"Get Thee to a Monastery!"

I always loved the line in Hamlet when poor Ophelia is admonished to “get thee to a nunnery.” Indeed, I have long been fascinated with nunneries, monasteries, cloistered orders, so it was with great eagerness and curiosity that I got myself to St. John’s College in Minnesota last week which has at its center a Benedectine monastery. The purpose of the visit was to teach at the annual International Calligraphy Conference, hosted by the Minneapolis-based Colleagues of Calligraphy.

The first calligraphy group to host a conference of its kind in 1981, The Colleagues’ have arguably been the standard bearer since that time, helping chart the course for future generations of calligraphers.  Currently, what is most significant to calligraphers about their venue of St. Johns, is that this community is the patron of the first hand-written bible in over five hundred years. Pages of that bible, which is still in the process of being created, were on display all week, and several contributing American artists were on hand to discuss their role in creating the artwork for this historical document.
All this is well and good, but what held my attention all week was not the lovely trappings of bibles or monastic grounds (on which I inadvertantly trespassed in my quest for a nature-infused quiet haven), but rather the theme of the conference: connections. That and one of  the guiding purposes of the Benedectine Order: hospitality.

Connections, hospitality, hospice. As I set up my room for the conference I thought of my former work as a hospice social worker.  I was thinking less of the death and dying part, but more of the root of the word hospice, meaning hospitality. In fact,  in the middle ages, hospice referred to a resting place for weary travelers. Only in modern times would we come to associate the word with the care of the terminally ill. As I pondered these things, I decided that in the spirit of Benedectine hospitality,  my classroom would be a resting place for those artists either wearied by the burden of perfectionism, or at a crossroads with their art. Setting this intention and inviting my students to create a safe and hospitable community seemed as much or more important than what I had been asked to teach. This seemed borne out in the end when class participants created the most lovely, personally inspired books.

Interestingly, the Medieval Benedectine monks were not only noted for their hospitality, but for the illuminated manuscripts they produced.  It was thus fitting that the title of my class, “A book of Ours”referred to the medieval standard “book of Hours,” small prayerbooks which Christians could refer to throughout the day to inspire and strengthen their faith.  These prayer books might include elaborate illuminations, decorations, and of course calligraphy, or be more modest in their make and appearance.  The purpose of my class was not to imitate these books, but to be inspired by them in making our own contemporary, personally meaningful ones. Rather than solely relying on the words of others, we would furthermore use our own words as “sacred texts.”  As I saw these books take form and shape, each unique to its maker, I was struck by how powerful a safe and loving community can be in helping one move past personal hindrances such as fear.

Connections. On the final day of the conference, participants set up sharing tables on which they put the artwork they had produced during the week.  The rather drab, unremarkable gym which had served as a cafeteria (while a new one was being built) became alive with colors, marks, gestures, painting, writing, calligraphy. On one end there were large brilliant canvases with splashes of color juxtaposed with carefully painted calligraphy. At the other end were exquisite book page layouts in progress, black sumi marks dancing in space with lovely calligraphy linking together all the design elements. In the middle of the room were the simple and breath-taking pencil drawn Romans which stood out for their lack of guile or pretense. And in our corner were painted tyvek-covered books which upon opening revealed gems of paintings, writing and marks–each a reflection of the makers’ inner world.  As I walked through this communal art-sharing revelry, taking in these glorious and spirited displays of discipline and play, I was struck again by how this had come about: through loving connections with one another, both teachers and participants, which inspired trust, and through our hosts who had asked us to treat each other as we would Christ.

I am home now, far from the monastic gardens, the lake of Woebegone (sp?) fame, the mediocre institutional food,  the new friends and old ones whom I already miss.  Facebook or e-mail will keep me connected with everyone, and though I am more drawn to the archetype of Avalon than a monastic cloister,  the Benedectine spirit of hospitalit guides my Way.

3 Comments

  1. This is a really lovely reflection on your visit to Saint John’s. I love the focus on hospitality, and the medival meaning of the word hospice, which I did vaguely remember. Thanks for posting,
    Cari

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  2. Thanks, Cari, for reading. I spent a good part of the afternoon writing…and could have gone on, but this is a partial distillation of my experience….

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  3. Thank you, Sharon…for being YOU! I have learned so much from you and desire your calmness and confidence. Taking classes with/from you has really helped me develop my OWN style and not worry what others are doing or thinking. You are such a gem to me and everyone around you. Thank you! Love Trish

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