Four weeks ago, in anticipation of the fiftieth anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, we of a certain age were asked to recall where we were when the president was shot. As it happened, I was then a sophomore at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, and I listened to the announcement of the president’s death in the lobby of Goodwin-Kirk Residence Hall, where a few of us had gathered around a portable radio. In retrospect, however, the question of where I was seems less important than where I went, having just received that sad and shocking news.
Drake University was founded in 1881. The school was originally affiliated with the Disciples of Christ Church, but since the 1950s the architectural tone of Drake’s secular campus has been set by nine buildings designed by Eliel Saarinen and his son, Eero. In lieu of ivy and Roman columns, these buildings feature metal, brick, and glass, and they evoke the spirit of postwar industrial progress. Amidst these modern, rectilinear forms stands the university chapel, a round, brick-faced building designed by Eero Saarinen and dedicated in November, 1955. Known as the Oreon E. Scott Memorial Chapel and situated near the center of the campus, this short, cylindrical form seems both starkly incongruous and oddly consistent with the neighboring buildings. Windowless and unadorned, it resembles an abbreviated silo.
Stepping inside, however, the visitor encounters an interior as rare as it is minimal: a darkened, intimate, and silent space, lit only by natural light. At the center of that space stands a circular communion table, four feet in diameter, its white marble made luminous by a central oculus in the ceiling. From the table’s light-reflecting center, concentric rings of gray slate steps flow out to a circular prayer rail. Behind the rail, twenty straight, high-backed chairs circumscribe the inner space. Behind the chairs, a wood-slatted circular wall imparts a measure of warmth to an otherwise cool interior.
It was to this space that I went on the afternoon of November 22, 1963. When the heavy wooden doors closed behind me, I found myself in subdued light and utterly alone. Like millions of others, I had just incurred a trauma, and for the next hour or so I coped with it as best I could, aided and sheltered by my surroundings. I wrote a few lines of verse, which I would later discard. But for the most part I sat in solitude and silence, allowing my turbulent thoughts and my feelings of sadness, shock, and fear to settle in my awareness. “There is great beauty and peace,” wrote the monk Thomas Merton in his journal, “in this life of silence and emptiness.”* Secluded from the violent and newly unstable world outside, I felt that silence and that emptiness, and they steadied my heart and mind.
At the same time, however, the silence and solitude of the chapel brought me face to face with what had happened, a few hours earlier, in Dealey Plaza. “Solitude is a stern mother,” Merton also wrote in his journal, “who brooks no nonsense.”* And the Scott Memorial Chapel, for all its midcentury, minimalist beauty, offered no soothing platitudes or comforting icons–no Good Shepherd or Mother Mary, or Lord Buddha for that matter. Quite the opposite: the chapel’s austere, egalitarian ambience, its whites, grays, browns, and blacks, encouraged an unmitigated encounter, free of distractions, with the reality of the present moment. Although I had yet to witness the moving pageantry of the funeral cortege or endure the commentary and speculation that continue to this day, I was, in Merton’s phrase, “in perfect touch with reality.”* However naive I might been, politically and historically, I knew that something momentous, indeed tectonic, had just occurred. And that salutary realism, enforced by my environment, helped me maintain my equanimity.
In his general design, and in keeping with a theme of connectedness, Eero Saarinen created a covered walkway between the Scott Chapel and the adjacent Medbury Hall, which then housed the School of Divinity. That school closed in 1968, and Medbury now houses the Honors Program and the Department of Philosophy and Religion. But the Scott Chapel remains, much as it was in 1963, and it is now an unaffiliated, non-sectarian space, where visitors of all faiths–or none–can meditate, contemplate, or pray, according to their lights. I am happy to report that in 2007 Drake University had the wisdom to renovate the chapel’s disintegrating fabric and restore it to its former distinction. Truth to tell, I do not know where else I would have gone.
* Thomas Merton, The Intimate Merton: His Life from His Journals , ed. Patrick Hart and Jonathan Montaldo (HarperSanFrancisco, 1999), 239.
* Merton, 239.
* Merton, 284.