By Bradford Winters
Anyone vexed (as most of us are) by the ever complex relationship between the Church and the arts would do well to spend a few days, as I recently did, at the remote Benedictine outpost of St. John’s Abbey and University in central Minnesota.
In an age of ceaseless conferencing to mediate between the awkward dance partners of Church and Cosmopolis, those three ingredients—remote, Benedictine, Minnesota—may not sound like a recipe for resolution to much of the hand-wringing that takes place at panels and seminars on our side of the dance floor.
Urbane problems call for urbane solutions, and what do a bunch of monks know about the more “real world” concerns of Christians in the arts?
A lot, in fact, dating back to the earliest days of Benedictine patronage therein, particularly the book arts, when it was their monasteries that illumined the so-called Dark Ages with such masterpiece manuscripts as the Ramsey Psalter and the Winchester Bible.
“Laborare est orare” states the Rule of St. Benedict, a set of precepts that has formed the backbone of Western monasticism for 1500 years. “To work is to pray.” Apply that precept to the work of artistic endeavor—not theoretically, but actually apply it—and many of the vexing questions to do with Christianity and the arts might become not so much solved as moot.
From the time that German monks first migrated up the Mississippi River in 1856 with books among their few possessions, St. John’s has been a locus of artistic engagement with the world beyond its cloister walls, a fact visible miles away from Interstate 94 when one first sees the Bauhaus banner bell tower designed by Marcel Breuer rising above the Minnesota woodlands like the bow of some great strange ship.
And true to its Benedictine roots of preservation and patronage in the book arts, it is two of St. John’s more prominent endeavors in this field that recently brought me there for a brief stay: The Saint John’s Bible and the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library.
The first illuminated Bible of its kind in over 500 years since Gutenberg’s invention of moveable type, The St. John’s Bible is, according to The Smithsonian, “one of the extraordinary undertakings of our time,” a seven-volume Bible written and illuminated entirely by hand. As sponsor of the monumental project now in its tenth year of production with one last volume to go, St. John’s commissioned the eminent British calligrapher, Donald Jackson, to head the undertaking with a team of scribes and illuminators based at his scriptorium in Wales, where the tools and materials of medieval craft meet the perspectives of contemporary politics and modern science.
The project first caught my eye as an amateur calligrapher, and having written a piece about it for Image a few years back, I had become acquainted in the interim with the world-renowned Hill Museum and Manuscript Library (HMML) at St. John’s, home to an archive of over 10,000 rare books and 100,000 manuscripts on microfilm and in digitized form from the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and Eastern Christian traditions.
With The St. John’s Bible nearing completion on the one hand, and HMML on the other taking its preservationist efforts into various hotbeds of the Middle East where untold sacred manuscripts remain vulnerable to economics, weather, and war, I had begun thinking about a second piece to help introduce the mission of St. John’s to a broader audience in the world.
And with the “laborare est orare” maxim on my side, one could even call a work-related trip there a retreat! So it was that I came to spend a frigid two days in remote Collegeville this winter, where the Benedictines (and other staff at HMML) were every bit as true to their tradition of hospitality as to any other.
It doesn’t sound long enough, two days, and in some ways it wasn’t, but by the same token it doesn’t take long at all to drop into the revivifying routine of communal daily hours interspersed with one’s own vocational pursuits.
From time spent with the people and archives of HMML to a first look at fresh skins for The Saint John’s Bible in their newly arrived cases; from a private tour of the Abbey church also designed by Breuer to one of Arca Artium (Ark of the Arts), a collection of over 4,000 items in the graphic, liturgical, book and architectural arts donated to St. John’s by a former oblate, it’s hard to come away from the Abbey feeling anything but a clear sense of the relationship between the Church and the arts: they are lovers.
And like any true lovers worthy of the label, they will have their disagreements. They will be at each other’s throats as well as in each other’s hearts, so it’s okay that all the conferencing goes on to try to work things out.
But let’s take our cue from a credo at the heart of the mission of HMML: “Think in terms of centuries.” The Benedictines have been doing it for fifteen centuries now, and a place where rescued Syriac manuscripts sit digitally preserved in the shadow of Bauhaus architecture is a place worth looking to for inspiration as well as guidance.
Guidance duly symbolized by that enormous banner bell tower which on a winter’s day in Minnesota looks like the bow of an ark in a frozen sea of snow. Or, perhaps more symbolically, a frozen sea of time, whose collective Noah thinks in terms of centuries.
And as much as I, like any other, want to see an easier relationship between these two lovers still learning how to dance, I had to delight in the fact that at the airport in Minneapolis a TSA agent swabbed my Bible for traces of an explosive.
May the Word indeed retain a certain quality of contraband for those of us who, like the Benedictines of St. John’s, would counter the very culture we embrace, and vice-versa.