©Birth of Christ, Luke Frontispiece, Donald Jackson, 2002, The Saint John’s Bible, Saint John’s University, Collegeville, Minnesota, USA. Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, Catholic Edition, © 1993, 1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
“Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.” Pablo Picasso
Over the past fifteen years, artistic expression in its various forms has become a key element in what we do at the Benedictine Center. That shift began as we realized what a dynamic force art plays in the life of the monastic community. We see this in the first monastery the Sisters built that now is home to the Tubman Family Alliance. Prominent Minnesota architect Val Michaelson brought his unique genius to helping the Sisters create a functional space that also, inside and out, was a work of art. Visitors seem that same combination of function and beauty in the new monastery built in 2007. Over the years the monastic community collected a wide-ranging collection of art pieces, selected not because of their monetary worth but because they accented the Divine gesture of creativity.
Language for God's Movement
When the Art and Spirituality program took on a formal structure, it was simply the natural conclusion of a process of discovery, of paying attention to how art has been one of the languages with which this monastic community talks about God and gives expression to God’s movement in human life. Our early experience hosting exhibits led the monastic community to decide that the new monastery built in 2009 would include a formal gallery. Anchoring this space is a permanent collection of art by Benedictine women, many of whom are vowed members of this monastery. Currently, we host six exhibits annually, including a juried show each January so that every day the Sisters, their guests, and visitors pass by soulful displays of beauty.
We seek out artists for whom spirituality is a major source of their inspiration. Sometimes this is direct and explicit, other times it is more subtle and indirect. But the artists with whom we work teach us how their creative gift to imagine the movement of the Spirit in the world and in their lived experience finds expression in works of beauty. It is one of the wonderful dimensions of the exhibit program that no two artists are the same. Each follows where the Spirit leads and gives form as their heart is moved.
In addition to the exhibit program, we pursue artistic expression in other ways. S. Virginia Matter OSB continues to share her talent as a master potter and spiritual director, showing how the work of the artist creates a space for the work of the Spirit within them. Under her inspiration, we offer workshops and retreats built around one of the visual arts or writing. The written word, of course, plays a dominant role in divine revelation. We encourage writers at all levels to discover the power of their own words as they narrate their spiritual journeys. In a particular way, the rekindling of visio divina as part of The Saint John’s Bible Project sharpened our understanding of how image and word can work together to expand our sense of God’s presence. The illumination we use above (with permission for this website) demonstrates how artists find inspiration to let the divine word inspire great art.
Art deepens our appreciation of the various and varying ways in which each person experiences God. This means that art does not just make the physical environment more attractive nor is our mission simply to honor artistic gifts. Art in its many forms challenges us to respect and honor the differences among us in imagining and understanding the Divine. In this sense, the art and spirituality program cultivates a dimension of the hospitality that grounds a monastic community. Art is about perspective – having a perspective, finding perspective, and appreciating the limits and gifts of one’s perspective. This is the sentiment of the following poem:
by Victor Klimoski
sit on six chairs
facing the same wall,
the same painting.
a different image –
each one right,
each view incomplete,
drawing the eye
to where the heart
desires to dwell,
opening the heart
to what it can only see
through the eyes
of good companions.
In the end, art as spiritual practice for us is a powerful invitation into conversation and community. It affirms our belief that what we see as we engage the spiritual life and how we interpret the questions and insights that emerge draws power from good companions. These are people who open themselves to the perspectives of others, share what they experience with others, and ennoble the transformative beauty of the ordinary. As a particular and distinct language in itself, art helps us understand the bold claim S. Joan Chittister OSB makes about art and monasticism:
If, indeed, truth is beauty and beauty truth, then the monastic and the artist are one. Monasticism, in fact, cultivates the artistic spirit. Basic to monasticism are the very qualities art demands of the artist: silence, contemplation, discernment of spirits, community and humility…. It is in silence that the artist hears the call to raise to the heights of human consciousness those qualities no definitions ever capture….It is contemplation that leads an artist to preserve for us forever, the essence of a thing that takes us far beyond its accidents…. It is a capacity for the discernment of spirits that enables an artist to recognize real beauty from plastic pretentions to it, from cheap copies or even cheaper attempts at it….It is love for human community that puts the eye of the artist in the service of truth, stretching our senses beyond the tendency to settle for lesser things…. It is humility that enables an artist to risk rejection and failure, disdain and derogation to bring to the heart of the world what the world too easily, too randomly, too callously overlooks.
Learn more about about St. Paul's Monastery Gallery and art as spiritual practice.