Rowan LeCompte loved to talk! And he was a master at telling stories, particularly when it involved the building of this Cathedral and the people who made it happen.
He often would tell of his encounters, early in his career, with Philip Frohman, the Cathedral’s architect from 1921 to 1972. And from Rowan’s enthusiasm in telling these stories, you could see that Mr. Frohman played an important role in his life. One incident in particular, Rowan would tell with great glee, was when Mr. Frohman explained to Rowan what he expected to see in the stained glass windows of this place. Rowan said Mr. Frohman wanted windows that would be “strong in design, rich in color and with glass that would transmit as much light as possible.” In short, Rowan said, Mr. Frohman used three great words—“richness, clarity, and sparkle.” And the way in which Rowan carefully enunciated these three words made it clear that they had profound influence on him—especially that last word, “sparkle.”
That’s because Rowan was the complete embodiment of “sparkle.” His face, his eyes, his voice, his entire being—all exuded sparkle. So much so that it was infectious. It was hard not to smile when you were in Rowan’s company. Truly, a remarkable gift, but what makes it even more remarkable is when you realize the amount of hardship and horror Rowan endured throughout his life—born into a family that constantly struggled to make ends meet, wounded by the physical abuse of a violent father, fought as a soldier in the Allied invasion of France in WWII and witnessed unspeakable carnage there, and then to lose both his older brother, Stewart, and his first wife, Irene, each to suicide and be subjected to the dark despair those tragedies bring—without question, Rowan experienced enough pain and suffering to make anyone of us bitter, angry and resentful. But rather than let these things beat him down, he chose to fight back with the best weapon known to humankind—unbridled joy!
Rowan also had a fearless, independent streak in him. And being an artist, he would have to, in order to survive. Most artists I know who are successful, have an audacity about them, a degree of confidence and self-reliance; a hunger, a passion, a desire along with a willingness to push and fight to see their visions become reality. Because they know, no one else is going to do it for them.
And then when you consider the fact that Rowan embraced a traditional art form at a time when practically every other artist in the world was a disciple of the Modern movement, a movement that fundamentally rejected any references to the past, this had to make him feel marginalized, if not alienated from the community of his peers. A 12th century artistic temperament condemned to live in the wilderness of the 20th and 21st centuries.
But Rowan did not succumb, as some do, to simply copying historic styles in some mawkish, sentimental, romantic fashion. No instead, Rowan looked to the figurative, archetypal images of early and medieval Christian art and brought them forward into our present age. He transformed them to speak to a contemporary community of faith, while still allowing them to retain their character and wisdom that transcends all time.
Ultimately, Rowan wanted his art, his work to inspire a spiritual experience in you and me. He wanted us to come to know that Divine Mystery, that Ultimate Reality that exists beyond mere words that transformed his life and freed him from the burden of pain, suffering and death.
And herein lies the most valuable gift Rowan leaves for us, for you and me and that is—the reminder to look for the transcendent in the ordinary, everyday things that surround us, the kinds of things you and I too often take for granted—like, sunlight coming through a window, glass made in different colors, the beauty of nature, the laughter of friends and family, and the telling of shared stories. For in these simple, everyday things is where we can find the living God, full of love and overflowing with grace.
Rowan was one of the most spiritual people I’ve ever known, but I wouldn’t call him religious. I don’t think he had high regard for institutions, but he certainly loved people. He would say such things as:
- Music and light are redemption.
- Despair is the presence of death.
- Heaven is where there is laughter and dancing.
There’s a great deal of theology in such things, a theology that comes from leading a thoughtful and intentional life, inspired by unbridled joy.
In closing, let me share a brief story that in many ways epitomizes Rowan LeCompte: During one of my visits with Rowan and Peggy in Waynesboro, Rowan took me to lunch at a local Chinese restaurant—one that offered a buffet where we could pick and choose what we wanted. After the main course, Rowan urged me to go back for dessert, saying they have some very tasty treats. Once we got back to the table, I noticed Rowan had a bowl of vanilla ice cream and it was topped with sliced mushrooms! And I asked, “Rowan, ice cream and mushrooms?” To which he said, “What’s wrong? I like ice cream and I like mushrooms. Why can’t they go together?”
A wise person once said, “There are stars whose radiance is visible on Earth though they have long been extinct. There are people whose brilliance continues to light the world though they are no longer among the living. These lights are particularly bright when the night is dark. They light the way for humankind. (Hannah Senesh) As we sit in this glorious Cathedral, bathed in the light of its magnificent windows, may we keep in mind those countless people who will come to this space and numerous other places of worship, and find their way illumined by the light that passes through windows designed by the man we celebrate today.
It is an immense privilege to have known Rowan LeCompte—personally, professionally, individually and collectively. He contributed so much to the creation of this sacred space, through both his artistry as well as his personality. Since his first window at age 16, he considered Washington National Cathedral as his life’s work.
And now he takes his rightful place in the pantheon of those other notable souls who prepared this place for us on earth, those on whose shoulders we now stand—Frohman, Goldkuhle, Satterlee, Bodley, Vaughan, Bratenahl, Mackrille, Walker, Sayre, and Perry, just to name a few. They all reside now in that place—that heavenly city, where, as Rowan tells us, there is laughter and dancing, and perhaps, even ice cream and mushrooms.