Conversatio Divina

Part 11 of 17

O Taste and See: Making Art the Monastic Way

David G. Benner

Making Art the Monastic Way

Juliet Benner in conversation with David G. Benner

The cover art for this issue of Conversations presents something known as a gradual. Graduals were medieval music books produced in monasteries and used by the monastic choirs as well as in churches throughout Europe. The gradual on the front cover is an original done by Juliet Benner, the contributing editor who selects the cover art for each issue and provides a meditation on it. We thought that for this issue, rather than simply have her provide a meditation on the selected work of art, we would engage her in conversation about this ancient monastic art form and about her own process of making this particular gradual. Her husband, David, seemed to be in as good a position as anyone to conduct this interview, and he volunteered!

David:I should begin with a confession, not so much to you as to our readers. Out of fairness to you, I need to say that the choice of this particular cover art—for the first time since the first issue of Conversations—was not yours. I selected this piece of art, and did so in the face of your significant reluctance to put yourself on the front cover. But you agreed, and I am thankful for that. And you then agreed to talk with me about the piece of art I selected.
But before we get to that, tell me a bit about your background in art. In your interview with Timothy Botts, the calligrapher who produced the cover art for the Conversations issue devoted to Scriptures and Spiritual Formation (Spring 2005), you told him that you were influenced by his work in your training as a calligrapher. Maybe you can also say something about your training and work as a calligrapher.
Juliet:Thank you for choosing one of my creations for the cover art. As you know, it took some convincing for me to agree to this!
Music, literature, and the arts have always been important to me. I taught high school art and English literature in Trinidad and was a church organist both there and after moving to Canada. While living in the Chicago area, I ran a small business designing and creating liturgical banners and vestments. It was during these years that I studied calligraphy and soon began to offer calligraphic art commissions through this business. After returning to Canada in 1988, I shifted from a primary focus on producing art to [a focus on] art education, serving for twelve years as a docent in the Art Education Department of the Hamilton Art Gallery.
David: What about the connection between art and spirituality? When did that begin for you?
Juliet:I suppose I would have to say that this connection was always there for me. The arts opened me to God and seemed always to be a language that communicates better than words much of our experience with the Divine. However, art and spirituality really came into focus as central to my calling during my training in spiritual direction and subsequent work as a retreat leader. My first use of religious art as a meditative tool for engaging with Scriptures came after reading Henri Nouwen’s The Prodigal Son, his meditation on Rembrandt’s famous painting by the same name. As soon as I read this book, I realized that what Nouwen was doing in this meditation was what I did every day in the art gallery, the only difference being that the art I was teaching people to engage with contemplatively was not usually based on a biblical meditation.
As you know, at this time you and I were spending a good part of each year leading retreats in Southeast Asia. It was in one of these retreats in 1998 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, that I first used art as a kind of lectio divina, that is, as a way of contemplatively engaging with the passage behind the painting. Over time this came to be more and more central to the retreats we were leading. My work as a consultant in art and spirituality in Hong Kong at the Tao Fong Shan Christian Centre was also significant in this. Over the years there, I was exposed to Chinese calligraphy and watercolors, and as I worked with them on the role of art in Chinese Christian spirituality, I had a chance to think much more about the role of art in spirituality in general. My current appointment as resident consultant in art and spirituality at the Carey Centre, University of British Columbia, also gives me an excellent context to take this further.
David:So it sounds like calligraphy is the primary art form you still practice, but your interest has shifted more to arts education and the role of the arts in spirituality.
Juliet:Yes, that’s true. I like to think of the way I use art in Christian meditation as reclaiming a valuable tool to enhance one’s prayer life. I feel this is a dimension of prayer that has been lacking in contemporary Christian spirituality. Teaching others about this prayer method is, therefore, very important and central to the retreat work and spiritual direction that I offer.
David:But back to calligraphy and the gradual on the front cover. If these graduals come to us as a gift from the monasteries, were the monks the first calligraphers?
Juliet:Calligraphy had been in existence long before the Christian monastic tradition of illuminated manuscripts. Many cultures—most notably Arabic, Semitic, Chinese, and Japanese—have a long history of calligraphy as a high art form. These early pre-Christian calligraphers were strong influences on what we know as Christian monastic calligraphy.
David:Let’s talk now about the gradual. Where does the word come from, and what does it mean? Why, exactly, is the art on the front cover called a gradual?
Juliet:The term gradual is thought to have originated from the physical place where the choral antiphons were sung in the Catholic churches of the Middle Ages. The cantor or reader who chanted the Psalm usually stood on an elevated place called a gradual. This was usually the steps of the altar, but sometimes a special pulpit was built for this purpose. From here the cantor would first sing the verse, and the choir would respond.
As early as the fifth century, long before the appearance of the Gutenberg movable type in 1455, monks across Europe were ensconced in their scriptoria copying ancient secular as well as biblical manuscripts and music for the Mass. Most of the music was based on the Psalms. The bulk of the graduals were, therefore, musical settings of the psalms that were hand-produced in the room of a monastery that was set aside for this purpose: the scriptorium. Graduals were originally made on vellum and parchment, but as these materials became more rare and expensive in the late Middle Ages, paper was more commonly used unless the manuscript was intended for something very special.
Graduals were books that contained music for the Mass. Often very elaborately decorated with brightly colored artwork called illumination, they provided music for all the seasons of the church year. They were usually quite large to allow a number of choir members to sing from a single copy. Occasionally individuals would commission a gradual for their private use, and these would be smaller.
The cover art is my modern adaptation of a medieval gradual. It transcribes the plainchant music and words for one of the familiar Advent antiphons sung in the early church.
David:How did you get interested in what was happening in medieval monasteries? I can see the connection between your work as a calligrapher and graduals, but tell me a bit about your own journey and how you were drawn to an appreciation of monastic life.
Juliet:I was raised in a Protestant Christian home with a deeply contemplative spirituality. My father, who had converted from Hinduism to Christianity as an adult, modeled a quiet, mystical spirituality that very much shaped my own. My mother, raised as a Christian, often spent time at a Benedictine monastery set high in the mountains of Trinidad. The stillness I experienced when visiting this monastery as a child was deeply impactful in my own spiritual formation. That and what I learned from my family—along with the experience of living in a culture that was highly attentive to the sacred in all of life—led me to a contemplative way of relating to God that left me with a sense of God’s abiding presence, something that was part of my experience even as a very young child. In later years, this was nurtured by authors such as Thomas Merton, Henry Nouwen, Thomas Green, Basil Pennington, and the early church fathers and mothers who kept drawing me back to the silence and stillness that was part of my childhood. My contemplative journey was also reinforced during my training as a spiritual director, and by the pattern I developed at that time of annual retreats at a monastery or retreat center. These monastic visits helped me understand the communal processes that had shaped the formation of the illuminated calligraphic manuscripts and graduals that had fascinated me for so long. I came to understand the way the monks immersed themselves in Scripture and in the hymns of the church, and I began to appreciate how they allowed the words of Scripture to become integral to their being by means of contemplation and meditation. This was tremendously influential as I looked to these older, more historic manuscripts for my own inspiration as a calligrapher.
David:I assume that the monks who produced these medieval graduals didn’t do this as a hobby, but as something more central to their monastic calling, right?
Juliet:Correct. The work of monastic scribes was considered to be as important as any other occupation in the monastery. Handwriting multiple copies of manuscripts was laborious work demanding intense concentration and discipline. When transcribing scriptural texts, the monks would read them aloud, savoring their wisdom, “chewing” on them as a form of meditation. I also like to think of them humming or singing the chants as they transcribed the music for the graduals, this also providing a form of meditation on the words. Flavius Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus, the Roman senator who later became a Christian monk, gave a wonderful articulation of the spiritual significance of the work of monastic calligraphy when he said, “Every work of the Lord’s written by the scribes is a wound inflicted on Satan, for by reading the Divine Scriptures, he wholesomely instructs his own mind, and by copying the precepts of the Lord, he spreads them far and wide.” So, yes, the work of writing and illuminating manuscripts and graduals was central to a monk’s calling in the monastery.
David:Let’s get back to the gradual. You mentioned that these were originally written as choir books. What were the choirs singing in the monasteries when graduals were first produced?
Juliet:Essential to the Catholic Mass in the Middle Ages was the singing of the Psalms in Latin, which alternated with readings from the Bible. Entire Psalms would be sung or chanted and were as important as the read lessons. Integral to the liturgy of the early church, unaccompanied plainchant music was sung antiphonally: two groups, one on each side of the chancel, singing back and forth to each other. During Advent the antiphons that were sung were called the “Great O’s” because each one began with an O in the Latin text. These took the form of short verses sung at Vespers before and after the Magnificat. In the original seven-verse Latin antiphon, each O introduced a title of the Messiah, drawing their prophetic references from the Old Testament prophet Isaiah: O Sapientia (O Wisdom), O Adonai (O Lord), O Radix Jesse (O Root of Jesse), O Clavis David (O Key of David), O Oriens (O Dayspring), O Rex Gentium (O Longed-for King of the nations), O Emmanuel (O Emmanuel).
The text for the cover art is an Advent antiphon that was based on the “Great O” Antiphons and included, in the original seven-verse format, all seven titles of the Messiah. This antiphon dates back at least to the 9th century, when each verse would be sung for seven days before Christmas at each evening Vespers service. The more recent 15th-century tune probably originated in a small community of Franciscan nuns in France. The Latin text was translated into English by John Mason Neale in 1851, and the melody later adapted by Thomas Helmore in 1856. This five-verse version is what we most commonly sing today.

O come, O come, Emmanuel

O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Thou Rod of Jesse, free
Thine own from Satan’s tyranny.
From depths of hell Thy people save
And give them victory o’er the grave.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Thou Day-Spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here.
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, Thou Key of David, come
And open wide our heavenly home;
Make safe the way that leads on high,
And close the path to misery.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, O come, Thou Lord of Might,
Who to Thy tribes on Sinai’s height,
In ancient times didst give the Law,
In cloud and majesty and awe.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to Thee, O Israel.

David:That’s really a remarkable story. To think of how often I have sung those words as a Christmas carol without any appreciation for the richness of the composition! Graduals were really quite a remarkable gift from the monastery, weren’t they?
Juliet:More remarkable, perhaps, is that this gradual presents more than just one gift from the monastery. It actually represents at least four distinct and vitally important gifts.
The first is the beautiful art of illumination. Although there are examples of wonderful illuminated texts that have been preserved in Islamic and Jewish cultures, the vast majority of illumination that comes to us from the medieval period was produced by Christian monks. Taken together it represents a truly remarkable collection of Christian art.
The second gift is the way in which illuminated manuscripts produced by the monks provide us with a historic link to the culture and literature of Greece and Rome. Monastic scribes of late antiquity can be credited with the preservation of the most important ancient documents of these cultures—documents that would have been lost if the illuminated versions of them produced in the monasteries had not given them stature and the monasteries had not given them a safe repository from the barbarian hordes that overran Europe.
The third gift is the music of plainchant that was sung in the monasteries and churches of that time. This comes to us today in the chant we can still hear in Christian monasteries around the world, as well as the English plainsong chant of the Anglican/Episcopal liturgy, and the Reformed Psalter, to name but a few of the places where derivatives of monastic plainchant can be encountered.
The fourth gift is the practice of lectio divina. This was integral to the copying of biblical manuscripts and graduals, and comes to us as a vitally gifted way of encountering the Word, a gift most closely associated with the Cistercian monastic tradition.
David:Four incredibly important gifts from our monastic heritage, all rolled up into the illuminated gradual! But let’s now turn to the cover art. Tell me how it came to be created.
Juliet:This gradual was commissioned by the senior choir at Central Presbyterian Church in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, where I was a choir member and elder for many years. It seemed appropriate to produce a piece of art that reflected the choir’s ministry. I made two copies; the original hangs in the church’s choir room, and, as you know, the second copy hangs in our living room.
David:What was your process in making it?
Juliet:In making this gradual, I tried to follow as much as I could the meditative process in which graduals were created in medieval monasteries. Although not cloistered in a scriptorium, I first prepared my own heart and mind before actually starting the work by reading, meditating on, and singing the text numerous times. This allowed the words to root themselves deep within me, the tune often emerging through the day in song—almost praying itself—throughout the three months that it took to produce.
Although this ancient musical prayer is grounded in the Old Testament prophecies of a promised Messiah, I found myself also praying the verse to express my personal longing for the coming of the Messiah, not just to celebrate Advent, but also as a prayer for the Christ to come into my life as I live each day. Many of us prepare ourselves for the coming of Christ by making an Advent wreath—another O—and we light a candle for each week to reflect on Christ’s birth and his promised second return. This prayer is more than a looking back to a historical event or forward to an Advent that is yet to come. It is a daily prayer for all Christians to be attentive to God’s surprise appearances, ordinary or extraordinary, in our daily lives. For me, as I worked on the art, it was also a prayer for the advent of the Holy Spirit to inspire and bless the work of art I was preparing.
David:You speak of it as a meditative process. As you describe how you created the art, I hear something quite similar to the process in which you regularly instruct us, your readers, as you guide us through a prayerful, meditative engagement with the cover art on each issue.
Juliet:You are right. It is a prayer process, the same process that is used in producing icons and in the meditative reading of the Bible known as lectio divina. With each of the paintings used as the cover art for the journal, I have been really using the process of lectio divina to guide our readers into a deeper engagement with the biblical texts. It is a process that can be used with hymns or other meditative non-biblical texts.
David:Why did you set the text as you did?
Juliet:Having chosen the text, the first thing that struck me was the beginning—the large O with which I would have to start. Prayerful reflection led me to see this as an empty space, a womblike shape, which was open to be filled with the presence of Emmanuel, God with us. I chose a rich, vibrant red to highlight the life-giving potential that comes with such an indwelling. If I allow my life to be always open and ready to receive Christ, however he may choose to come to me, then I, too, can dispose myself to be a big empty O for that event—to be always ready and alert to divine visitations. It reminded me of Mary’s willingness to open herself, to allow her womb to be opened, to be the bearer of the most amazing gift of all—Jesus. He filled her whole being and brought salvation and peace not just to her but to the whole world. The O becomes an invitation to me also to be one who incarnates Christ.
Continuing with this theme of birth, growth, and dynamic life, I filled the space with lively colored foliage and flowers. This reflects the vitality of the life that is filled with the Divine—a life that grows and spreads light and color, illuminating the work. The border also goes further in illustrating this potential of growth and vitality with its curly green vines, unfurling with small buds, and larger blooms at the corners, which anchor the piece and give it balance. The gold background gives radiance to the piece and points toward the divinity of Christ, a symbolic color association common to religious paintings of 14th-century Italy. The capitals within the body of the text contain symbols of emerging growth, each holding green, budding stems.
David:I notice that you place the notes on a four-line staff, not the five-line musical staff we are used to. Why is this?
Juliet:Early manuscripts did not have staves, time or key signatures, since the music was memorized. Sometimes graduals were written with the C-line colored yellow and the F-line red to indicate the key. I chose to keep the lines black. As handwritten graduals became more frequently used in the Mass, they were made larger, and notes were written in big, easily visible square rectangles to be read from a distance.
David:In describing the process by which you created this gradual, you have actually led us into a contemplative engagement with it and the text. But I wonder if there is anything else you would like to add as a reflection on the Word behind the art.
Juliet:Let me close with several meditative suggestions and questions. First, turn to the front cover, and prayerfully read, sing, hum, or listen to a recorded version of the hymn. You may want to do this several times to allow your whole being to soak in the words and music. To remind you, here are the English words with which you are likely most familiar, followed by the Latin text you will find in the gradual:

O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

O veni, veni, Emmanuel,
Captivum solve Israel
Qui gemit in exilio,
Privatus dei filio.
Gaude! Gaude!
Emmanuel nascetur prote Israel.

  • What word or phrase most catches your attention? Stay with this word or phrase, and attend to the associations that arise from it.
  • Consider the large O as a space within you. How empty or full is that God-shaped space in your life? Perhaps it is a space of longing. Allow this longing to become a prayer. Or perhaps it is a space filled with things other than God. What invitations do you hear from God in terms of this space within you?
  • How has Emmanuel, God with us, been a reality for you? How does awareness of God’s continuing presence change the way you live? How would it change your daily experience if it were more of a daily awareness?
  • Make this prayer your own. Personalize it by replacing “Israel” with your own name. As you pray it, picture Jesus coming to you in the midst of your present life experiences. How does he meet you right where you are?

In conclusion, give God thanks and praise for the gifts we have so generously been given from this ancient Christian tradition. Continue to be open to the unexpected daily advents of Emmanuel in your life. This prayer offers us an invitation to keep our eyes continually fixed on God, to have our hearts and lives filled with hope and gratitude. Receive this invitation now, and rejoice in this hope.


Juliet and David Benner live on Vancouver Island in Canada, dividing their time between there and the places where they speak and lead retreats. In recent years these include Australia, New Zealand, Norway, Denmark, Hong Kong, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, as well as Atlanta, U.S.A., and throughout Canada. Juliet currently serves as resident consultant in art and spirituality at The Carey Centre, University of British Columbia.