Friday, December 18, 2009

Saint John's Abbey Christmas Tree

I just had to post this wonderful video of the Christmas tree being pulled through the doors of the Great Hall at Saint John's Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota, five miles up the road. The monks cut down a giant tree from their arboretum (they have plenty) each year for this space, and it's always spectacular.

We kind of marvel at the scale of what the monks do. They have a very well-run Arboretum, and bring school children through on field trips and tours each year, as well as host an immensely popular maple syrup festival out at their sugar shack, where they make 80-150 gallons of syrup each year. This year, after long considering building a wind turbine to generate some of their energy, they instead have begun a gigantic solar field on one of their outlying properties. It will mean less noise for the neighbors!

The monks are also responsible for The Saint John's Bible, a commission of the first hand-written, hand-illuminated Bible since the 16th century and the invention of the printing press. (I wrote the web site and also two books on the art of the Bible, which can be found here.) They have a woodworking shop that makes high quality furniture, and a pottery with the largest woodburning kiln in the United States. (This last kind of bugs me-- no one needs a kiln the size of a warehouse, and I don't really see the point. It seems inefficient. Why not have more firings in a smaller kiln? I am not convinced.) 

The Abbey Church, with its distinctive bell banner, was also groundbreaking and monumental. I love it for its audacity and although I'm not a fan of that much concrete, I do love the choir stalls and altar, the wood and tiles and stone. Praying there, you do feel part of a community.

I'm an Oblate of this abbey, though with my move just five miles down the road to St. Joseph and changing jobs from that campus to the women's community, Saint Benedict's Monastery, I feel less connected there. And now, living and working in such a female environment, I do experience the abbey differently. It is quite a male space and place. Yesterday, I was reminded by a friend of an important experience I had there. It was during the abbey's Sesquicentennial in 2006. I was invited by the liturgy director to write three poems, or monologues, or whatever I thought appropriate, to be read during a special evening prayer liturgy for the Feast of St. John the Baptist, the patron saint of the abbey church. The event was on June 24, and there were several hundred invited guests.

At the end of May, I moved from Southern California permanently to Minnesota. I'd spent the previous year at the Collegeville Institute at St. John's, which is how I got connected to the community. I wrote the three pieces, very much inspired by the Holy Spirit, I believe, while on a two-week residency at the Anderson Center in Red Wing, Minnesota. Then I flew to Southern California to get my things out of storage and onto a moving truck. I flew back and took a summer school class before starting a new job, living in a dorm until I closed on my house in Cold Spring, then living in my house in my new small town. I hardly knew a soul, though my neighbors were friendly and I did have one friend who helped me out a lot. But that weekend, I didn't have anyone to attend the liturgy with me, and was facing the prospect of a birthday alone, spent scraping linoleum off the dining room floor (yes, the dining room).  That evening I read my poems at the big liturgy, though they didn't make clear anywhere that I was the author of them, not just the reader. Then there was a big dinner-- I hadn't been invited but I went anyway, and there people started to understand that I'd written the pieces, and come up to me. Several Sisters came up to say how much they liked the piece on Elizabeth.

Even that day, only 2 1/2 years ago, seems so far away. When I see this video, it's like a land I used to know. I had lunch with my friend from Cold Spring today at the Saint John's dining hall in this same old monastery quad. It was fun to be there, and I was able to greet quite a few people. I was happy to be less lonely than I was that day (although I wasn't particularly lonely during that time). I was happy for the connection.

Here is the poem, based on the account of Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist, in the Gospel of Luke.

   (a villanelle by Susan Sink)

Like Sarah, mother of promise, I was barren.
Perhaps God would do for me what he did for her.
This was my hope, my prayer.

What could I do but be faithful, a daughter of Aaron?
Servants of Abraham and Moses, we have our parts.
Like Sarah, mother of promise, I was barren.

The Spirit of God prepared me to receive,
and the herald grew in my womb.
This was my hope, my prayer, speaking

for the baby who leapt in greeting: Blessed are you
among women, and blessed the fruit of your womb.
Like Sarah, I was a mother of promise.

How could we know what was to come?
We had life inside us, and that was all
the rejoicing, hope, and prayer we could contain.

They came to bring life to the world,
to turn children to parents, parents to God.
Like Sarah, we were bearing promised sond.
This was my hope, my prayer.  

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