Posts Tagged ‘Thomas Ingmire’


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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One of the more arresting illuminations in The Saint John’s Bible is of the Ten Commandments.  Imagined and executed by Thomas Ingmire of San Francisco, it is literally a page filled with letters.  In the center are the Commandments, arrayed in big black block letters.  Above them, the lettering shifts to gold as God speaks to his people.  And on the lower third of the page is a cacophony of letters that make no sense at all.

At first glance the page yields little for us to take away, but a short reflection forces out its nugget of wisdom.  Clearly, the stark lettering communicates the non-negotiable nature of the commandments.  The bold black states unequivocally that the commandments are exactly that.  They are not guidelines or points for further discussion.  They are not suggestions or a collection of good ideas.  They mean what they say — no more and no less.

Ingmire was at first reluctant to take this commission, but ultimately his hesitation produced a stirring affirmation of the true aim of the commandments.  They are stepping-stones on the path to God, and when your eye travels up the page, the golden words assure us of God’s loving care for us.  This experience of God is what the commandments are all about, and following them leads naturally to the experience of God.  Conversely, if you cannot follow them, then you invariably fall into the chaos of the lower portion of the page.  In such chaos nothing in life makes sense.

But Ingmire’s lettering harbors an important warning, and it points to the dangers of religious hypocrisy.  The commandments may lead naturally to the experience of God, but they do not lead inevitably to the experience of God.  The latter is true because of the all-too-human tendency to turn something good into a club to use over the heads of others.

In the hands of zealots, the commandments easily become hoops through which others must jump.  They become the new golden calves or stone idols to which others must pay lip service in order to prove themselves worthy.  They become the yardsticks for measuring others.  In the minds of Pharisees, both ancient and modern, the commandments are reshaped into the same old false gods.  When this occurs, the yoke meant to be easy once again becomes a huge burden.

Paradoxically, what makes the commandments so susceptible to manipulation is their inherent subjectivism.  At first blush they are laws, and short ones at that.  But following them requires at least a little bit of nuanced thought.  Can you really ever honor your father or mother enough?  How much is enough, and how much is not enough?  And how, exactly, do you keep the Lord’s day holy?  And when it comes to human beauty, where exactly is that line that separates appreciation from covetousness?

My favorite conundrum involves this command: “Thou shalt not kill.”  That seems clear enough, and at the end of the day you’ve either killed someone or you haven’t.  But before you award yourself a gold star for compliance, consider this.  If you didn’t kill anyone today, was it due to your devotion to the commandment, or was it the result of sloth?  Have you not killed anyone today simply because you didn’t have the time or the energy, or you were too lazy?  Commandment-following is never as easy as it looks; and for those who want to be judges, the possibilities are endless.

Saint Benedict recognized that monks too can tip-toe into hypocrisy, and there are references to this temptation throughout his Rule.  In the case of wine, for example, it is perilously easy for some monks to condemn as godless those who imbibe.  Benedict confronts this head-on in chapter 40.  “We read that monks should not drink wine at all, but since monks of our day cannot be convinced of this, let us agree to drink moderately, and not to the point of excess, for wine makes even wise men go astray.” (Sirach 19:2)  Let no one be surprised, then, that even in the sixth century monks disagreed among themselves.

Prayer also can provide occasion for hypocrisy, and monks after all are professionals when it comes to praying.  With eagle eyes we can spot the brother who sings off-key or who is off-pace or who slouches in his choir stall.  And that is hardly the end of it.  Benedict urges monks not to tarry in church when community prayer is over, lest this turn into a contest to see who is holier than whom.  There is a point at which monks — or anyone for that matter — can transform prayer into something diabolic.

What are we to conclude from all of this?  I would suggest that religious life is more art than science.  It is more about the search for God and the love of God, and less about religious account books and judging one’s neighbor.  We also have to admit that there is a certain satisfaction in concluding that I am better than my neighbor — on virtually any scale of measurement.  But ultimately that is a fruitless exercise.  It’s lonely at the top of the ladder of perfection.  If you’ve ever been there, you know how tough it can be with no one else to talk to.

[I am grateful to the staff of HMML at Saint John’s University, for providing the images of Thomas Ingmire’s Ten Commandments, from The Saint John’s Bible.  Used by permission, copyright 2002, Order of Saint Benedict.]

Monastery notes

On Sunday October 23rd the monks of Saint John’s will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the consecration of their own Abbey and University church.  At 3 pm the choir of men and boys from Westminster Cathedral (RC) in London will sing in concert in the church.  It will be a stunning experience, and the public is invited to hear one of the great choirs of the world.

My calendar

On October 19th Donald Jackson, artistic director of The Saint John’s Bible, and Fr. Bob Koopmann, OSB, will appear on The Today Show in New York.  In an interview with Barbara Walters, many years ago, Donald first spoke of his dream to create a great Bible.  Now he’s back to report its completion.  This is one of the rare times when I will ever encourage poeple to watch television!

Later that day we will meet for a small presentation ceremony at The Morgan Library & Museum.  Through the generosity of a St. Paul donor, The Morgan will receive a set of the Apostles Edition of The Saint John’s Bible.  Until now the Vatican Library has been the only institution with such a set.

On October 20-23 I will be in Danville, CA, to give retreat conferences to Members in Obedience of the Order of Malta.

Throughout monastic history the dedication of an abbey church has always been a big deal.  The drawing above depicts the design of the third church at the Abbey of Cluny, and no less a person than Pope Urban II travelled to Burgundy to preside at the consecration.  Until the construction of the new Saint Peter’s in Rome in the sixteenth century, it was the largest church in western Europe.  In fact, it is reported that the nave planned for Saint Peter’s was extended by fifty feet in order to make it longer than Cluny.  After the French Revolution the monastic complex at Cluny became the equivalent of Builder’s Square, as people looted and picked over its stones to build homes and walls.  Today only one transcept still stands.

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