Artisans of the Monastery

Artisans of the Monastery

Reflection for the Solemnity of Benedict
March 21, 2018

When this spring’s issue of “The American Monastic Newsletter” arrived recently, the cover listed the schedule for their summer convention to be held this July at St. Benedict’s Monastery in St. Joseph, Minnesota. The theme of this year’s gathering is “Artisans of the Monastery.”

The issue also includes a call for artwork for the ABA Art Show at the convention. They are accepting art work in any medium. In addition to the Art Show they have engaged to speak to the audience: Kathleen Norris, of Cloister Walk fame, and David Paul Lange, OSB, artist of the young Benedict and Scholastica drawings we have throughout the Mount. They also have tours of the Saint John’s Bible Gallery as well as other displays planned.

The newsletter arrived just as our own annual March Women’s History Month art show was being hung in the hall right along our community room‒just outside our gift shop, Chapter 57.

This much-enjoyed event showcases artwork produced by our own sisters, along with pieces from oblates or co-workers in our ministries. We’ve had photography, woodworking, fiber arts and needlecrafts, ceramics, painting, quilting, paper folding, candle making and numerous multi-media pieces.

The work remains in our gallery for a month and has just begun to be shown on our website, too. Some of the pieces are for sale, though others are designated NFS (not for sale) as they are already “owned” by someone.

Of course this display is for only some of our visual arts, the full range of artisans of the monastery would include our talented musicians, writers, bakers, our sisters who produce such stunning liturgical environments for our prayer, and those who arrange displays of all sorts and styles for celebrations and events‒not to forget those who bring beauty to our gardens and grounds, though at this time of year they are on a little hiatus! It seems the list is endless.

I don’t know if St. Benedict and the monastic leaders of his day, the 6th century, would have had all of these in mind when they included Chapter 57 in the Rule, but, we know that all of them, in our time, contribute greatly to the life, spirit and beauty of the community.

In the Rule of Benedict this chapter on Artists of the Monastery begins by acknowledging the importance of artists in a monastic community and encourages them to practice their craft. But, after that opening statement it spends the rest of the chapter warning against the hazards of such gifts: being puffed up instead of humble; receiving permission from the prioress or abbot to engage in the craft at all; and the evils of money and fraud in establishing pricing and selling their goods.

In today’s culture we look on personal gifts such as artistic talents as an attribute to be celebrated, something that brings out the individuality of each person. We are encouraged, even from childhood, to find and then develop our talents, especially ones that are rather unique to us. Of course there can still be the temptation to pride and arrogance—humanity is the same in all centuries, and in capitalistic countries such as ours, the idea of making a profit is inbred in the production of goods and services.

But, as Sister Joan Chittister's commentary on the Rule states, there is another viewpoint to consider in all of this‒perhaps the most important: “The function of the artist in the monastery is to make the transcendent visible… to touch the soul…to enshrine beauty so that we may learn to see it.”

Finally, in speaking of Chapter 57 I can’t finish without noting that this chapter, on a monastery’s artists, ends with perhaps one of the most quoted lines in the Rule of Benedict—from the First Letter of Peter in the New Testament. It fits with artists and, in fact, it fits with every part of our life.

Chapter 57’s closing words are: “…So that in all things God may be glorified.”

Sister Anne Wambach, OSB, the twenty-first prioress of the Benedictine Sisters of Erie, Pennsylvania is a native of Philadelphia. She moved to Mount St. Benedict Monastery in 1992 to respond to a desire to experience the monastic way of life. Previously a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph in Chestnut Hill, Sister Anne began the formal transfer process to the Erie Benedictines in 1993 and made her monastic profession in 1997.

Sister Anne has served the people of the Diocese of Erie as a teacher at St. Gregory's School in North East, Pa., from 1992-1995, and at the Neighborhood Art House in Erie, beginning as program director in 1995 and as executive director since 2005. She served on the Monastic Council from 2006-2010.