July 29, 2010

“Spirituality . . . is a commitment to divine reflection.”
     — from Wisdom Distilled from the Daily: Living the Rule of St. Benedict Today by Joan Chittister, OSB

"Prayer is the filter through which we view our world." Joan Chittister, OSB

“Praying with Imagination” was crafted to deepen our capacity to listen attentively and live each moment in an intentional way.  Kathleen, our Prayer Leader, introduced us to several prayer practices, and each morning during the retreat, we sat as a group in visio divina, one form of prayer.  This involved gazing at an image from the St. John’s Bible and listening attentively to Kathleen’s reading of a passage from scripture.  She read the same text four times, using the following format:

  • During the first reading, we listened for words or phrases that especially resonated with us, and then after the reading, we spoke these words out loud to the group.
  • During the second reading, we pondered the passage and image again, and then shared with the group what we saw and heard.  I came away with many snippets of wisdom and insight articulated by the perceptive women in the group. 
  • We listened to the reading a third time, and then we shared a spoken prayer with the group.
  • Finally, we listened to the reading a fourth time, rested a while in silence while gazing at the image, and then listened to Kathleen’s closing prayer.

Becoming attentive to words as a catalyst for contemplation

I found it very helpful to use the art of the St. John’s Bible as a tool for deepening my understanding of the words.  The illuminations in this edition of the bible hold layer upon layer of meaning.  Donald Jackson, the artist who created many of these images, said:  “The continuous process of remaining open and accepting of what may reveal itself through hand and heart on a crafted page is the closest I have ever come to God.”  (from The Illuminator)

"Scripture, the Rule insists, must be read daily. How can we hear the voice of God if we are not familiar with it?" Joan Chittister, OSB

I am not averse to reading scripture, but I consider the Bible as one tool among many (such as nature, people I meet, craftsmanship, homemaking, gardening, essays, novels, etc.) to becoming a more spiritual person.  I hope to continue the practice of visio divina when I read the St. John’s Bible at home.  I bought two reader’s guides, The Art of the Saint John’s Bible by Susan Sink, to help me with this project.

Susan Sink's Reader's Guides help explain the layers of meaning in the art of the St. John's Bible.

The retreat activities were scheduled around Morning Prayer, Noon Prayer, the Eucharist, and Evening Prayer at the St. John’s Abbey Church so that we could, if we wished, participate in the Benedictine  monks’ daily prayer practices.  I attended Morning Prayer at 7:00 a.m. every day.  The monks chanted and sang the Psalms in dialogue from their seats around the altar, and I loved sitting in the presence of this ancient tradition.

The St. John's Abbey Church's soaring 112-ft. bell banner glows in the morning light.

The interior of the St. John's Abbey Church, illuminated by light through the stained glass windows of the facade.

A painting and collage I made during my retreat

The retreat I attended was called “Praying with Imagination” offered at St. John’s University and the Collegeville Institute in Minnesota.  When I first heard about this retreat in 2009, I tickled my calendar so that I would remember to register for it when it was offered again.  I do not consider myself a religious person, but the retreat appealed to me because it centered around using the St. John’s Bible as the focal point for prayer and creating art.

The St. John’s Bible is the first handwritten and illuminated bible to be commissioned in over 500 years.  The project was commissioned by the Benedictine monastery at St. John’s Abbey and the University there, and it’s head artist and calligrapher is Donald Jackson, senior scribe to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth’s Crown Office.  It will be issued in a series of seven volumes over a period of more than a decade.

I love calligraphy, so I have been purchasing the books of the St. John Bible as they have been published.  I own the first five volumes (the sixth will be published later this year), but I have to admit that three of the five are still in their plastic wrappings!  I had hoped that the retreat would inspire me to actually begin to read these spectacular editions of the bible (and now that I am back from the retreat, I know I will begin to read, ponder, and study them — slowly).

My volumes of the first five books of the St. John's Bible

Twelve women attended the retreat with me this year — about two-thirds of them were veterans of this retreat from prior years.  We were gently led by Kathleen, our Prayer Leader and a theology professor at St. John’s University, and Peggy, our Artist-in-Residence.  We formed a very intimate community for the week, and it was wonderful to be included in a group of such supportive, creative, and insightful women.

You can find out more about the retreat at this link:

To be continued . . .