Chapter Room Art

 

Fr. Gregory de Wit, an artist-monk of the Abbey of Mont César in Belgium, spent a number of years at Saint Meinrad, as an artist in residence. One of his commissions was to decorate the Chapter Room. Although the general thrust of the paintings is to depict all creation as subject to Christ, a secondary theme was to convey some of the basic values of the holy Rule of St. Benedict. The project was dedicated March 21, 1943.



The Chapter Room is a most private space of the monastic community. In general, it is not a space open to the public. Although it is no longer within the cloister nor in daily use, as it was when it was decorated, it is the place that the monastic family transacts all its most important discussions and where all the major decisions relative to the community and its possessions take place. The space had been designated for the Chapter Room from the time of its building in what was known as the library wing. It had been in use, in a very plain condition for almost 30 years. The project was completed within six months and is the fruit of Fr. Gregory’s own reflections on a Christian and Benedictine worldview.

A physical description of the space is taken from a pamphlet written by Archabbot Ignatius Esser, OSB. “The room is rectangular, almost twenty-five and a half feet wide. The height is almost 13 feet. The walls are of solid sandstone, twenty-seven inches thick. Floor and ceiling are reinforced concrete construction… Heavy concrete beams divide the ceiling into eighteen fields or panels. The solitary door is in the middle of the east end wall. The north side and south side each have six pairs of leaded glass windows. Each single window is six feet and a half high and thirty inches wide.”

Ceiling
As one enters the door he is confronted with a very large image of Christ seated on a throne at the far end of the hall. That figure sets the tone. All the rest of the room is dominated by this image of living Christ, Lord of the universe, seated on His throne ready to reward those who have followed him faithfully.



The elaborate, colorful paintings on the ceiling depict all creation as subject to Christ. The monks in Lauds every day in one way or another call upon creation to bless God. Some of the expressions of the Benedicite, the canticle of the three children, are spelled out on the beams down the center of the room. The progression in the six center panels is from chaos and all material creation through the fishes of the sea, the birds of the air, beasts of the field, mankind, and finally angels. The twelve outer panels depict twelve signs of the zodiac thereby implying that the whole created universe, all space and time, comes under the dominion of Christ.

The progression begins with the panel nearest to the entrance. I use North South East and West to designate the beam on which the text is written.

1.      S-Benedicite montes Domini Domino Mountains of the Lord bless the Lord.

W-Benedicat terra Dominum (Dan. 3:74) Let the earth bless the Lord.

N-Benedicite montes et colles Domino (Dan 3:75) Mountains and hills bless the Lord.

2.      E-Benedicite flumina Domino. (Dan. 3:78) Rivers bless the Lord.

N-Benedicite cete et omnia quae S-moventur in aquis Domini Domino (Dan. 3 :79) You dolphins and all water creatures, bless the Lord.

W-Benedicite maria Domino (Dan. 3:78) Seas, bless the Lord.

3.      N-Benedicite universa germinantia S-in terra Domini Domino (Dan. 3:36) Everything growing on the earth, bless the Lord.

W-Benedicate omnes volucres E-Coeli Domini Domino. (Dan. 3:80) All you birds of the air bless the Lord.

4.      N-Quam magnificata sunt opera tua Domini S-omnia in sapientia fecisti.

W-Benedicite omnes bestiae E-et pectora Domini Domino. (Dan. 3 :81) All beasts and cattle of the Lord, bless the Lord.

5.      E-Benedicite Ananis, Azarias, Misael Domino. (Dan. 3:88) Hananiah, Azaria, Mishael bless the Lord.

S-Benedicat Israel Dominum. (Dan. 3:83) O Israel, bless the Lord.

W-Benedicite filii hominum Domino. (Dan. 3:82) You sons of men, bless the Lord.

N-Benedicite sacerdotes Domini Domino. (Dan. 3:84) Priests of the Lord, bless the Lord.

6. S-Benedicite angeli Domini Domino. (Dan. 3:58) Angels of the Lord, bless the Lord.

N-Benedicite coeli Domine Domino. (Dan. 3:59) You heavens, bless the Lord.

West Wall under the Christus:

Qui vicerit dabo ei sedere mecum in throno Meo sicut et Ego vici et sedi cum Patre Meo in throno ejus. (Apoc. 3:21) I will give the victor the right to sit with me on my throne as I myself first won victory and sit with my Father on His throne.



In the left hand of Christ:

Ecce veni cito et merces mea mecum est reddere unicuique secundum opera sua. (Apoc. 22:12) Behold I am coming soon. I bring with me the recompense I will give to each according to his deeds.



The twelve panels of the ceiling closest to the walls around the room are images of the Signs of the Zodiac, a panel for each one. The zodiac is “an imaginary belt in the heavens usually 18 degrees wide that encompasses the apparent path of the planets, except Pluto.” It has the path of the sun as its central line. The configuration of the stars month by month provides a foundation for a projected image month by month, much as we would search most nights for the big or little dipper. The traditional figures are Leo (Lion), Virgo singularis (Virgin), Libra (Scales), Scorpius (Scorpion), Sagittarius (the Archer), Capricorumus (Capricorn, the Goat), Aquarius (the Water Bearer), Pisces (the Fishes), Aries (the Ram), Taurus (the Bull), Germini (the Twins), Cancer (the Crab). Each panel also includes the symbol for the sign.



Walls
Right under the ceiling and on the walls around the whole room is the following text:

Ecce haec sunt instrumenta These then are the tools

Artis spiritualis; quae cum of the spiritual craft. When

Fecerunt a nobis die nocturque we have used them without ceasing

Incessabiliter adipleta et in day and night and have returned them

Die judicii reconsignata illa. on judgment day, our wages will be

Merces nobis a Domino recompen- the reward the Lord has promised:

sabitur quam ipse promisit.

Quod oculus non «What I has not seen nor the

Videt nec auris audivit quae ear heard, God has prepared

Praeparavit Deus his qui diligunt for those who love him » (1 Cor. 2:9)

Illum. Officina vero ubi haec The workshop where are to toil

Omnia diligenter operemur faithfully at all these tasks

Claustra monasterio et is the enclosure of the monastery and

Stabilitass in congregatione. stability in the community. (RB 4:75-78)

This text conclude chapter four of the Rule on the tools of good works. Many of the aphorisms displayed on the walls are drawn from this chapter

The center of the East wall facing the Christus and over the door lintel is an image of St. Benedict with the words of St. Gregory in his halo, Gratia Beneditus et nominee (Benedict in grace and in name).



Immediately under Benedict the framework of the door is made up of two very austere looking monks bearing on their necks a plank on which are the words Jugum Sancte Regulae (the yoke of the Holy Rule).

One such image on the north wall at the west end is of a seated monk holding his finger to his lips in a sign for silence. The text around the image is: Multum loqui non amare (Ch. 4:52), which translates as: “not to love much speaking,” or “prefer moderation in speech.” The passage is one of the good works of Chapter 4 of the Rule of St. Benedict to be a tool in the workshop, which is the monastic enclosure.


Silence is important to St. Benedict. He devotes a whole chapter (6) to it. However, it is not absolute. There is a time to be silent and a time to speak. One is less apt to offend against charity and the community (grumbling) by tempering speech.

The monk in the image seems to be at meditation in his cell. His finger to his lips may not be a sign to others, but to himself. The clutter and clatter of inner voices need to be controlled. External silence is less than half the battle. Only with inner quiet are we likely to hear the voice of God.

The monastic is admonished to avoid any excess in speaking, to nurture quiet, and to listen in the silence for the voice of the Lord.

2. Vitam aeternam omni concupiscentia spirituali desiderare. (Ch. 4:46) “Yearn for everlasting life with all holy desire” or “To desire everlasting life with all spiritual longing.” The monk is kneeling in prayer before a crucifix. His body language is that of one with intense focus. DeWit uses this image to convey that desire for God, to seek God, requires not just a vague sentiment, but a physical attention to God and the eternal life promised.


This strong desire undergirds everything the monk does. All temporal and worldly values pale in the light of this intense concentration on eternal life. “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and suffer the loss of his soul?” “Let us do now that which will profit us for all eternity.” (Pro. 44)

It is in the light of this focus on eternal life that St. Benedict says: “Live in fear of judgment day and have a great horror of hell. Yearn for everlasting life with holy desire. Day by day remind yourself that you are going to die.” (Ch. 4:44-47)

Our motives for seeking eternal life progress from fear of judgment, and punishment of hell, to a holy desire for everlasting life with God. Ultimately, one might hope, that it can be said of us: “It is love that impels them to seek everlasting life.” (Ch. 5:19)

3. Pacem falsam non dare. (Ch. 4:25) “Never give a hollow greeting of peace. Or turn away when someone needs love.” (Ch. 4:25-26) This could also be translated as “Not to make a feigned peace,” or “Not to forsake charity.” The monk lives in community. Genuine love for the brethren lies at the heart of the monastic endeavor. Anything at all that would disrupt that peace is to be avoided, and every effort is to be made to foster it.


Although it has broader implication, giving a false peace is an act of an unforgiving heart. We are called in liturgical ceremonies to express a word of peace. To be phony in such a moment is against a fundamental principle of the Gospel that we must forgive one another.

In the Our Father, which we pray publicly four times a day, we say: “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who have sinned against us.” St. Benedict quotes the Gospel in saying: “If you have a dispute with someone make peace with him before the sun goes down.” (Pro. 73) He also counsels, “Harbor neither hatred nor jealousy of anyone and do nothing out of envy.” (Pro. 65-67)

Peace and joy are barometers of the spiritual life. Unforgiveness shatters peace and drains joy from one’s heart. Giving a “false peace” threatens the whole endeavor of seeking God.

4. Fratres sibi invicem serviant (Ch. 35:1) “Let the brothers serve one another” or “All the brothers…shall serve each other in turns.” Although this teaching addresses the need for table waiters, it is of a piece with the doctrine throughout the Rule that all monks are equal. Only those who are otherwise serving the community in some capacity that would make table waiting an excessive burden, or are in some way incapacitated, are excused from this duty. Equality within the community and the willingness to serve one another are pillars of Benedictine community life.


Along this same line, St. Benedict, in speaking of good zeal, urges: “They should each try to be the first to show respect to the other (Rom. 12: 10), supporting with the greatest patience one another’s weaknesses of body or behavior, and earnestly competing in obedience to one another.” (Ch. 72:4-6) Serving one another in charity and obeying one another are marks of a community of equals. The foundation for this principle is that we are all brothers in Christ, called upon to see Christ in one another.

5. Lectiones sanctas libenter audire. (Ch. 4:55) “Listen readily to holy reading” or “To listen willingly to holy reading.” Monks in the painting are shown straining to hear. The image is that of eagerness for the Word of God, or for any other word that makes us more aware of the Divine.


Listening is an important function for the monastic person. The very first word of the Rule is: “Listen.” Much of the discipline of the life is geared to opening opportunities to listen carefully and ponder what is heard. God who is everywhere speaks to us in diverse manners: through Moses; through the law and the prophets (Cf. Heb; 1:1) through Jesus and the Gospels; through the rest of Scripture and other holy reading; through the sacraments, especially the Eucharistic liturgy. Part of becoming aware of God’s presence everywhere is learning to listen for His voice. God speaks to the monk through the superiors and, not least of all, through the brothers.

The “trick” is learning to listen. Many good works enhance the opportunities to use the ears of our hearts. They are important to the spiritual life. Listening willingly to holy reading, whether public or private, is one of them. The Psalmist says: “You do not ask for sacrifice and victim, but an open ear.” (Ps. 39:7)

One must be chary in trying to sum up the Rule in any one word or phrase, but listening, in all its nuances, is certainly one of the core values of the holy Rule.

6. Injungatur ei opus quod faciat ut non vacet. (Ch. 48:23) “He is to be given some work in order that he may not be idle.” Interestingly enough, this admonition is given in a context of meeting the needs of those who on Sunday feel they can neither study nor read.



The need for work is for all, as the whole Chapter 48 makes clear. “Idleness is the enemy of the soul. Therefore the brothers should have specified periods for manual labor as well as for prayerful reading.” (Ch. 48:1) Some of the brethren may be assigned to studies and to reading but all must be willing to work and to avoid idleness. “If anyone is so remiss or indolent that he is unwilling or unable to study or to read, he is to be given some work in order that he may not be idle.”

Idleness is a key word here. When we are idle, we are not contributing to work of the community. This is disruptive in itself, but St. Benedict sees it far more a danger to the spiritual life of the individual. Today, manual labor is given a broad interpretation, more like “the work of our hands.” It may be reading and study over and above the exercises that nourish our interior life, such as learning the psalms, studying holy Scripture, holy reading, and the like. Idleness is more than not being busy. It is the misuse of down time.

There is much to be said for actual manual labor. Seekers in and out of communities do well to keep their hand in. A garden or some other manual project provides time to listen, to mull over one’s reading and events of the day, putting them in perspective in the light of our call to seek God. Time spent in this way can deepen interior recollection and provide time for listening, in the various ways that can nurture our interior life.

7. Omnibus inferiorem se credat monachus. (Ch. 7:51) The literal translation is: “Let the monk believe he is inferior to all.” These words are more or less taken from the chapter on humility. “The seventh step of humility is that a man not only admits with his tongue but is also convinced in his heart that he is inferior to all and of less value,” or “The seventh degree of humility is that a person not only call himself with his own tongue lower and viler than all men, but also consider himself thus with inmost conviction.”


This is one of the more difficult passages in the Rule to comprehend and accept. It is interesting that Fr. Gregory chose to highlight it when there are so many other, more uplifting passages to draw from. The artist conveys this concept by showing a monk washing the feet of another. Foot washing is a rite of hospitality, but at the time of St. Benedict it was more than a symbolic ritual, but rather a practical cleansing of feet covered with the dust of the road.

A sound principle of the spiritual life is that humility is truth. If a stance we take does not correspond to reality, it is not an act of true humility. One does not have to stretch the imagination to think of others who are less worthy than ourselves. We are challenged to try to find an explanation that is both reasonable and truthful.

A common interpretation is to believe in one’s heart that, given the graces we have received, we should be so much better than we are.

Another insight is not to compare ourselves with others but to foster a growing awareness of our dependence on God. As we grow in the spiritual life, we become increasingly aware of the munificence of God and gain a deeper appreciation of our own unworthiness in the light of His unreserved love.

The insight teaches us the incomprehensible divide between who God is and who we are. The issue here is that, as we progress in humility, we let go of all false and egotistical notions of who we are as creature and make ourselves more conscious of who God is as Creator and Redeemer.

8. Quia in pauperibus magis Xtus suscipiatur (Ch. 53:15) “Because in the poor Christ is more received.” The full text is: “Great care and concern are to be shown in receiving poor people and pilgrims, because in them more particularly Christ is received.” This passage reflects the teaching of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew (Matt. 25).


St. Benedicts adds to this the insight: “Our very awe of the rich guarantees them special respect.” Because of the strong identification of Jesus with the poor, the sick, the hungry, the thirsty, etc., St. Benedict champions this Christian teaching and suffuses it through the Rule. Indeed, it may well come about that, in these persons and their stories, we hear the voice of the Lord speaking to us.

By this good work, St. Benedict reminds us that Jesus said we will be judged on the last day. Even in the Old Testament we are told how God champions the plight of the poor and helpless. Jesus’ identification with them goes a step further. If we truly believe this, we need not only to shape our attitudes toward the challenged, but also, in some way, to channel our time, talent, and treasure for their relief.

The monk fulfills this obligation through the corporate charity of the community, but each individual monk, indeed every Christian, is challenged to modify his world-view in the light of this axiom: “Christ is more particularly received in the poor.”

Fr. Gregory depicts a monk kissing the feet of a poor man whose feet he presumably has washed.

9. Corpus castigare. (Ch. 4:11) “Discipline your body” or “To chastise the body.”


(1 Cor. 9:27). Mortification of the body goes against the comfort zones we have become accustomed to. The theology of it is that if we die with Christ we shall also live in Christ. The monastic penal code included whippings by superiors or other designated officials. “Taking the discipline” is an expression for whipping oneself harshly or only symbolically. It has a long history in monastic spirituality, though it is hardly practiced today in Benedictine communities.

There are a number of passages in the Rule that advocate some form of physical discipline. Noteworthy is: “…those who are evil or stubborn, arrogant or disobedient, he (i.e. the Abbot) can curb only by blows or some other physical punishment at the first offense.” (Ch. 2:28)

Fr. Gregory chose to illustrate “taking the discipline” more harshly than has been the practice in recent centuries. We are uncomfortable with the practice, especially as it becomes more violent. Although it stands on a good principle of dying to sin and curbing the less worthy thoughts, feelings, and coddling of the body, there can be a fine line between what is healthy mortification and masochism. The book on the monk’s predieu is probably open to one of the penitential psalms.

There is no record of “the discipline” being practiced at Saint Meinrad; however, an early edition of a prayer book printed here has a special prayer to be said while taking the discipline.

10. Sicut revera Christo a infirmis serviatur (Ch. 36:1) One truly seeks Christ in the sick. The full text is: “Care of the sick must rank above and before all else, so that they may truly be served as Christ.” This is the opening sentence of Chapter 36 of the Rule of St. Benedict, harking back to the awesome passage in Matthew’s Gospel (Mt. 25) where Jesus identifies himself with the poor, the sick, the imprisoned, etc. “Whatever you do to these the least of My brethren, you do unto Me.”


St. Benedict’s stress on the special care of the sick, the poor, the guest and children is grounded in that teaching. It is not so much a Benedictine value as a Gospel value. A simple gauge of how important this teaching is in the Rule: Some form of the word infirmus appears 22 times in 13 different chapters. Eight of those appear in Chapter 36: “The Sick Brothers.”

This very charming wall painting reflects well the variation of age in the community, though it is no longer the practice to receive lads of such tender years. Note Parkview Hospital on the medicine bottle. Parkview was a private hospital owned by Dr. John James of Tell City, IN, who served as Saint Meinrad’s doctor at the time of the painting, in the early 1940s.

Studeamus amare quod amavit. (Prayer) “Let us strive to love what he loved.” On the west wall on the north side of the Chapter Room is depicted the dying moments of St. Benedict. A passage from St. Gregory the Great describes the scene. (Cf. Dialogs. Bk. 2, Ch. 37.) (http://www.osb.org/gen/greg/dia-39.html#P211_91273)


Six days before he left this world, he gave orders to have his sepulcher opened, and forthwith falling into an ague, he began with burning heat to wax faint, and when as the sickness daily increased, upon the sixth day he commanded his monks to carry him into the oratory, where he armed himself with receiving the body and blood of our Savior Christ; and having his weak body held up by the hands of his disciples, he stood with his own arms lifted to heaven. As he was praying in that manner, he gave up the ghost.

“Studeamus amare quod amavit” is taken from a prayer in the litany of St. Benedict. This fits beautifully with the other picture on the back wall depicting the death of a monk. We are encouraged to love what Benedict loved so that we, too, may enjoy a happy death.

Mortem quotidie ante oculos suspectam habere. (Ch. 4:47) “Day by day remind yourself that you are going to die.” Or “To keep death daily before one’s eyes.”


To some this may seem like a depressing thought, yet it really makes sense for any Christian soul. If we are created to know, love and serve God in this world, and be happy with Him in the next, preparing for and being conscious of the hour of our death makes all the sense in the world. Monastic life is a way of living the Christian life fully. Almost everything in the Rule points to preparing for the moment of death.

The painting depicts a monk on his deathbed surrounded by his confreres. One of the monks holds a copy of the dying man’s vow chart, signed at the time of his profession. The words in the vow chart are Ego promitto stabilitatem conversionem morum et obedientiam (I promise stability, conversion of my morals and obedience). He seems to be reaching up toward heaven. The hand of God is reaching down and the words Euge serve bone are etched into the ray from heaven. They are the words of the master in the parable of the talents. “Behold, good and faithful servant; you were faithful over a few things. I will set you over many. Enter into the joy of your master.” (Mt. 25:21)

The good monk fosters silence so that he can hear the voice of God and be prepared to respond to it. All the discipline of the Rule and the vows has no other purpose than to set him, and keep him, on the road to eternal life. To prepare for the hour of death is no more nor less than to set a goal and work toward it.

“Let us do now what will profit us for all eternity.” (Pro. 44) The full passage as translated in the 1980 edition of the Rule is: “If we wish to reach eternal life, even as we avoid the torments of hell, then while there is yet time, while we are in this body and have time to accomplish all these things by the light of life—we must run and do now what will profit us forever.” (Pro. 42-44)


Windows
There are 24 windows in groups of two, six pairs on each side. The first six pairs, on the south side of the room deal with the monastic vocation; the other six pairs, deal with the response to the monastic call.

1-2. Ausculta (Pro. 1) “Harken, O my son, to the precepts of your master” or, “Listen carefully, my son, to the master’s instructions.” These are the opening words of the Rule of St. Benedict.



Pictured are a giant ear, an adult bird and a baby bird. The young one stands with mouth open wide, eager to receive the food the parent is about to provide. The inference is that the viewer should be as eager to hear the Word of God.

Ausculta is the first word of the Rule. It sets the tone for all that follows. “Listen up. The Master speaks.” The monk is asked to listen with the ears of his heart to the voice of the Lord calling. To be a good listener, one must be willing to give up his own will. The School of the Lord’s service, which the aspirant is entering upon, will teach him, armed with the weapons of obedience, how to do battle for the Lord Christ. (Pro. 1-3)

Ecce Lex (Ch. 58:10) “This is the law under which you are choosing to serve” or “Behold the law under which you desire to fight.”



In this second window, the little bird (the viewer, the monk or the reader) seems to be placing its “hand” on the open book. Small feathers in the air might imply that some violence to oneself may be required. One might note the exaggerated Chi Rho, the symbol for Christ, along the side of the book.

In the Rule, “Behold the law…” is used when a novice is about to make profession. Three times in the course of the initial year, the Rule was to be read to the aspirant so that there was no ambiguity about what he was getting into.

The artist links the two ideas of listening and following by bringing them together in these two windows. The Rule that is handed to the professing monk is to be a source, along with the Holy Scripture and the writings of the Fathers, for his listening with the ears of his heart in order to follow Christ.

3. Sub uno Rege (Ch. 61:10) or (Pro. 3) “We are in the service of the same Lord and doing battle for the same king (uni Domino servitor, uni regi militatur)” or “(Domino Christo vero regi militaturus…) To do battle for the true King, Christ the Lord” (Pro. 3)



At the top of the window is a Chi Rho, the first two Greek letters in the word for Christ, embedded in a crown. This is to say that Christ is the true king. Two birds are depicted; one stands for the disciple who wields the sword against a usurper king.

In the spiritual journey, that “king” could be any or all the faults and sins that must be overcome. One must be single-hearted to run in this way, not allowing any “false kings” to distract us from the path of following Christ, the bannered lamb, or more generically, seeking God.

4. Curritur via (mandatorum Dei) (Pro. 49) “We shall run on the path of God’s commandments…”



In this window, a winged foot hurries along a path that leads to God. The bannered lamb is Christ toward whom we run. The adult bird perched at the top may represent a soul that has made the walk, or perhaps a superior or confrere urging one on. In any case, the image reveals a meaning of running on the way of God’s commands. This is a key concept for St. Benedict. The start of the journey may seem burdensome, but persevering in “this way of life and in faith, we shall run on the path of God’s commandments with hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love.”

Two big motives for running this way of life are reflected in the next two windows.

5. Timor Dei (Ch. 53:21) “Fear of God.” Arrive at that perfect love of God, which casts out fear.



Pictured are the awesome elements of thunder and lightning. Upon reflection the monk accepts the power of creation, under the all-seeing, watchful eye of God, to convey some sense of the awesome power of the God of the universe. This awe is the foundation for a life motivated to take up the cross of obedience and to follow the Lord, Christ, progressing from dread fear to exuberant love.

The monk fears the Lord who sees all we do and say. “Hour by hour keep careful watch over all you do, aware that God’s gaze is upon you, wherever you may be.” (Ch. 4:48) Note in the left hand corner a suggestion of the earth with all its continents and the seas. Everything is within the purview of God, not least the secrets of our hearts.

The concept of “fear of God” permeates the Rule. From the prolog where St. Benedict speaks of teaching one the fear of the Lord (Pro. 12) to the lot of the porter who “with all gentleness that comes from the fear of the Lord,” (Ch. 66:4) provides a prompt response with love to one who knocks at the door, the awesomeness of God is stressed. This is not a servile fear, but awe in the face of God’s majesty.

6. Caritas (Ch. 7:67) Charity, or love, is another basic motive, which burns like a flame, drawing the soul onward and upward toward the running streams of God’s grace. It might be easy to miss the Chi Rho subtly imbedded in the lights and shadows. The white sheep might be the baptized person leading another to grace, or it could be Jesus, the Lamb of God, escorting the soul on its journey to heaven.



Fr. Gregory brings together, in these two windows, two motives for choosing to “run the way of the Lord” that Benedictine life, indeed all-Christian life, entails. There is a progression from obeying the commands of the all-seeing God to embracing a loving relationship with the same loving God. “But as we progress in this way of life and in faith, we shall run on the path of God’s commandments, our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love.” (Pro. 49)

7-8. Nihil Xti carius. (Ch. 5:2) “Cherish Christ above all” or “Prefer nothing to Christ.” Passionibus Christi participemur (Pro. 50) “We shall through patience share in the sufferings of Christ, that we may deserve also to share in his kingdom.” These two windows also go together logically. The soul that prizes nothing dearer than Christ will be ready to share in His passion.



The window on the left (Nihil Xti carius) pictures a bird seemingly embracing or holding on to a tree. From the leaves, one might presume that it is a mighty oak, as a symbol for Christ. As the aspiring soul works out its priorities, it establishes this principle, to prefer nothing to Christ, to hold nothing dearer than Christ.

The window on the right shows a dramatic close-up of one bird feeding the other, giving body to the words (Passionibus Christi participemur) through patience we share in the sufferings of Christ. The whole passage, which is the conclusion of the Prologue reads: “Never swerving from his teaching, but faithfully observing his teaching in the monastery until death, we shall through patience share in the sufferings of Christ that we may deserve also to share in his kingdom.” (Pro. 50) What may be lost in translation is that the two Latin words (passionibus…patientiam) are from the same root. It is by our patience in the face of all the vicissitudes of monastic living: the yoke of obedience, misunderstandings, hurts, hidden faults, the burden of the day and all the other things that try our patience, that we share in the sufferings of Christ.

We hold nothing dearer than Christ so that by patience we may ultimately be sharers in His kingdom. There is a hint here of the description in the Acts of the Apostles of the early life of Christians in Jerusalem.

9-10.Quaerens Dominus (Pro. 14) “The Lord seeking.” Revere Deum quaerit (Ch. 58:7) the novice truly seeks God. “Seeking his workman in a multitude of people, the Lord calls out to him and lifts his voice again…)”



These two windows depict two related concepts of seeking in the mystery of the journey of a soul. On the one hand we are told that it is God who seeks us out however far we may have wandered, even if it is into the spiny grip of the bushes on the hillside.

The next window reflects one who truly seeks God. Seeking God is one of the primary criteria for testing to see if one is ready for monastic life as noted in the chapter on the novices. (Ch. 58:7)

The soul is shown escaping from the power of the devil, who strives mightily with trident and tail to hinder the advance. The soul moves quickly along the path of God’s commands, to the very heart of God--Father, Son, and Holy Spirit-- present in the symbol of three intertwined circles.

This switch of the subject and the object in the two windows is a clever way to bring together two basic teachings of the Rule. God seeks us and we seek God. It is a truism of the spiritual life, however, that even our desire to seek God is God-given.

11.Quid suavius haec voce Domini (Pro. 19) “What can be sweeter to us, beloved brethren, than this voice of the Lord inviting us?” or “What, dear brothers, is more delightful than this voice of the Lord calling to us?” (Dulcius is the Latin word used in the Rule for sweeter. Fr. Gregory has chosen to use suavius. The meaning is the same.)



The window on the left hints of a pastoral scene of peace and beauty. With flowers blooming and birds singing, an aura of calm is conveyed. A scene such as this opens up reflection on the beauty of all creation and the goodness of the God who provides it. Such a moment prompts us to call out: “What could be sweeter than the voice of the Lord inviting us” to prayer and discipleship?

12.Ecce ego (Pro. 18) “Here I am.”



The window on the right has the words Ecce Ego. These words do not appear together in the Rule. Fr. Gregory may have purposely sought ambiguity in the expression. On the one hand, following the long covenant tradition, prophets being called would invariably answer the voice of the Lord saying, ”Here I am.” The implication would be that the disciple, on hearing the “sweet” voice of the Lord, answers by offering himself back to God. The Psalmist says: “Here I am Lord, I come to do your will.” (Ps. 39 [40]: 8) The lighted candle being offered to the hand of God represents the total oblation of the aspiring soul.

On the other hand, one might interpret the words as God speaking. In the verses immediately preceding the one that speaks of the sweet voice of the Lord there is this dramatic passage: “Seeking his workman in a multitude of people, the Lord calls out to him and lifts his voice again: Is there anyone here who yearns for life and desires to see good days: (Ps. 33 [34]: 13). If you hear this and your answer is “I do,” God then directs these words to you: If you desire true and eternal life, keep your tongue free from vicious talk and your lips from all deceit; turn away from evil and do good; let peace be your quest and aim (Ps. 33 [34]: 14-15) Once you have done this, my eyes will be upon you and my ears will listen for your prayers; and even before you ask me, I will say to you: Here I am. (Pro. 14-18) (Ecce adsum)

That completes the windows on the south side. As we look at those on the north, there is a progression from East to West. All the rest of the windows represent the monk’s response, namely his profession of vows.

13-14. (Suscipe me, Domine,) et vivam. (Ch. 58: 21) “Receive me Lord [as you have promised] (cf. Ps.118 [119]: 116) and I shall live.”


These two windows include some of the words of the formula used at monastic profession. As noted in brackets above, “as you have promised” (secundum eloquium tuum) is not in the windows but presumed.

At the time of solemn profession, the monk sings this verse three times with arms outstretched. On occasions where the vows are renewed, it is this verse that is used. The portrayal of the monk in full cuculla in a posture of oblation captures the moment he offers himself into the hands of God. The large Chi Rho implies that it is through Christ that the monk approaches God. (No one goes to the Father except through me. {Jn. 14:6).

In the window on the right, the blazing sun, clouds, rain, baptismal font, the decorated candle of oblation, pull together the idea that both the natural and the supernatural are involved in this gift of self. The vowed life builds on and enhances baptismal graces, and brings life in abundance. (Et vivam).

Once again, the little bird is there with its total focus on what is above.

15-16. Et non confundas me ab expectatione mea (Ch. 58:21) “Do not disappoint me in my hope.”


This text unites the two windows and completes the prayer Suscipe me shown in the preceding windows. It is the prayer of the vowing monk for perseverance. The tacit implication is that the path will not always be smooth.

The owl perched on the bough of a mighty oak, one eye open and the other closed, implies wisdom and imperturbability. The owl is not letting the pestering of the pesky bird fluster him.

In the second window is a replica of the back of the St. Benedict Medal. The cross is dominant. On the arms of the cross are the letters: c, s, s, m, l, n, d, s, m, d. These are the first letters of a rhythmic Latin prayer: Crux sacra sit mihi lux! Nunquam Draco sit mihi dux! “May the holy cross be a light to me! May the dragon never by my guide!”

17-22. Ego promitto obedientiam castitatem paupertatem stabilitatem conversionem morum secundum Regulam Benedicti. “I promise obedience, chastity, poverty, stability, [and] fidelity to monastic life.” (Cf. Ch. 58:17)

There follows now in windows 17 to 22 the specific details of the monk’s response in the form of resolutions called vows. St. Benedict does not call them vows, but promises made to the Abbot and community, and through them, to God.

His listing is not in the way of a formula, but a description of the action that the vows will include. His list is suggestive and as a matter of fact “stability, fidelity to monastic life, and obedience” have come to be considered Benedictine vows. Over time, the addition of poverty and chastity simply spelled out in more detail the nature of the promises. In more recent reforms, Benedictines have reverted to the simpler formula, but poverty and chastity are implied in the very commitment to the monastic way of life. The windows represent the formula in use at the time of the paintings, when the monks took five vows. (Cf. RB 1980. p. 449-457.)

17. Window number 17 introduces the theme of the following windows through the words “I Promise.” Pictured is a kneeling monk with one hand in the air and one on the book, a posture we are familiar with from “swearing in” and from giving testimony in court. As noted above, St. Benedict describes a scene where the monk takes an oath to the Abbot and community, but which carries the force of vows to God. The letters in the window, Logos in Greek script, mean Word. It is used ambivalently; it may mean Word as Son of God or Word as divine revelation. It is through the “word” that God’s will is communicated and is the medium for conveying that to which one must conform.



18. The window on the right features the vow of obedience, symbolized by the sunflower that lifts its face to follow the course of the sun from east to west. This is a classic image used by spiritual writers to portray the aspirant’s readiness and openness to God’s will. Jesus is the model for this. He prayed in the garden of Gethsemane: “Not My will but Thine be done.” In another place, He says: “I have come not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me.” (John 6:38)



Leaving behind self-will is a cornerstone of Christian asceticism. The monk by participating fully in the community life subjects his will to superiors and confreres. St. Benedict says: “…obedience shown to superiors is given to God, and he himself said: ‘whoever listens to you listens to me.’” (Lk. 10:16) (Ch. 5:15).

It is love that impels the monk to pursue everlasting life by this narrow way. (Cf. Ch. 5:10)

The next pair of windows portrays chastity and poverty.

19. This first picture is somewhat abstract. A flame shoots upward toward the dove, symbol of the Holy Spirit. Surely this represents purity of life, cleansed and continually being purified in the crucible of Divine Love. The three small flames down the right side of the window may represent the evil desires that need to be overcome, especially those of the eyes, of the flesh, and of pride.



The vow of chastity commits the monk to unmarried life for the sake of the kingdom. This is more specific than the general demand for purity of life, which is the call to all Christians. “Blessed are the pure of heart for they shall see God.” (Matt. 5:8) There is then the legal side of the vow proper to monks, but in a broader sense, the spirit of the vow that commits one ever more strongly to purity of life is the preserve of all. Although the professed may have a number of significant people in his life, God remains the significant Other. This establishes priorities across the spectrum of one’s life. The primacy of the spiritual, in daily choices, is a governing attitude that affects everything one does.

This vow is not explicit in the Rule, but is implied in the monastic way of life the monk is embracing.

20. The picture on the right continues the naming of the vows. This window, rather starkly, manifests the vow of poverty. A pine tree seems to be thriving in barren rocks, suggesting that simplicity of life produces fruit for all eternity. Again here, the vow has legal ramification about how one possesses things, but the spirit of the vow colors one’s attitude toward all created things. “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” (Matt. 5:3)



Being poor in spirit goes deeper than the vow of poverty, but that is the underlying goal of it. Recognizing that before God we are empty-handed underpins all that follows from the vow of poverty. Detachment from all that does not lead to God is important, but does not prevent us from the normal joys of human life and living. Being in the world, but not of it, does not mean the renouncement of all the good things of the world, but primarily curbs and denies oneself whatever will separate from God.

Continuing to represent the vows as responses to the “voice of the Lord calling to us,” (Pro. 19) the next two windows represent stability and conversion of morals (Ch. 58:17).

21. The first window depicts what seems to be a crane, a stork, or other exotic bird that can stand on one leg, remaining fixed in the same position awake or asleep, through rain or shine. This reveals the core of the vow of stability so much in demand for community living. Few other communities besides those who follow the Benedictine tradition have this vow.



This place and these people are so much a part of the journey the monk professes to embrace that he vows to uphold it. It is not just that one be physically present in a specific place, but that one seeks God and strives for perfection within the context of this community. Monks are not just pious bachelors living in the same building, but a faith community that forms the matrix out of which, supporting one another in faith, hope and love, they together work out their salvation.

Benedictine Oblates or others who follow the Benedictine ethos have much to learn from stability. For them, it may mean a deeper commitment to one’s family, to one’s church, or to an ordered way of life. Most of all, it challenges us to an ongoing commitment to brothers and sisters in faith. The quality of the gift of caring friendship and responsibility for one another in faith is in the purview of the virtue of stability.

22. The final promise is conversatione morum suorum, variously translated as “conversion of morals,” “conversion of life,” or “fidelity to monastic life.” This latter is the translation used in RB80, and it captures the intent of the vow better than the more literal translations. In this promise, the monk places his hands on the plow and doesn’t look back. This is a promise to be relentless in one’s pursuit of God and His will. It establishes an attitude of conversion from sin and all that is not of God.



These concepts are hinted at by the large black cross that dominates the window and by a serpent with an apple in his mouth. Original sin and the devil, with all his works and pomps, are overcome by the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. The monk vows to translate that signal victory into the fabric of his daily life, never being satisfied with anything that does not enhance that ongoing change in his life.

The principle of such a life in a way is a baptismal response. All of us are called to it. St. Benedict makes that dynamic the object of a vow for the monk

23. Secundum Regulam puts the commitment in the context of a way of life as laid down by St. Benedict in his Rule. There is a structure to the “monastic way of life.” The monk focuses on the values as laid down in the Rule and life in the enclosure. Once again, the community of faith-filled men will be the environment of the monastic seeker.



There are such things as vague vows where one makes up the rules as he goes along. St. Benedict addresses this problem in the very first chapter of his Rule (Ch. 1:1-13). The vows professed here are to be lived out under the guidance of the holy Rule and an abbot. (Ch. 1:2)

This teaching is symbolized in the window by the crosier, or shepherd’s staff, as a sign of abbatial authority. The sun divides the day and night, and the bird (rooster) announces morning and evening. The two monks, look-alikes, at the bottom repeat the theme that these vows take place in community. They may also hint that the conformity affects a similarity to one another, a phenomomen frequently observed in people who share a close life together.

24. It is fitting that St. Benedict, whose wisdom is reflected in the message of the windows, should be represented in some way. Fr. Gregory does that in the final window.



This last window is dominated by a rendering of the front side of the Medal of St. Benedict and a raven. The raven has come to be identified with any image of the saint.

In his right hand, he holds a cross. In his left, he holds a copy of the Rule, distilled from many sources, which will be the norm for the way of life the young monk is choosing. Other details on the medal: Crux S. Patris Benedicti—The Cross of Holy Father, Benedict, appears in script on the sides of the figure of Benedict.

On a pedestal to the right of Benedict is the poisoned cup, shattered when he made the sign of the cross over it. On a pedestal to the left is a raven about to carry away a loaf of poisoned bread that a jealous enemy had sent to Benedict. Encircling the medal are the words Eius in obitu nostro presentia muniamur—“May we be strengthened by his presence at the hour of our death.” Below St. Benedict is the printing—Ex SM-Cassino—“From Holy Monte-Cassino.” On an actual medal there would follow a date of its striking. Fr. Gregory omits that for his purposes.

The text around the medal is very appropriate for the whole meditation. The young seeker hears the word of God speaking to him. He responds with readiness to the call by vowing to seek God in a disciplined way of life with his brothers until death. At the time of death, he hopes St. Benedict will be around to support him.

In the Chapter Room, the painting immediately next to this window, on the wall, is the representation of the passing of St. Benedict, as described by St. Gregory the Great and the next one after that features the death of a monk

Copyright © 2003 Saint Meinrad Archabbey