The Chapel House is a unique and special place, as those who have been to visit will know. The quiet spirit of meditative thoughtfulness and silence is almost tangible. It is open to all people regardless of whether or not they are affiliated with Colgate or ascribe to a particular religion. It welcomes all who come seeking a silent refuge from the anxiety and pressure of daily life. Chapel House’s Resident Supervisor, Susan Weitz, is a giving, patient and warm woman who embodies the heart and soul of Chapel House. While there are other retreat centers that may be comparable, the Chapel House is rare in its unstructured silence. Guests come from all over the world to experience its gift: silent sanctuary in which people have the space and freedom to explore their spirituality and bring vital peace into their lives.
Recently, however, there have been ripples in Chapel House’s usually calm atmosphere. Chapel House’s relatively new director is Professor of World Religions Steven Kepnes, and his faculty advisory committee consists of Professor of Classics Robert Garland, Associate Professor of Religion Lesleigh Cushing, Professor of Psychology Richard Braaten, Associate Dean of the Faculty Georgia Frank and University Chaplain Mark Shiner. They have proposed several changes that students and guests feel may irrevocably change the essence of Chapel House. For example, one of the proposed changes is adding a new “multipurpose” room that could be used for religious conferences or discussions.
While these may sound like noble pursuits, Chapel House is not the place for them. Its beauty and spirit lie in its unwavering emphasis on silence and personal retreat. Rather than being a place for structured dialogue, it is a place where a person can simply exist, just be.
In Kepnes’ “Message from the Director,” published on the Chapel House website on January 30, 2015, he states that he plans to “[evolve] Chapel House so it can meet the spiritual and religious needs of all generations in the 21st century.” The problem is, however, that Chapel House is doing exactly that just the way it is now, so changing it would in fact hurt that mission. Both students and guests of various ages and walks of life treasure Chapel House because it fills a unique spiritual niche and feeds the soul in a way rarely found in the world today.
“The proposals for change for Chapel House appear to be moderate proposals, but Chapel House is a radical space, radically apart from ordinary life,” a guest of Chapel House and faculty spouse David Regenspan said.
“A high-intensity, driven campus like Colgate’s needs a centering, calm space like Chapel House. The dedicated space to breathe, think, reflect and simply be in one another’s presence is something our community needs to cultivate more intentionally,” said senior Skylar Lindsay.
Funded by an anonymous donor who is simply referred to as “the Lady,” Chapel House was intended to be a quiet place where individuals could come by their own volition to seek deeper spiritual understanding. Earlier this fall, students worked with Kepnes to form a Student Committee, with the hope that by voicing their opinions they might be able to collaborate with
Kepnes and the faculty advisory committee to work towards a future for Chapel House that would appeal to everyone. As part of that collaboration there will be a series of fora held to discuss the new Vision statement, which is available on the “About Chapel House” page of Colgate’s website along with other proposed changes. Moving forward, hopefully Professor Kepnes and his advisory committee and the students as well as guests will come to an agreement on how best to preserve Chapel House’s wonderfully rare and beautiful gift of silence and space. To use the words of T.S Eliot, Chapel House is a “still point of the turning world,” and those who love it desperately wish for it to remain that way.