By Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove
I’ll never forget my first visit to St Benedict’s Monastery in St Cloud, Minessota—a women’s community that was in the mid-20th century the largest Benedictine community in the world. As I walked into their newly renovated chapel, I was overwhelmed by beauty. I’m a word person and have to confess that visual aesthetics are not my forte. I’m grateful for artists in the same way I’m grateful for people who speak Arabic—I usually don’t understand them, but I know that what they are communicating is every bit as important as what I try to say with words. Every once in a while, usually with the help of translator, I ‘get’ what an artist is up to. But rarely do I have an unmediated experience of appreciating art.
St. Benedict’s chapel was an exception, and I took notice. As I got to know the community there, I had the same overwhelming sense: these women—almost all over the age of 70—were simply beautiful. As I got to know them and began to listen to their stories (again, I needed the words), a moment of clarity dawned: almost every one of these women, when they were 18 and brimming with the energy of youth, knew two options for their lives. They could marry and become housewives or they could take religious vows and become artists in the household of God. Each of them, facing that decision, had made Jesus their choice. Fifty years later, my eyes had been struck by the results of that choice.
The women at St Benedict’s will tell you that the arts have always been at the center of Benedictine life. And they are right. I can only imagine that they and thousands of other women and men who’ve lived the way of Benedict over the past 1500 years would resonate deeply with the claim of Christine Valter Painter’s new book, The Artist’s Rule. While it has shaped a particular way of life and influenced untold millions through the communities of Western monasticism, Benedict’s Rule is also, in an indirect way, something of a guide to understanding the creative process in all people. I know no better testament to that claim that my own experience of beauty at St. Benedict’s in Minnesota. Here’s to art that’s not simply beautiful, but that also points to people who are fully alive.
Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove is an author, New Monastic, and sought-after speaker. A native of North Carolina, he is a graduate of Eastern University and Duke Divinity School. Jonathan is an Associate Minister at the historically black St. Johns Baptist Church, and is engaged in peacemaking and reconciliation efforts in Durham, North Carolina. The Rutba House, where Jonathan lives with his family and other friends, is a new monastic community that prays, eats, and lives together, welcoming neighbors and the homeless.