I have said Kaddish for my father. These are the joys and the comforts that spiritual homes offer. They wait for us to visit, then give peace, a vision, a safe place. A place to think, to wonder, to be connected to the great unknowable, the great oneness. Or just to rest. Perhaps that most of all.

Come in, they say; let me guide you. Leave the outside; come in. Things are different in here, quieter. You can rest, and you can seek connection.

Sit down in a pew. Rest for a moment.

Look up.

This story was published on Jul 22, 2020

Scott Huler

Scott Huler

Huler is the senior staff writer at Duke magazine and a Piedmont Laureate Emeritus. He has written for such newspapers as the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and the Los Angeles Times and magazines including Backpacker, Fortune, and Child. His award-winning radio work has been heard on "All Things Considered" and "Day to Day" on National Public Radio and on "Marketplace" and "Splendid Table" on American Public Media, and he sometimes serves as guest host on "The State of Things" on WUNC-FM. He is the author of six books, most recently On the Grid.