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Collecting chapels

For some years I've been in the habit of collecting chapels. Not the way museums do, transporting cloisters column by slender column, but the way the mind does, which needs no reconstructive process. I might call them chapels in the mind, niches of quiet to which I return, as to a favorite sonnet -- such as ''The World Is too Much with Us'' whenever a little peace is in order.

The habit began in New York City when I discovered, near Columbia University, a chapel that had an alcove painted a pure sky blue. It wasn't only the color, that particular shade of Mary's mantle, but the quality of the blue light it evoked that lent a luminous glow to the entire church. I went back to that alcove, physically and mentally, many times. When some years later I returned to find it painted a utilitarian white, I felt a mild outrage. But nearby, fortunately, was the cathedral of St. John the Divine with its rosary of chapels on the perimeter, each designed in the ecclesiastical manner of a different European country. I was enchanted with the French and Italian chapels, a foretaste of those I would later visit along the Mediterranean as far eastward as the Greek islands, with their tiny ''snow churches.'' These, shaped of cubes and spheres, whitewashed to a blinding purity, appear on moonlight nights to be made of snow.

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I have a card of one of those snow chapels on my desk, as well as one of St. John the Baptist carved from a cottonwood branch which came from a chapel near Abiquiu, New Mexico. This is the chapel I most often return to in memory, a far easier journey than the hour's drive down a fiercely rutted desert road along the Chama River. We first went in late October when the cottonwoods ran saffron down the valleys, and the very atmosphere seemed, in Donne's words, ''like gold to airy thinness beat.''

The chapel is part of the small Benedictine monastery of Christ in the Desert , and was created by a Japanese who brought to it the Oriental appreciation of landscape as part of architectural design. For the top half of the octagonal structure is glass. Beyond is the sky, rimmed by the brown-red cliffs that line the valley with their sculpturelike formations. Standing in the simple room, with its wooden benches, a guitar leaning against the wall, and that tree-born figure of St. John, I felt lifted, almost catapulted, into another level. I did not have to be reminded of the purpose of a chapel. I was forced to contemplate, to return to the ancient clarity of the psalms.

Afterward we visited the ''white city,'' an eerie chalk-gray landscape that Georgia O'Keeffe had painted. As I wrote in my journal that evening, a litany formed out of the day, out of the strange formations of the white city, but especially the feelings that came to me in the chapel. It was almost, but not quite, a poem. Blessed be the Creator, Lord of the red-robed rocks, Lord of the river willows, the spruce and the aspen, Lord of the canyons with caves for swifts

rounded out of the tufa, Lord of the turquoise river and

flowing gold of the cottonwoods

drifting the river with day-stars. Blessed be the Creator, Lord of the silver winds

that slice through the air like ice crystals, Lord of the snake z-ing over the sand in a gasp

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and the brown-armoured locust, Lord of the cony and marmot,

the broad-winged hawk

surfing air-currents. Blessed be the Creator, Lord of all things

asleep under stones,

sunning on rocks,

gliding over the cliff-face --

scale and feather and fur. Lord of all colors,

the green and the blue, the red and the yellow,

the deep-shadowed violet hollowed in hills, Lord of the rainbow, the arc and the circle,

the turning and staying. Blessed be the Creator, Lord of the mist and fog,

the snow and the ice

that gathers on rocks like a flower, Lord of the spindrift and deep ocean fountains

that scour the sea sand

adrift on this desert

with snail shells and fossils striating the cliffs

like cities brought up from sea-bottoms

and pressed between pages of sandstone. Blessed be the Creator of sky earth and sea,

blessed be the Lord.

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