The Muelder Prayer Chapel, located on the third floor of the School of Theology, was named for Walter D. Muelder, Dean Emeritus. Dedicating himself to the intellectual and spiritual leadership of the School of Theology, Dr. Muelder served as dean for 27 years, from 1945-1972, and has had a major impact on the development of Christian ethics and ecumenism.
The charm of the chapel is due largely to the eight stained glass windows created by Wilbur Herbert Burnham, which recall the life and influence of outstanding Christian figures, ranging from Orthodox to Roman Catholicism and to Protestantism. In this web page, we explore the history and gifts of each of these mystics. Their stories, etched in the glass of the Muelder Chapel windows, inspire us to walk in their footsteps.
The information contained herein is also available in the pamphlet “Stories Etched in Glass,” compiled by Imani-Sheila Newsome and available in the Office of Community Life and Lifelong Learning, 745 Commonwealth Avenue, Room 110.
Saint John of Damascus, born John Mansur, was the son of a tax collector for the Caliph, Abd Al-Malek (685-705 A.D.) He succeeded his father as a tax collector, serving under this Caliph and his successor.
While holding the office of tax collector, John wrote a series of discourses directed against Leo the Isaurian, Greek emperor from 717-741. This emperor was rallying against the presence of icons, symbols and images in Christian worship. John, trained in theology and the sciences, strongly defended the presence of Christian icons. Eventually, John entered the monastery at St. Sabbas to devote himself to the study of the church. At this monastery, he was assigned a strict spiritual formation director, whose discipline is reflected in John’s window. John was apparently sent into the marketplace of Damascus to sell three baskets at an exorbitant price and subject himself to derision in the city where he had once enjoyed great honor. The three baskets on the shield represent difficult tasks which contribute to the spiritual deepening of the self.
John also composed hymns for the church. His composition, the “Funeral Idiomela” is still sung in funeral services of the Byzantine Rite. His name is often associated with the “Te Deum,” a hymn of the Greek Church. Two of his Easter hymns are currently in use, “The Day of Resurrection,’ and “Come Ye Faithful, Raise the Strain.” The “Orthodox Faith” referred to in the window bears witness to John’s scholarship included in his works Fountain of Knowledge and Orthodox Faith.
During the eighth, twelfth, and fourteenth centuries, strife raged between the presiding prelates of the church, the nobility, and the religious orders in Europe. A great many of the religious men and women of the time suffered, particularly in Rhineland.
There, strife between Pope John XXII and Louis of Bavaria caused the Pope to place Louis’ dominions under and interdict. The interdict allowed the Pope to restrict public worship and forced the removal of all rites of the church, other than baptism and extreme unction, from all those who were faithful to Louis.
In response, a group of men and women who desired to show that the life which Christ promised could be lived in the midst of chaos joined together in a secret group in order to maintain the life and order of the church. They kept the precepts of the church, taking the name “The Friends of God.” Their association extended throughout the province of Rhine, including towns such as Strassburg and Nuremberg.
This group created the doctrines that would be their rule for their daily life. These doctrines included: (1) the complete giving up of self-will to the will of God; (2) the continuous activity of the spirit of God in all believers; (3) the worthlessness of all religious activity based on fear or the hope of gain; (4) the essential quality of laity and clergy.
One of the greatest works that emerged from this mystical group was the Imitation of Christ, written by stalwart member Thomas a’Kempis.
Other scholars that emerged from this group were Meister Eckhart and Gerhard Groote. All of these religious geniuses made significant contributions to debates of the day, continuing to bind together under the rule of the Friends of God, which later became known as the Brethren of the Common Life.
The first community of the Brethren of the Common Life was formed at Deventer, followed by the rapid spreading of the movement throughout Holland and Germany. Brother houses and sister houses were developed. Members of the group took no permanent vows, but mingled in the world for the purpose of service. Their garb was gray to reflect the simplicity of their life, while living strictly by the labor of their hands. Their emphasis was on the practice of the spiritual life and service to the community.
The chapel window displays the group’s general characteristics. A shield showing the Holy Spirit radiates four flames, symbolic of the awakening of the whole geographical region that was influenced by the Friends of God. The circle represents the Rhine River, surrounding the “Green Isle,” where Dominican cloisters maintained the sacred activities of the Friends. The inscription, “The Brethren of the Common Life” refers to the movement which developed out of the founding group. A preacher is depicted on the window, telling the doctrines of inner life, a theme tying this group to the Quakers, who are represented in the eighth window honoring John Woolman.
St. John of the Cross became a monk at the age of 21, taking on the habit of the Carmelite friars at Medina. St. John of the Cross was known for his devotion to suffering and self-humiliation to glorify God. He slept in a small, dark cell with a hollow board for his bed, similar to that of a grave or a casket. He wore a hair shirt that pricked his body until he bled. His fasts and mortification were regarded as incredible, even for his time.
By all of these means, he studied how to die to the world in order to live for Christ.
St. John of the Cross had two maxims. His first was that, to attain perfection, a person studied Jesus Christ and desired to imitate him. St. John’s second maxim was to mortify the senses in all things, denying himself whatever did not seem to contribute to the glory of God. When Teresa of Avila heard about John, she set about reforming the Carmelite order. Soon after she founded her first monastery for men, John of the Cross responded to her call and entered the new rule on Advent Sunday, 1568. This was the beginning of the Barefooted Carmelite Friars. John, in reflecting on the cross, experienced internal and external trials, yet he was persistent in holding fast to his devotional rules.
In his austerity, John was considered a rebel and a threat to the church. He was imprisoned as an apostate, yet he did not yield to despair. It was Teresa of Avila who eventually secured his release from prison. His major contribution to devotional literature is The Dark Night of the Soul.
Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) recalled in her autobiography how she and a favorite brother were influenced by the lives of saints. As youths, they left home to go to the country of the Moors, later being intercepted by a family member. At the age of eighteen, Teresa, determined to serve God, decided to become a nun in the Carmelite monastery in Avila.
Teresa was quick to confess that she had found it difficult to pray or meditate, but she persevered in creating a discipline in which prayer would become a major rule for the rhythm of her life. Teresa details her commitment to prayer in her autobiography which was written at the command of her spiritual director of 1562. She distinguishes four degrees of prayer. In the first degree or stage, the soul applies itself to holy meditation. The second degree of prayer for Teresa is that of quiet, which is followed by the third degree of prayer, the repose of the soul. The fourth degree of prayer is distinguished by a more perfect union with God. She described this prayer of union as a kind of rapture that causes the loss of voluntary functioning. Her extensive writings of visions give imagery to these four distinct stages. For example of her spiritual discipline, read her book The Interior Castle.
On her window is a heart pierced by an arrow. A flaming arrow and two fleurs de lys are all symbols of her concentration on the passion of Jesus. In the circle are the traditional symbols of roses and lilies – the symbols of spiritual life well-watered in the garden of her soul.
“Devotion is neither public nor private prayer. Prayers, whether public or private, are particular parts or instances of devotion.” These definitions begin William Law’s documentation of his rules of spiritual discipline called, A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life. Published in 1728, this book as well as his earlier book, Christian Perfection, had immense influence on John and Charles Wesley. Law was committed to showing how the Christian may increase Christian virtues. Law was a contemporary of Newton, Locke and Woolman. In 1705, he entered Emmanuel College, Cambridge, and became a fellow in 1711. He planned to enter the priesthood of the Church of England but was denied the privilege. Law eventually became a spiritual director for the Wesleys as well as a number of other prominent religious families in England.
Law was known to rise each morning at 5 a.m. and spend time in devotions before breakfast and studying. At 9 a.m. he joined his family in devotion, at which time the Collects and Psalms for the day were offered. For the remainder of the day, he retired to his study to write meditations and to see to the needs of the community. He also devoted himself to the writing of mystical devotional works. Law’s occupation as spiritual leader led him to a breach with John Wesley. Wesley’s conversion under Moravian influences led him to stress the overwhelming importance of justification by faith. Law, on the other hand, according to Wesley, put too much emphasis on the gospel of works.
Wesley did perhaps misinterpret Law’s views, since toward the end of Law’s life his views became very close to Quakerism, with his stress on the “light within.” The “light within” is the spirit and power of God dwelling and manifesting itself in a new person.
Law linked the unlawfulness of war with divine love. In his Address to the Clergy, composed between 1760-1761, he speaks against war and military establishment. This was at a time when England was sealing her international empire and Law stood firm that the spoils gained in war were against the virtue of Christ. In the window named for William Law is a shield depicting a symbol for the hand of God. Fire and water, the symbols for death and the life of Christ, respectively, are pictured in the circle. The motif repeated on the diamonds in which an upright torch refers to life and an inverted torch refers to death, exhibits Law’s appeal to the scripture in Ecclesiasticus 15:16-17: “God has set before thee fire and water, stretch forth thy hand unto whether thou wilt. Before men is life and death; and whether him liketh shall be given him.”
John Woolman was born in a farming community fifteen miles east of Philadelphia. Until he was 20 years old, he worked as a shop assistant and practiced Quaker religious life. At 21, he became an informal lay minister of the Society of Friends. For 30 years he followed this ministry. His itinerant journey led Woolman up and down the Atlantic coast, visiting Friends’ meetings from Maine to South Carolina.
Woolman also employed his religious zeal for social justice. He had such a drive to be pure of social evil that he rejected all temptations to sin, in every manner of his life. Woolman’s desire to avoid the oppression of the poor led him to self-denial. He traveled among the Native Americans because he felt that they were disenfranchised and treated unjustly because of greed for their land. He did not wear dyed clothes in order to identify with the workers who handled dyes that were harmful to them. In order to be like Christ and to appear in the form of a servant, he was determined to go on foot to many of his preaching obligations. His religious zeal for the souls of the people is demonstrated by one three-month period when he traveled 1500 miles to make people aware of the Gospel of Christ. He was troubled by the presence of slavery in America. His effort not to trade with exploiters or the oppressors of African-Americans led him to refuse to eat sugar prepared and paid for by slave labor. Woolman, while not well known, was a pioneer in the anti-slavery and abolitionist movements in the United States. Woolman died of smallpox in England in 1772, faithful to his discipline and rule of life. On his window a burst of light, as witnessed in the inner light of the cross, is depicted on the shield. In the circle, a shaft of light breaks a slave’s chain. Two kneeling meditating figures, a black man and white man, represent human and spiritual unity, recalling that Woolman was a pioneer in the anti-slavery movement. On the diamonds is presented a basket with bread and a sheaf of wheat which represents the Friends tradition of practical piety and fruitful service.
Saint Bernard of Clairvaux was the founder of the Clairvaux monastery as well as 160 other monasteries throughout Europe. Clairvaux, prior to its reform and cultivation by the monastic order of the Cistercians, was known as the “Valley of Bitterness.” Under the discipline of this order, however, the valley became known as a cultural center. Bernard wished to restore purity to the monastic rule. He drew heavily from the New Testament book I John. The Johannine epistle gave Bernard his doctrine of love. His major work, The Steps of Humility is a detailed discussion of the seventh chapter of the Benedictine rule and motif of God’s love.
Bernard focuses on the human image of the crucified Jesus which arouses the pious sentiments formed by attending to the passion and suffering of Jesus. Love, fervor, and active zeal in the name of Christ also played key roles. He was consistently admired as an example of positive moral force and steadfastness of character, which made him a leader in Western Christianity. In the shield, the three miters refer to his ecclesiastical appointments in Milan, Chartres, and Spires. In the circle are rays and six small emblems. The upper three emblems represent the fountain of salvation, the light of men, and Jesus. The lower three emblems are a white dog, representing the order of the White Monks, the inkhorn and pen symbolizing Bernard’s vast writings, and a fettered demon symbolic of Bernard’s defenses of the faith against heresy. The crusader’s cross, and wheat and vines which symbolize fruitfulness, also appear in the window.
When St. Catherine of Siena 91347-1380) was six years old, she beheld a vision of Christ above the Church of St. Dominic. The Fathers of the Desert, in turn, inspired her to begin practicing penances. Her adolescent ascetic practices aroused opposition in her parents, since they had plans for Catherine to marry. She resisted their wishes.
By 1363, she was vested in the black and white habit of St. Dominic, having become a Dominican tertiary – a devout woman who lives as a religious recluse. For three years she lived as a recluse in her own home, speaking only to her confessor the entire time. Following this period, Catherine began to reach out to her community, ministering to the sick and needy. In 1370, Catherine experienced a deep mystical state in which she died, only to return to life with a command to go into the world and save souls. By 1374, she had elicited the suspicion of the church because of her mysticism and followers. Being determined “not guilty” of heresy by church fathers, Catherine continued to work with those who had been struck by plague. On April 1, 1375, she experienced a stigmata, symbolized in the chapel window by her raised hands. The stigmata is the symbolic presence of the nail holes in the hands and feet of Christ exhibited in human beings.
Her extended mystical theology was in the form of a dialogue between herself and God. She died at age 33 after months of great physical suffering. In Catherine’s window is the fleur de lys, symbolic of the victory of the Christian over temptation.