The original plan for the United Nations Headquarters included a tiny room for meditation, but an interfaith group called The Friends of the UN Meditation Room wanted something more. They found a friend and enthusiastic advocate in Dag Hammarskjöld, whose interest in spirituality was not widely known at the time. Nevertheless, the Friends provided public support for what eventually became a masterpiece of religious design.
According to the UN’s official introduction to the room: “Mr. Hammarskjöld personally planned and supervised in every detail the creation of the Meditation Room.” He selected the carpeting and the hue of paint for the walls. In the center of the room, he placed a 6.5-ton rectangular block of iron ore, polished on the top and illuminated from above by a single spotlight. This block was a gift of the King of Sweden and a Swedish mining company. In addition, an abstract mural, a composition of interlocking geometric patterns that is supposed to evoke a feeling of the essential oneness of God, was ordered by Hammarskjöld from his artist friend Bo Beskow.
The room was opened in 1957. Dag Hammarskjöld wrote the following text to be distributed to visitors of this room:
A Room of Quiet
We all have within us a center of stillness surrounded by silence.
This house, dedicated to work and debate in the service of peace, should have one room dedicated to silence in the outward sense and stillness in the inner sense.
It has been the aim to create in this small room a place where the doors may be open to the infinite lands of thought and prayer.
People of many faiths will meet here, and for that reason none of the symbols to which we are accustomed in our meditation could be used.
However, there are simple things which speak to us all with the same language. We have sought for such things and we believe that we have found them in the shaft of light striking the shimmering surface of solid rock.
So, in the middle of the room we see a symbol of how, daily, the light of the skies gives life to the earth on which we stand, a symbol to many of us of how the light of the spirit gives life to matter.
But the stone in the middle of the room has more to tell us. We may see it as an altar, empty not because there is no God, not because it is an altar to an unknown god, but because it is dedicated to the God whom man worships under many names and in many forms.
The stone in the middle of the room reminds us also of the firm and permanent in a world of movement and change. The block of iron ore has the weight and solidity of the everlasting. It is a reminder of that cornerstone of endurance and faith on which all human endeavour must be based.
The material of the stone leads our thoughts to the necessity for choice between destruction and construction, between war and peace. Of iron man has forged his swords, of iron he has also made his ploughshares. Of iron he has constructed tanks, but of iron he has likewise built homes for man. The block of iron ore is part of the wealth we have inherited on this earth of ours. How are we to use it?
The shaft of light strikes the stone in a room of utter simplicity. There are no other symbols, there is nothing to distract our attention or to break in on the stillness within ourselves. When our eyes travel from these symbols to the front wall, they meet a simple pattern opening up the room to the harmony, freedom and balance of space.
There is an ancient saying that the sense of a vessel is not in its shell but in the void. So it is with this room. It is for those who come here to fill the void with what they find in their center of stillness.
Care to read more about Dag Hammarskjöld?
ENJOY OUR INTERVIEW WITH HIS BIOGRAPHER, ROGER LIPSEY: ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm interviews Lipsey about his years of research into Hammarskjöld’s life.
PLEASE, help us spread the news to friends: Click the blue-“f” icon, either at top or bottom of this story, and share this article with your friends on Facebook.
(Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion, spirituality, interfaith news and cross-cultural issues.)
- The Dag Hammarskjöld interview with biographer Roger Lipsey
- Dag Hammarskjöld designs United Nations Meditation Room
- A Quiet Heart (with a salute to Dag Hammarskjold)
- Dag Hammarskjold: His spiritual writing and peacemaking genius are shaping lives to this day