Saint John's Bible: Blessing Ceremony September 12, 1998

Remarks by Br. Dietrich Reinhart, OSB


On this 13th day of September in the year of our Lord 1998, we stand at a particular point of time, within a particular tradition and in a particular place -- a precious point in time, the eve of what Pope John Paul II calls "the Great Jubilee"; an ancient tradition shaped by our Holy Father Benedict who counseled: "... every time you begin a good work, you must pray to God most earnestly to bring it to perfection";[1] a remarkable place, holy long before the first monks arrived, built anew from generation to generation in surprising ways on a foundation of faith, hope and love.  Time, tradition, place -- I want to say something about each.


I began these remarks in the formal way: "on this day ... in the year of our Lord 1998."   The universal calendar which measures out our years is anchored at one point in time, "the fullness of  time," when a search which begins in the heart of God culminates in the incarnation of the Word -- the Creator of All coming in search of humankind, coming in love, coming in person, speaking of God's own self, and showing the path by which God may be reached.[2]  We remember the election of Abraham and the chosenness of the People of Israel, a covenant of love given by God, never to be diminished or rescinded.  We remember God's revelation to Moses and the Exodus, the prophets, the universal call to justice. 

And we remember the miracles and teaching of Jesus, his death on a cross, the empty tomb.  What is of the utmost significance to us is that we remember all of this because of a band of disciples, coming together in Word and Sacrament, "dwelling in the heart of God" through the love of Jesus Christ, truly risen from the dead.   They kept memory alive, kept it alive by talk and worship, in the concrete realities of community.  And ultimately pen was put to papyrus and parchment and the story was set forth of a "mystery hidden throughout the ages and generations, but now revealed."[3] What came to be seen as the "Bible" was copied by hand, over and over again, a work of memory and love, enshrined at the heart of one faith community after another.  

Throughout the first millennium after the birth of Jesus Christ, a great number of communities bearing Christ's name sprang up and flourished.  Gospel and culture intersected and diverged in ways only the subtlest among us understand.  But the testimony of violence and upheaval is more easy to read; the weakening and destruction of one Christian community after another can be plotted.  But so can the trajectory of Christian communities which survived and regrouped, upheld by the living presence of Jesus Christ in Word and Sacrament, until those who once were enemies became friends and what had been mere islands of Christian life gave birth to remarkable Christian cultures which still shine as lights in the darkness.  Always, the life of Christian community and culture was undergirded and refreshed by the application of pen to parchment, by scribes whose names we scarcely know, but through whose artistry the Word of God entered human hearts.

This second millennium, which is now fast ending, was born amidst the great sundering of unity between the ancient Christian communities of East and West, and half way into its course Western Christendom fractured into hostile, at times warring churches.  Yet in their  tragic separation, God did not abandon these communions of faith.  Within each, wondrous traditions of spirituality and worship, art and letters thrived, nourished by the living presence of Jesus Christ in Word and Sacrament.   The application of pen to parchment by a multitude of scribes mediated the preservation and growth of Christian life in the first half of this second millennium.  As we all know, in this millennium's final half, Christian life has been indelibly stamped by the word printed on paper and now begins to be nourished by the word presented through the workings of cyberspace.  "The Word of God is living and active,"[4] in ways beyond our ken, in modalities that are ever changing and new, limited only by the trajectory of human ingenuity.  

Yet human ingenuity has a way of getting carried away with itself, going off on a tangent, stretching outward without at the same time entering more deeply within.  If as we enter the third millennium, one Bible is being written by hand -- laboriously, joyfully, over many years -- that is a powerful sign to us and to the world.  It draws attention to the origin of our hope, the Word which is passed on from one generation to the next, a work of memory and simple, unaffected and enduring love.



Within the millennial sweep of time, we draw on a fifteen hundred year old Benedictine tradition which is based directly on the Bible.  Monastic worship shapes daily life and each year's cycle, and it is replete with biblical texts, recited and sung, proclaimed and pondered.  For the individual monk few activities are more important than the simple, unadorned practice of each day reading a short passage of Scripture -- a practice which goes by the name of lectio and concentrates on placing the biblical passage in dialogue with one's own life. 

Lectio cultivates an honest sense of self and it opens one up to newness of life. There is a  remarkable concreteness in how St. Benedict talks of the Bible.  He writes,  "What page, what passage of the inspired books of the Old and New Testaments is not the truest of guides for human life?"[5]  That statement arises obviously out of the practice of lectio, but perhaps not a little of its concreteness comes from long experience of copying each passage, each page of the Bible by hand, an essential monastic activity which allowed all monks to join together in monastic worship and on their own do lectio. 

A tradition of calligraphy and learning based on the Bible grew up in monasteries and, as we know, served to preserve much of what we know about classical culture.   Moreover, within the communal life oriented so directly around the Word of God, something of the ethos of early Christian communities lived on.  The great divides within Christianity made access to that original ethos narrower and narrower, but monasteries -- because of their antiquity and almost in spite of themselves -- remained precious entry points into the common heritage of all Christians. 

If as we enter the third millennium, one Benedictine monastery is linked to a Bible that is being written by hand -- laboriously, joyfully, over many years -- that is a powerful contribution to the entire world.  It draws attention to the core inspiration of Benedictine monasticism, its relationship to the Word of God.  And it can help thereby to create wider and more comprehensible contact with the spiritual riches which are the common heritage of all God's people.



It was to this place in the center of Minnesota, that a handful of Benedictine monks arrived 142 years ago.  They hoped to establish a flourishing monastic community, but at every turn they were pulled away from one another because of the needs of people outside the monastery.  It was not exactly the textbook way to start a monastery, it created great tensions within the community as generations of monks labored with great generosity far afield from the cloister, while others worked, seemingly against the odds, to create and sustain a durable monastic ethos here.  A great organizing principle of Saint John's history is that monks can hold to diverse ways for quite a long time, united by implicit understandings, often understated, until suddenly the ground shifts in a pronounced and surprising way and a new explicit common purpose is forged.

·    Education began here with an overwhelming focus on short term, very practical preparation for the world of commerce; but the faculty -- who taught those courses well -- themselves drank from other intellectual streams and over time they remade Saint John's University into the four year residential liberal arts college which we know today. 

·    Not surprisingly spirituality began at Saint John's in a devotional, pietistic mode;  but  attention to the actual content of worship eventually changed this place into one of the great seedbeds of the liturgical movement.

·    Saint John's began as one of many outposts of fortress Catholicism; but the experience of religious plurality, however awkwardly it began, opened up ecumenical horizons forever stamped by the name of Collegeville.

·    The monks arrived with a number of rare and precious books; treasuring them gave birth to one of the great world class projects for the preservation of medieval manuscripts and more recently a remarkable collection focusing on the art of the book.

·    And a few artistic treasures initially made their way here to be housed in simple prairie buildings; and over time, a finely-honed aesthetic sense developed here and became manifest in magnificent painting and sculpture, ceramics and architecture.

Four year residential liberal arts education, the liturgical movement, ecumenism, cultural preservation, art and architecture -- these have become signature characteristics of Saint John's.  But they were not present full-blown from the start; they each needed some catalyst, some re-aligning of priorities, some re-casting of the original vision.  If as we enter the third millennium, one Bible is being written by hand -- laboriously, joyfully, over many years, and under Saint John's aegis -- that is a sign of attention to our deepest monastic wellsprings, something which has been occurring for generations and which, in the years to come, can actually change the ground on which we stand, strengthening the quality and integrity of all that we do.


Tonight we ask Mr. Donald Jackson to accept our call to write the Bible by hand.  This call comes from deep within Saint John's.  It arises out of the age old Benedictine monastic tradition.  And it partakes of "the Great Jubilee" of our redemption.  Calligraphers are not new to Saint John's.  Three times in the last decades hundreds of calligraphers have come here for an intense period of study and renewed creativity.  In 1981 our confrere, Fr. Hilary Thimmesh, greeted these calligraphers with words that are tested and true:

The hand of God is a writer's hand, graceful in repose, nimble in action, transposing thought into graphic symbols, fixing on the receptive surface words of unimaginable power and glory, of love beyond telling, of destiny beyond the heavens yet nearer than light to eye, thought to the mind ...  The calligrapher does well what many do heedlessly and hastily, what machines do mindlessly, and by cultivating the art of writing reminds us all of the pure joy of a creation good in all its designs and superlatively good in the endowments of the human mind.  For beauty bears witness -- to joy, joy in making, joy in being ...

Donald, an arduous and joyful work opens before you.  Others long gone have undertaken that work and, because of their dedication, the memory of God breaking into our world has been renewed and passed down even unto our own age.  You will work in the tradition of so many of our long-forgotten monastic forebears and will know, in ways scarcely any of us can, what it means to be such an instrument in the hand of God.   And you enter now as friend onto the holy ground on which this community lives and moves and has its being.  Our hopes are great and our commitment to stand with you is firm.  And so I now call you to come forward to accept the task as scribe of The Saint John's Bible.



[1]RB 1980, Prol.4.

[2]John Paul II, Tertio Mellenio Adveniente (As the Third Millennium Draws Near), 1, 6-7, 40.

[3]Colossians 1:26.

[4]2 Timothy 2:9, Hebrews 4:12.

[5]RB 1980, 73.3.