Posts Tagged ‘Donald Jackson’


We are Called to Be Artists

Last week I visited Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha to give an encore of a talk I’d given there years earlier.  In 2006 the museum had hosted a major exhibit of folios from The Saint John’s Bible, and by any measure the attendance of 70,000 people made it a success.  And while I would not dare to attribute any of its success to the lecture I gave during its opening, at least I didn’t scare that many people away.

Last week I spoke once again to the Friends and docents of the museum, and I enjoyed being back.  As in 2006 the exhibit of folios is well-staged, but it is quite different from its earlier incarnation.  In 2006 we had folios from the first three volumes of The Saint John’s Bible.  This time around the project is complete, and the current exhibit includes folios from all seven volumes.  That in itself is quite an achievement because — as I reminded the audience — the only thing better than perfect is done.

17280824-BDB1-4F35-AB62-E1A5E9ADE994It was nice to have the opportunity to reflect on the project in its entirety.  For one thing, I noted, the project didn’t turn out quite the way our scribe Donald Jackson had promised nor had we imagined.  To be specific, it took a lot longer to make.  We thought it would take a mere seven years.  In retrospect that timeline now seems ridiculous.  Notably, it took almost two years of planning before Jackson put quill to parchment for the first time.  All kinds of other issues cropped up along the way, and in the course of time seven became fourteen years, and that translated into a budget that more than doubled.

At the beginning of the project Donald Jackson promised to give us exactly what we asked for and more than we ever imagined.  We certainly never anticipated some of the snafus and other grief-producing moments, but not for a moment do I believe this was the kind of experience that Mr. Jackson had in mind when he made those promises.  To cast it in the most favorable language, it turned out to be a genuine learning experience for all involved.  But out of that experience came something truly wonderful.

9ED52866-F447-44A0-BB9C-F3F177EBA314If there’s one unanticipated challenge that I would single out for special attention, it’s the one I touched on in my talk last week.  When Donald Jackson delivered the second volume I expected it to be nice, just as the first volume had been.  But it wasn’t.  Volume II was nicer.  Then each successive volume proved to be even nicer.  Jackson too noticed the progression; and when he proposed doing the first volume all over again we replied with a resounding “NO!”  By then, however, it was not just a matter of done being better than perfect.  It was a matter of artistic growth and insight.  His understanding of the Bible had deepened in the course of the project, and the illuminations reflected that.  Had we let him start at the beginning again there certainly would have been greater nuance in his work, but at what cost?  Better to be done and perfect in this particular case.

I didn’t dwell on that issue in Omaha last week, nor did I tease out one parallel observation that struck me in the course of this project.  Not often enough do we stand back and reflect on the course of our lives.  Not often enough do we appreciate our personal growth or whatever achievements we’ve racked up in the course of the years.  Still, we’ve been allowed to be artists with the materials God has given us, and God gives us the time and opportunity to be creative with our lives.  We can only hope and try to make the most of the chances we have.  For all of us, however, the day will come when we’ll be able to say that the only thing better than perfect is done.  That’s the day when we stand before the Lord and he welcomes us into his kingdom.


+On October 7th I spoke to the Friends and docents of Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha.  The address was part of the opening activities of the museum’s new exhibit:  Word and Image:  The Saint John’s Bible.

+On October 12th we had our first snow of the season at Saint John’s.  It was nothing big; but nevertheless it was a jolt, considering that most of the leaves are still on the trees and have yet to change color.  We may have missed autumn entirely.

+The photos in today’s post show scenes from The Saint John’s Bible gallery in Alcuin Library at Saint John’s University.


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Wisdom:  The Icing on the Cake

Writing a sermon doesn’t come easily for me.  Sometimes that’s due to a text that doesn’t give preachers a lot to work with.  On other occasions the text can be a tough sell, such as when Jesus constructs a logical conundrum or when one of the cursing Psalms pops up.  But I suppose that’s why I’ve always thought of sermon-preparation and delivery as an art form — and a demanding one at that.  That’s why I try to pay attention to the reviews from the pews.  They come in real time, whether as a snore or a smile.

Last week I had the good fortune to work with a passage from the Book of Wisdom, chapter 7.  The book itself is nested in my favorite portion of the Bible, the wisdom books that include the Psalms and Proverbs.  As a monk I see that wisdom literature streaming through the entirety of The Rule of Saint Benedict, but on a macro level it’s always seemed to me to be the necessary spark of inpsiration for a life well-lived.  Sure, we need the Ten Commandments; but they merely provide the least common denominator, below which we slip into barbarism.  Wisdom, on the other hand, is the icing on the cake.  A life filled with wisdom is the highest art form that exists.  A life without wisdom is existence, in its minimal form.

What follows is the sermon on Wisdom 7 that I prepared for the Abbey Mass recently.  The writing came in one sitting, which in itself was a bit of a miracle.  Even better, fewer people than usual fell asleep, which was nice reassurance.


“For she is the refulgence of eternal light,

the spotless mirror of God,

the image of his goodness”. (Wisdom 7: 22b)

My favorite image in The Saint John’s Bible is an illumination of this passage from the Book of Wisdom.  To illustrate it Donald Jackson borrowed the wrinkled face of an elderly woman — a face uniquely serene and beautiful.  She reminds us of the power of God to show himself in the least likely of people.

This is a vision that Saint Benedict also conveys when he urges us monks to be aware of the face of Christ looking out to us from the sick and the poor, the young, the abbot, and above all from the stranger.

All of this runs counter to the spirit of the times.  Today we tend to pay greater attention to bombast and pretension, to the flashy and the glitzy.  But the words of Wisdom remind us of the shallowness of such veneer.  They remind us that wisdom is a spirit that is “intelligent, holy, unique, subtle, agile, clear, unstained, certain.”  Wisdom is nuanced, to say the least.  What wisdom is not is a bull in a china shop.  Let us pray that to each of us the Lord will grant a full measure of this holy and life-giving wisdom.



+On November 16th I presided at the Abbey Mass.

+On November 16-17 I participated in the meetings of the Board of Trustees of Saint John’s University.

+On November 14th the monastic chapter voted to approve a proposal to expand and complete the pipe organ in the Abbey and University church.  Walter Holtkamp was the designer and builder of the current organ, which has been in place in the Abbey church since its construction in 1959-60.  However, budget constraints at the time meant that the organ design had to be scaled back considerably.  In authorizing this initiative, the Abbey will contract with Pasi Organ Builders, a leading international firm headed by Martin Pasi, a native of Austria now living in the United States.  If all goes according to plan, and the fund-raising continues to be successful, we should see the dedication of the organ in two years, and it will be one of the premier organs in the country.  To say the least, we are excited about the prospect.

+In keeping with the spirit of Thanksgiving week, today’s photos show some of the produce from the monastery garden this year.  Once upon a time the monks grew most of the produce that fed the community and the school, and we still have three large storage cellars from that era.  The crop of squash shown in the photos in this post is stored in a ca. 1890 cellar, pictured at the top of the post.  I’m always amazed at the variety of the squash, which includes some squash that only a mother could love.  Gardener-monks estimate that they brought in three tons of produce this summer, and the rest of us monks continue to be grateful for their effort.

Happy Thanksgiving!


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The Saint John’s Bible:  Home at Last

Last Thursday was a very special day at Saint John’s, because on that day we dedicated the gallery that now houses The Saint John’s Bible.  The day was singular for many reasons, and not least because it fulfilled calligrapher Donald Jackson’s promise to “give us exactly what we asked for and more than we ever imagined.”  He delivered on both counts, though some of the deliverables were not entirely what we had expected.  For one thing, we didn’t have a clue how complicated this project would become.  It was also a good thing that we didn’t know how much it would end up costing.  And last but not least, it took a lot longer than the seven years we had all anticipated.  But the good news is that — twenty-one years and eleven months after Donald Jackson and I first discussed this — the Bible that he promised now sits securely in its own gallery at Saint John’s University.

IMG_7285Over the course of twenty years I’ve given a lot of talks on The Saint John’s Bible.  No two presentations have been exactly alike, and on many an occasion I’ve even gleaned bits of wisdom from my audiences.  The first instance that opened my mind to this possibility happened at the Phoenix Art Museum, where I gave several gallery talks.  I had just concluded my observations on Thomas Ingmire’s illumination of The Ten Commandments, when a young woman raised her hand.  “Father, I can see in the illumination what you’re saying, but here’s what I see.”  She then gave her own interpretation, and I have to say that I found her words very persuasive.  That prompted my response:  “Well, to be honest, what you have to say sounds better than what I had to say.”  I’ve since quoted her many times, with attribution.

This produced one of my first lessons from The Saint John’s Bible.  Never insist on having the last word when it comes to art.  That actually confirmed an experience I’d had some years earlier at the de Young Museum in San Francisco, where I’d had the temerity to offer my own thoughts on a painting in the course of a docent-led tour.  The chewing out that came my way branded me an art heretic, and I resolved never to do that again, even if I knew I was right.  Life is too short for getting into fusses with imperious docents.

IMG_7287An equally valuable corollary came from that experience in the de Young.  That day I realized that if the docent was wrong, I could be too.  I had to admit to myself the mathematical possibility that I too could be wide of the mark, on rare occasions, someday.  Ever since then I’ve steeled myself for just such an occasion by pulling out of mothballs one aphorism from high-school Latin — De gustibus non est desputandum.  Simply put, when it comes to matters of taste, it’s generally counterproductive to argue.  And given the times, who knows what might result from a minor spat.

My experience with The Saint John’s Bible has also confirmed the sage advice that patience is indeed a virtue.  When we announced the project, our press release quoted Donald Jackson to the effect that he intended to create something that people would come a thousand miles to see.  The day after the announcement, a lady in Bismarck, ND, called to say that she was on the way to see it.  I gently told her that this was going to take more than two or three days to finish, and that I’d get back to her when it was done.

That was twenty years ago.  Sadly, I’ve lost the scrap of paper with her name and number; but she knows who she is, and I hope she’s reading this.  If not, I hope one of her friends will tell her that we’re ready for her, finally.

So at long last The Saint John’s Bible is finished and at home in its gallery.   Will people come a thousand miles to see it?  Given that one visitor at the opening had flown in from Serbia, I can safely go out on a limb and offer a very decisive “probably.”  Will viewers have ideas about this Bible that differ from mine?  I hope so.  Otherwise, I’m in for a lot of really dull tours.


+This was a very full week for me.  On October 4th I took part in the dedication of the Genesis Gallery in Alcuin Library at Saint John’s.  The feature of this space is an 18th-century de-commissioned Torah scroll from Syria.  The space serves as the entry into the Bible Gallery.

+On 5-6 October I participated in the meetings of the Board of Trustees at Saint John’s University.

+On 5 October we celebrated the opening and dedication of the Saint John’s Bible Gallery, and that evening I was part of a panel of three speakers that addressed the topic of the day.

+On 6 October I took part in the dedication of the Dietrich Reinhart Learning Commons, a grand addition to Alcuin Library.  This completed the rebuilding of the entire library complex, and the numbers so far are quite telling.  In the four weeks of September 2015 — before the project — 12,000 people entered the Library.  In the comparable four weeks of 2017 over 32,000 entered the library.  Apparently the old saw still holds true:  build it and they will come.

+On October 7 I participated in homecoming festivities at Saint John’s University and attended the football game which hosted Augsburg College.  Saint John’s won that one 48-3.  That evening I went to bed at 8 pm, simply because I had not one ounce of energy left.


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img_3559One More Marvel in Our Eyes

All of us end up doing a few things that in a million years we never imagined for ourselves.  Many, if not most of these, land in the positive column and fall under the biblical heading of “a marvel for our eyes.”  Such was the case when I was privileged to speak a year ago from the pulpit of the First Baptist Church in Jefferson City, TN.  The church serves both its congregation as well as the students of Carson-Newman University, and I was there to speak on The Saint John’s Bible.  It was a happy experience, and I remember my time there fondly.

I describe it as an “improbable” event, because as a kid growing up in Oklahoma City I anticipated neither becoming a monk nor speaking from the pulpit of a Southern Baptist church.  In those days the Catholic population of my hometown was 3%, Episcopalians were 2%, and Lutherans were 1%.  In the context of the times, I’m confident that my Episcopal and Lutheran playmates –who were likewise scarce as hen’s teeth — also harbored no such ambitions for themselves.

Last week I returned to Carson-Newman to take part in the dedication of their gallery which will house both the Heritage Edition of The Saint John’s Bible and a fine collection of artifacts from the ancient Near East.  It was a lovely two-day event, and among the guests were Donald Jackson, the director of The Saint John’s Bible, and Michael Hemesath, the president of Saint John’s University.  Since we are constructing our own Bible gallery at Saint John’s, curiosity was one reason that drove us to see exactly what they had done.  It was well worth the trip.

img_3547On 31 October 2017, Christians in the West will begin a commemoration of the Reformation, an event that has divided them for 499 years.  On the eve of All Saints’ Day in 1517 Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door of the castle in Wittenberg, and that action unleashed a torrent of debate and conflict that endured for hundreds of years.  Only in our lifetime have the passions subsided enough to realize that what we share as Christians transcends the many items over which we disagree.

When we began work on The Saint John’s Bible we did so knowing full well that monks and Christians had made such Bibles for hundreds of years, but monks hadn’t made one in the last five hundred.  In the Middle Ages the very act of making a Bible from scratch defined what it meant to be both civilized and Christian, and we wanted to replicate the experience.  We hoped too that it would remind Catholics of the centrality of the Bible in our theology, spirituality and worship.  We also intended to make the point that, like our evangelical neighbors, Catholics and mainline Protestants were biblically-based.  There was no harm in pointing out what we all shared as Christians, and our hopes have scarcely been disappointed.

As Christians have begun to anticipate the 500th anniversary of Luther’s action, people have struggled over the verb that should best-describe our observance of the event.  Do we celebrate?  Do we atone?  Do we mark it with indifference, as if it were just one more historical date to memorize for tests?  Do we note it with regret?  Do we emphasize our continued separation or our gradual movement toward each other?  From my vantage, I think all these should be factored in.  But no one’s asked for my views, as of yet.

img_3573Still, if we fail to note how far we’ve come in the last two generations, then we forget that quite possibly it is the Lord who has quietly accomplished this.  On a micro level, the mere thought that a Bible commissioned by an abbey of Benedictine monks might someday rest in a place of honor in the library of a Southern Baptist university has to count as a marvel in our eyes.  The fact that Catholics and Baptists can together give thanks for the Word of God is testimony to the Spirit of God stirring in our midst.

It’s also important to appreciate this one event for what it is not.  It is not an isolated instance in which a few Baptists and Catholics swam against the tide to build a wonderful relationship that’s based on faith.  In fact, it’s part of a larger and longer story that stretches back to events that long-preceded World War II and the advent of warmer ecumenical relations.  This common awareness of a shared faith in Jesus Christ is something that has been developing slowly.  It’s happened under the radar and beyond the coverage of the blaring headlines.  But it’s happened nonetheless, and we should cherish it as a sign of hope.

img_3556It’s easy to turn on the news or open the papers and conclude that our world is headed over the cliff and that there’s little we can do to prevent it.  Worse still, it’s easy to look at all that chaos and justify our own inaction.  But despair and sitting on our hands would be a mistake.

In fact, there’s lots we can do, starting with mutual respect for the people whom we run into each and every day.  From our reading of Genesis we believe that God created each and every one of us in his image — be they Protestant or Catholic or Orthodox, be they Jew or Muslim, or be they people of little or no faith at all.  It’s a joy — if even a puzzling joy — to know that God expects progress as we try and live in this belief.  But we can do it, and we can do it in the confidence that the Lord is there to help us, every step of the way.

At least for me, and I hope for lots of others, this too counts as one of the great marvels in our eyes.  It’s yet one more sign that life itself is one continuous miracle.


+On October 3rd I presided at the Mass at Saint John’s Abbey.  Who is My Neighbor? is linked to the short homily that I delivered that day.

+On 5-6 October I took part in the dedication events for The Lynn and Lydsey Denton Gallery on the campus of Carson-Newman University in Jefferson City, TN.  I had a great time and once again enjoyed their warm hospitality.  Still, my one regret was that I was too early for the fall colors.  It’s a gorgeous landscape, sitting at the edge of the Great Smoky Mountains.

+The pictures in today’s post illustrate how late we are with the fall colors at Saint John’s.  The photo at the bottom illustrates a portion of the gallery at Carson-Newman University.

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IMG_0038The Stirrings of the Spirit

This fall marks twenty years since we at Saint John’s began discussion about The Saint John’s Bible.  At first it didn’t seem like such a promising idea, and while I liked the concept, I expected that little would come of it.  For starters, it was both ambitious and a little outlandish.  And so, with not a little skepticism, I finally presented the idea to the powers that were, and to my utter amazement we decided to commission the scribe, Donald Jackson, to do it.

A lot has happened in the course of nearly twenty years.  The Bible has been made.  It continues to go on exhibition across the country.  The Apostles and Heritage Editions rest in libraries and museums and universities from Rome to Sydney and points in between.  And by every measure it’s been both an artistic achievement and a spiritual inspiration.  In short, it’s accomplished most everything for which we hoped, and then some.

IMG_9895This Wednesday at Westminster Cathedral in London Cardinal Vincent Nichols will confer on Donald Jackson the papal honor of Knighthood in the Order of Pope Gregory the Great.  Such honors come to those who make a singular contribution to the life of the Church, and this has certainly been the case with Mr. Jackson.  He created something that had not been undertaken in nearly 500 years; and if this work was not inspired in the sense that the scriptures were inspired, I dare say that the Holy Spirit stirred within his imagination all the same. For that stirring of the Spirit we mortals are indebted to artists, composers, musicians and the like.  After all, they have had the courage to welcome the Spirit, whether gladly or reluctantly.

In any such project there is a great deal that gets learned, and we absorbed a great deal from making The Saint John’s Bible.  First we discovered some of the reasons why no major institution has bothered to do this in nearly 500 years.  We’ve also found that the very idea struck many as ridiculous or wasteful or irrelevant to modern life.  But balancing all his was the appreciation of how art can inspire and move people.

IMG_9906I’d like to think that the broader strokes are what we’ve come to appreciate most.  First of all, economics have been and continue to be an important factor in deciding whether to do something.  This is rightly so, but economics can never be the sole determinant about what is important in life.  Some activities will never make money, and chief among them are art and music.  The same holds true for good conversation, friendship, love and prayer.  Few if any of these things yield a financial return on the investment of time and energy or even money, but they all give joy and meaning to life.

I’ve taken great solace in the habit of Pope Benedict XVI, who  for years has played Mozart at the piano before retiring for the evening.  In his tenure as pope he had to be one of the busiest guys on the planet.  Yet, evening after evening, he set aside time for this one item.  Wouldn’t it have been better to play a CD or get in an extra thirty minutes at the desk?  Perhaps; but he thought not.

In the course of public exhibitions of The Saint John’s Bible I’ve seen people pore over the folios, giving every indication that they were somehow communing with these texts.  To those who studied, the pages mattered in some religious or even emotional way.  That explains why some people have smiled, and on a few occasions a few have even shed tears.  For a variety of reasons people have taken something with them after poring over verses and images.  That little bit of inspiration that Mr. Jackson and his team have shared with others justifies the entire enterprise.

That should serve as encouragement to any people who give of themselves to others.  We never know what, if any, impact our generosity of time or energy or spirit will have on others.  But of one thing we have to wonder.  If we don’t do the giving, then how can we be sure that the Spirit will stir?


IMG_0059+In my last post I noted that I had attended the recent dinner in honor of the new archbishop of St. Paul/Minneapolis, hosted by members of the Order of the Holy Sepulcher.  I  neglected to note that, because of the crowd, I was unable to meet him.  You can imagine my surprise last week as I sat at breakfast in the abbey refectory.  I happened to glance up from my shredded wheat, and there was Archbishop Hebda, preparing a bowl of cereal for himself.  The previous evening he had come to Saint John’s to meet a priest-friend who was staying in the guesthouse.  The next morning the archbishop joined the monks for prayer and breakfast in the refectory, and I finally got to meet him, over a bowl of cereal.

IMG_9927+On June 10th I arrived in London to attend the investiture of Donald Jackson as a member of the Order of Pope Gregory the Great.  Among other reasons, this was a good weekend to be in London, since there were three days of festivities to celebrate the Queen’s 90th birthday.  On Saturday there was the trooping of the colors, but another activity went on for three days.  In her honor the horse guards took their steeds out of their stalls, and for the duration they trotted around the city pooping all over everything while adoring crowds applauded.  It’s a local thing and not quite my cup of tea.  But it makes them all happy, as long as they don’t step in it.

+Save for the papal letter that confers the Order of Pope Gregory the Great, the photos in today’s post show Westminster Cathedral in London.  Begun in the 19th century, the interior of the cathedral remains unfinished, and someday mosaics will fill in the darker recesses of the cathedral.  Included is a mosaic of Pope Gregory the Great and Saint Augustine of Canterbury, whom the pope sent to evangelize the Angles and Saxons in 590.

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imagePerseverance Until Death

On November 27, 1995, I sat down to lunch with Donald Jackson, whose day job at the time was scribe to the Queen of England.  He and I had just spoken at The Newberry Library in Chicago, and we were dining at a restaurant called The Italian Village — which still exists, I believe.

Normally lunch should not count as a big deal, and there’s no reason anyone should remember a particular lunch nearly twenty years later.  To my credit, I can’t recall what I ate that day, save that it was probably Italian.  But I do recall the substance of our conversation.  That day Donald Jackson proposed what eventually would become The Saint John’s Bible.

That lunch no longer matters that much, save for the fact that last week I put a little bit of closure on a venture that began at that meal.  That day, when I told Donald that we at Saint John’s might be interested in his proposal, in my heart of hearts I thought I was crazy for saying it.  But crazy or not, I said it, and I now realize that the Holy Spirit may have made me say it.  And crazy or not, we did go ahead to create The Saint John’s Bible, and the rest is nearly history.

imageEven before we began, we knew we’d need help from all sorts of people — especially from the donors who would make it possible.  Since no one had done this in five hundred years, we had to guess at the cost, and we thought it might take seven years.  On both we were wildly conservative in our estimates, but thank goodness we didn’t know any of that at the time.  We also had no idea whether enough people would step forward to make this possible.  But to recognize them, we decided to create The Book of Honor, and it would list all those donors and their dedications.

Like everything else, creating even The Book of Honor became a bigger deal than we had ever imagined.  Recently, however, calligrapher Diane von Arx, working in collaboration with Donald Jackson, has completed it.  It’s turned out beautifully, and eventually it will go on display alongside the Bible, as testimony to how God uses us mere mortals to transmit the Word of God from generation to generation.  This time around, however, God has reverted to the use of human hands to make the Bible, rather than relying on machines; and the Bible is all the better for it.

Last Thursday I made my mark on The Book of Honor.  For that volume I had composed an introduction that gives a synopsis of the Bible’s creation, and in it I noted those who made interventions that were decisive in bringing it to completion.  Diane had then transcribed it onto vellum, in elegant lettering and illumination; and all that it lacked was my signature.

imageThat morning was as close as I’ll ever come to living out the stereotype of the medieval monk.  I’ve never used a quill pen; and I’ve never written on vellum.  But on that day I had ten minutes to develop the expertise, and in less than ten seconds it was all over.  There was my signature, resting on the vellum.  It wasn’t as elegant as Diane’s script; but I knew from experience that it was still a vast improvement over all those medieval charters on which illiterate nobles and bishops had inscribed their “X.”  At least I knew how to spell my own name, and I’d written it legibly.  And with luck it will still be there when someone reads it a thousand years from  now.  It’s likely my only contribution to civilization, and it chills my spine to think about it.

But the ease of a signature allows one to forget how long and how much work this took.  It also erases the memories of just how important perseverance was for its success.  In his Rule Saint Benedict suggests that monastic life requires “perseverance in the monastery until death.”  At first blush that sounds pretty depressing, like a life sentence in a prison.  But it’s actually a reminder of the importance of hanging in there for the long haul on anything that’s important.  It’s a reminder that most things worth doing are never easy.  Things worth doing well generally take a lot longer than we bargained for.  And that’s as true in monastic life as it is in marriage and friendship.  Perseverance through thick and thin is what brings anything of value to completion — including a Bible that was only supposed to take seven years.

imageOf course perseverance and the long view run counter to the working principles of our era.  The financial markets, for example, lose patience with any company that fails to make a huge profit in its first quarter of business.  Sadly, the same is often true in human relationships, when people are unwilling to give each other the time and space to grow.  And how many of us shrink back from challenges that take extended work and perseverance?  I know that’s why I quit piano lessons after one year.  I reasoned that if I couldn’t play the best of Beethoven after twelve whole months, then what was the point of all that practice?

Here’s what I’ve learned in the interval between November 27th, 1995, and last Thursday.  First, I have no future as a professional scribe.  I can write a fairly neat note card and sign my name adequately enough, but anything beyond that I leave to professionals like Diane.  They do elegant work that my own right hand will never equal.

imageI’ve also become adept at weighing the pro’s and con’s of new projects.  I’ve learned the power of arguments like “we’ve never done that before,” which doesn’t justify any course of action, one way or the other.  It’s just an observation, and that’s all.  I’ve also learned that ten reasons against doing something can be very compelling, but that one very good reason for doing something can scatter the other ten like so many bowling pins.

Most of all, I’ve learned the importance of perseverance.  All things of value take time.  They take energy.  And they often take a huge investment of our character and determination.  These are among the key ingredients to accomplishing anything of value in life.  And so, once again, Saint Benedict is not wide of the mark in his advice to monks, and to others as well.  It does indeed take perseverance until death to get the greatest of things done.


+On August 6th I signed my name in The Book of Honor, the companion volume to The Saint John’s Bible.  That morning I discovered that writing with a quill pen on vellum is not all that hard.  It just sounds hard because few people write that way any more.  The hard part is making the quill pen, which Diane von Arx graciously did for me.  Otherwise, we’d still be sitting there.

+Last week was very quiet at Saint John’s in terms of meetings and the presence of groups.  However, I was delighted to welcome one of my former students and his family, who currently live in Luxembourg.  The next day I welcomed an alumnus from San Jose, CA.

+To Greg Anderson I owe the picture of my hand, signing the page of vellum.  The two photos further down the page show freshmen registration, which has taken place on Friday’s through the second half of the summer.  The initial gathering of students and parents takes place in front of the Humphrey Auditorium, where the statue of Saint Benedict plays host.

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Crucifixion w_creditGood Friday: Jesus Embraces us from the Cross

We don’t often take the time to consider the artistic differences that distinguish one crucifix from another.  In one figure Jesus may gaze out with stately bearing;  in another he may suffer gruesome torment;  and in still another he has accepted death with serenity.  In each case the artist has picked up on an aspect of the suffering Christ and run to the logical conclusion.  In each case the artist has the potential to speak eloquently, or miss the  potential of the scene entirely.

I was particularly struck by the artist’s ability to teach when I first saw the illumination of the Crucifixion in The Saint John’s Bible.  Artist Donald Jackson had portrayed the figure of Christ in a way I’d not conceived before.  The figure of Jesus and the cross itself were pitched forward, almost as a kite ready to go aloft.  And while the corpus is abstract, the gold leaf conveys a sense of energy — an energy that almost explodes on the page.

This is not a defeated Jesus.  This is a Jesus who is undergoing radical transformation.  Death has not crushed him.  Rather, death has unleashed something truly awesome and powerful.  A metamorphosis is taking place.  Death has had no power to destroy.  Rather, Jesus has broken any chains of death, and instead a scene of intense drama has played out on the page.

Crucifix, 15th century, Abbey church

Crucifix, 15th century, Abbey church

To people scared to death of death, the prospect of transformation provides a glimmer of hope.  But to those who have undergone intense pain and suffering in their final journey of life, the figure of Christ at peace offers a measure of consolation.  The 15th-century Flemish crucifix that hangs in the Abbey church at Saint John’s is just such a figure.  Whatever he may have suffered, the face of this Jesus is tranquil and peaceful.  He is now beyond pain, and the inner beauty has returned after the agony of the cross.

There are so many varied crosses because we each carry quite individual crosses — as does each individual artist who tries to depict this awesome experience.  We each look to Jesus for reasons that are unique to ourselves.  Some look to him for backbone, some for guidance, some for consolation, some for hope that suffering will subside.  Oddly enough, all of these hopes that we direct to Jesus on the cross are ones he seeks to address and embrace.

Crucifix, Castile-Leon, 12th.  Cloisters Museum, New York

Crucifix, Castile-Leon, 12th. Cloisters Museum, New York

In the next few days we will celebrate the Triduum, the most solemn days of the Christian calendar.  On Good Friday we will experience the liturgy of the passion, which has the potential to summon to our imagination all of the varied crosses we have seen, and all of the crosses that we carry.  Each of these images contributes somehow to our understanding, because Jesus on the cross embraces the meaning of it all.  He does indeed suffer unbelievably.  He does forgive.  He is compassionate.  He is serene.  And ultimately he is triumphant — because he conquers the cross and reaches out to each of us.

Throughout Christian history there have been several strands of theology that attempted but ultimately fell short in describing the full reality of our belief in Jesus Christ.  For better or for worse we have called those heresies, and we rejected them not for reasons of intolerance but simply because they took us in the wrong direction.  Among those who narrowed our understanding of Jesus were the docetists, who denied the humanity of Jesus.  According to them the crucifixion was an illusion, because Jesus had no body which could be tortured.  It was all a ruse to trick the devil and to rescue souls from the prison of an intrinsically evil body.

Saint Alban's Abbey

Saint Alban’s Abbey

But orthodox Christians pray in the conviction that Jesus was indeed both human and divine.  Son of God, he embraced our humanity and suffered and died just as we all must.  In that he is one with us.  Just as surely our own sufferings are no fantasy, so is Jesus’ suffering no charade.  He authentically shares in all our sorrows.

One of my favorite prayers from the Mass is said rather quietly by the priest at the offertory.  As the drops of water mix with the wine in the chalice, the words softly come:  “through the mingling of this water and wine may we come to share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity.”  That ultimately is the mystery of the cross.  And it is also the consolation of the cross for all of us who are confused or suffer or are tortured by life.  Frail and mortal as we all are, Jesus comes to remind us that we have within us the life of God.  From the cross Jesus invites us to share in his divinity, just as he has shared in our humanity.

Dawn at Saint John's Abbey

Dawn at Saint John’s Abbey


+On March 21st I attended a reception and luncheon for friends and alumni of Saint John’s University.  It was held at the Franciscan Renewal Center in Phoenix, AZ.  Needless to say, the weather was adequate.

+On March 23rd I gave a day of reflection to members of the Order of Malta in Seattle, WA.  I had given the group its first-ever retreat day last year, and it was wonderful to see many familiar faces and to meet several new members.

+On March 21st our confrere Brother Shuuta Maximilian Oka renewed his vows in the presence of Abbot John Klassen.  This ceremony took place at our priory, Holy Trinity Monastery, in Fujimi, Japan.

+In anticipation of Good Friday, our confrere and junior monk, Brother Nick Kleespie, offered a reflection on the illumination of the Suffering Servant from The Saint John’s Bible.   You may see the illumination and hear his narrative at this link.

Brother Oka renews vows

Brother Oka renews vows

+Two alumni of Saint John’s University celebrated the election of Pope Francis in very distinctive ways.  On March 13th, the day of the election of Pope Francis, alumnus Chris Stroh, ’04, recorded an improvisation on the Gregorian chant “Tu es Petrus” (You are Peter).  In this video he plays the organ at the Basilica of Saint Mary in Minneapolis, where he is principal organist.  It was a lovely way to celebrate the arrival of a new pope.

On the day of the installation of Pope Francis as bishop of Rome and Pope, viewers at Saint John’s were startled to see Sebastian Gomes (BA ’07 and MA ’11) approach the lecturn to do the first reading of the Mass.  He was in Rome as part of Salt+Light TV of Toronto, assisting the Vatican Information Services in working with the multitude of media outlets present in Rome..

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Baptism of Jesus, illumination by Donald Jackson. (c) The Saint John's Bible.

Baptism of Jesus, illumination by Donald Jackson. (c) The Saint John’s Bible.

Coping with Ordinary Time

Yesterday, the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, was the last day of Christmas. That has to be a relief to everybody in the country, and especially to retailers, who had to be worn out by that tired old season. Now they, and we, can gear up for Valentine’s Day and this year’s early arrival of the Easter Bunny. But for those who specialize in being Christian, this is the moment in the liturgical calendar when we get down to the serious business of Ordinary Time.

To some Ordinary Time sounds a bit like time-out, or an interlude between far-more-important milestones. But I contend that Christmas is the real time-out. In a sense it is not real, because it serves as a bookend to something that is far more important in terms of daily life. It’s not Christmas that makes or breaks our character. No, it’s in Ordinary Time when we show who we really are and of what we are made. Now the party’s over and Santa’s no longer watching; and it’s time to get down to the business of life. And the baptism of Jesus says the very same thing for Jesus. It’s time to leave the nest and begin his ministry.

Christmas - Baptism of the Lord 014One of the first illuminations that Donald Jackson produced for The Saint John’s Bible was the Baptism of Jesus. In it John the Baptist, bathed in a purple wash, seems to be walking into the shadows and off the page. Jesus, by contrast, is a tiny gold figure in the center. He’s small, and yet the intensity of the gold-leaf suggests there is someone very important who is about to step out onto the stage. “He must increase, and I must decrease” are the words of John the Baptist, and the illumination conveys that pefectly.

But there’s something else going on. While somewhat stylized, John the Baptist looks every bit a human being. Jesus, by contrast, is abstract, devoid of facial features. If we believe that Jesus is like us in all things but sin, why does He look faintly reminiscent of a space alien? He certainly looks like no one I know.

Christmas - Baptism of the Lord 007One challenge that has faced every artist of the sacred is the problem of anthropomorphism. Most successful Christian artists — including Romanesque and Gothic ones — have chosen to distort the sacred figures in one way or another. In Byzantine art it is readily apparent, with the large vacant eyes and long narrow nose and small mouth. All convey one or another spiritual quality, suggesting that such a person has become the home of the Holy Spirit.

And if that was one aim of Donald Jackson, there is another that puts him at one with a long line of artists. He wanted to make Jesus look human, and the Gospel of Matthew tells us that he certainly was. But he did not want Jesus to look too much like any one of us. In short, as much as we in Minnesota might like to imagine Jesus and the Holy Family as Scandinavian, they probably didn’t have blue eyes and blond hair. The more abstract portrait of Jesus suggests that He comes to us in many guises and in many ways; and He will continue to do so, whether we like it or not.

Baptistry tree

Baptistry tree

As much as it is a disappointment to realize that those lovely portraits of Jesus with chestnut brown hair and fair complexion may not be accurate, we need to move beyond them. In fact, for those of us who are of European stock, there is a great corpus of Christian art in which our relatives show up in disproportionate numbers. That’s all nice, but it’s not enough. Jesus shows no ethnic favoritism, nor regional bias. In Him ther is no east or west, slave or free, male or female.

In his illumination of the creation of Adam and Eve, Jackson carries this to its logical conclusion. There Adam and Eve appear as east-African, looking every bit the creatures who have been fashioned in the image of God. I remember quite vividly the day I showed that image to some sixth-graders at Saint Paul the Apostle Church in Westwood, Los Angeles. One student in particular was absolutely mesmerized by what he saw. And I’ve always guessed that for the first time in his very young life he saw himself in the Bible.

Refectory window

Refectory window

The lesson here for us all is obvious. First, we must accept that there are people other than us and our relatives in the Bible — people other than Scandinavian, that is. But second, we too are in the Bible, along with everybody else. Whether Scandinavian or Peruvian or Egyptian or Thai, all of us are created in God’s image. All of us have a place in the biblical family. All of us are called by God, even if we think God ought to be just a little more discriminating about who He calls.

That, then, is part of the task of Ordinary Time. At the party which is Christmas, it’s pretty easy to let the bells and whistles distract us. Now, in Ordinary Time, it’s the long interlude in which we sleuth out the presence of Christ. And oddly enough, if we open our eyes, we’ll find Him all over the place, and especially in people whom we’ve scarcely considered.

Refectory: reader's stand

Refectory: reader’s stand

Various Notes

+On January 9th I spoke on The Saint John’s Bible at the Legatus of Phoenix chapter meeting. Happily, there were several members in attendance who had visited the Bible exhibit when it was at the Phoenix Art Museum. One had seen the exhibit seven times, which I found gratifying.

+For table reading in the monastic refectory we have begun a new book, this one by Dom Patrick Barry, OSB, the former abbot of Ampleforth Abbey in England. A Cloister in the World details the origins of the Manquehue apostolic movement — a lay Benedictine group in Chile. Since I’ve only heard the reading for one evening, I’m not in a position to comment on the text, other than to say that Benedictine life has an appeal far beyond the professed monks and nuns.

Christmas - Baptism of the Lord 016+Today all the Christmas decorations in the monastery come down. Ornaments go into storage, and the trees and greens go into the compost pile. Perhaps in a few years they will come back into the monastery in the form of a new generation of Christmas trees.

+On January 13th the students of Saint John’s University returned to campus to begin the winter term. “Let all guests be received as Christ” is the admonition of Saint Benedict in his Rule, and we strive to treat our students in the same way.

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