John Wesley and the Stained Glass: Windows of Stillness and Grace
I’m fascinated with stained glass windows. Although windows typically exist to let light in and provide an entrance to the beauty of the outdoors, stained glass windows also exist to beautify, mediate the light as it enters and, often, tell a story.
Growing up in the Baptist tradition (my grandfather and father were Baptist ministers), the few stained glass windows I saw were scenes from the life of Jesus. Once I married, my husband and I found ourselves most at home in the Methodist church. Ten years ago we moved to Florida from California and found a church home at UMCPB (United Methodist Church of the Palm Beaches). I felt called to be the director of children’s ministries and my husband, to be the director of youth ministries (and a certified candidate for ordained ministry). Our lives were busy with two young sons, rebuilding after leaving all our family and loved ones behind and experiencing a crash course in hurricanes with Frances, Jeanne and Wilma.
Stories of biblical prophets and wanderers comforted me as I struggled with feelings of upheaval, displacement, loss and doubt. I found comfort in rereading the ancient patriarchs’ stories, the bleakness of the landscapes they traveled and their amazing tenacity for enduring. I reread the stories of the prophets who fell into depression and wondered at the mystery of Elijah, who heard the voice of God, not in the storms, but in stillness.
At times in the past 10 years, when things became particularly difficult, I would walk from my office to the chapel to pray or to spend time in quietness. I wondered about this hero of Methodism, John Wesley, referenced in sermons, whose life events were so beautifully depicted in the stained glass windows. I sat in the chapel, or lay in the pews, praying for “eyes to see and ears to hear.” As palm leaves blew against the outside of the flat panels, my internal chatter began to quiet and the windows began to come alive.
A famous patron of stained glass art, Abbot Suger of Saint-Denis, used abbey wealth to make stained glass windows larger and more beautiful because he believed light to be the manifestation of God himself. In the 11th century, stained glass panels served to tell biblical stories to lay people who otherwise would not have learned them because they could not read. Scholars believe now the windows may have affected them more greatly than spoken sermons might have. It is often said of the famous Chartres Cathedral in France that people learned to “read the Cathedral” itself.
I have put words to six of the windows and am in no great hurry to finish. At this time in my life, as my youngest son prepares for college, when I worry about emotional storms and potential changes I may not be prepared for, I still tend to busy myself into escape. So I continue to be grateful for our chapel, and these windows, and my ongoing ritual of reading them. The stained glass stories of Wesley’s life have been a conduit of grace for me, a way to connect with the sublime, and in the midst of these days, to find sacred stillness.
Click here to see one of the author's John Wesley poems. Two others appear here.
– Jill Bergkamp is a published author and director of children’s ministries at UMC of the Palm Beaches, West Palm Beach. She also teaches at Palm Beach Atlantic University.