By James Stephen Behrens, OCSO
Skokie, IL: ACTA Publications, 2007
Review by Carl McColman
Windows feature prominently in this luminous collection of photography and pithy meditations from Trappist monk James Behrens. In this striking and singular glimpse into the multivalent world quietly hidden within a third millennium cloister, Behrens eschews stereotypes and clichés. Instead of pious images of monks praying or studying, he lingers over a heap of old tires, mops hung up to dry, an old street sign overgrown by kudzu. Like many religious communities founded anywhere from fifty to fifteen hundred years ago, Georgia’s Monastery of the Holy Spirit — where all of these photographs were taken and presumably all these words were written — is rich with the splendors of nature; the community owns over two thousand acres of mostly undeveloped land. Behrens celebrates this bucolic treasure with his singularly unromantic eye: his gaze finds an autumn leaf caught in a spider web, or ominous clouds rolling in over a lonely old barn. But I don’t mean to suggest that this collection of images lacks beauty or warmth: far from it. Tenderness erupts in a candid snapshot of a dove huddling in her nest with her young, while technically gorgeous images of a bumblebee or a preying mantis are almost breathtaking in their loveliness. Pansies, stained glass, green leaves and red bricks, all dance through the book, giving it a colorful, almost kaleidoscopic feel.
This photographer loves small things — a cat, insects, broken flowerpots, an abandoned birdhouse — but then pulls back to take in a row of psalters in the church choir, a jetliner soaring overhead, a vast pink and purple morning sky framing the monastery’s majestic belltower. Looked at one by one, each picture seems pregnant with a story, yet on the surface appears to have little to say to the images near it. But taken as a whole, this collection is a meditation on silence, light — and windows. We look into windows, out of windows, at windows, at windows through windows. Behrens teases his readers into gazing at light, light shining through windows, dancing on walls and floors in a kind of motionless reverie. Books are by nature silent things, silent at least until read out loud — something increasingly rare in our hyperdriven culture, although still very much part of the monastic world where monks take their noon meal in silence while one of the brothers reads to the community from an appointed text. But how can photography be read out loud? In this question, Portraits of Grace captures an essential silence, that even the heartfelt and at times humorous and whimsical accompanying text cannot break. If anything, Behrens’ words feel like whispers in a cathedral, interruptions to the silence that somehow manage to celebrate and even magnify it.
He’s a natural storyteller, and so most of the “talking” done in this book offers up tiny little stories, most often stories about ourselves and God, but also thoughtful glimpses into a world full of insightful new perspectives. We learn about the monk who became annoyed with the noise of airplanes overhead; of the songwriter who sang about thirsty boots; of the poet whose work cried out for the need of love. But always, Behrens brings the reader back to God, and to the self in relation to God. Not with a shred of smug sanctimony, but rather with simple, heartfelt, earthy commentary on the way things are. Not necessarily the way things should be (although Behrens, like pretty much all of us, does indulge in a bit of sermonizing here and there). Just the way things are.
The beauty of Portraits of Grace is that it is a religious book arising out of a monastic setting, but it embraces the very world that monks are popularly believed to have “left behind.” Here is a book that explodes the myth of dualistic monasticism, for it embraces dirt, clutter and decay as much as it celebrates light and colorful harmony. In the end, I suppose the windows in this book are there to remind us that this is not so much a “window into the monastery” any more than it is a glimpse of nature or “the world.” In Behrens’ world, windows do not separate the inside from the outside; rather, they integrate the within and the without into a quietly glorious unity. And so, this particular book, which is, after all, a literary/artistic window into the ordinary splendor of one particular monastery in the American south, is really a window into the inner monastery found in the rural wilderness within each of our hearts — a universal “monastery of the Holy Spirit,” uniting God and creation into a single unity of love — and grime.