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Illuminations Plant the Seed

Abbot John Klassen shares how The Saint John’s Bible Inspires New Understanding

Posted January 25, 2023 in Education, Religious Institutions

The Right Reverend John Klassen, OSB, PhD, has many roles as abbot of Saint John’s Abbey. One such role, aided by the help of The Saint John’s Bible illuminations: inspiring epiphanies. Leading retreats on the Saint John’s campus for any interested parties has allowed him to watch participants suddenly view age-old parables through new eyes.

“Most people are visual learners,” said Abbot John. “I used to teach chemistry, and it was then I learned that models help people better understand the complex relationships and dimensionality of molecules. One of the things that is really unique about the illuminations is that they function in a similar way; you can look at the words and images separately, but when looking at them together, you’re getting another layer of meaning,” said Abbot John. “This is something you just don’t see in classical iconography.”

Click to view full Sower and the Seed illumination

Planting the Seed of Inspiration

During a retreat several years ago, Abbot John chose to use the parable “The Sower and the Seed” as the discussion theme. The twenty retreatants were encouraged to read and consider the story prior to gathering, so they could then reflect on the parable with their peers.

After beginning the retreat with a brief lectio divina on the parable as a large group, a new avenue opened to participants when it was time to break into small discussion groups. “I tend to be a silent observer,” Abbot John said of his facilitating role. “Not interfering, just listening to how groups think with each other, and where they are going with their conversations.”

This collaboration of thoughts and ideas made for truly remarkable headway. Abbot John noted how confident individuals were in sharing their thoughts after regrouping, now that they’d had a chance to reflect together in their groups. He recalled how, in these more intimate discussions, retreatants were more willing to share deeper connections between their faith and how they perceive the parable, as well as where they can’t make sense of something.

Reaping New Understanding

In addition to their peers helping retreatants develop new perspectives, Abbot John introduced the illuminations from The Saint John’s Bible, leading the group through the process of visio Divina to further challenge and deepen retreatants’ understanding on the parable.

“The parables are multivalent; there’s no one right interpretation,” said Abbot John. “When you layer in on top of that the brilliance of the illuminations, that’s an entirely new point of view.”

Placed alongside “The Sower and the Seed” parable in The Saint John’s Bible is an illumination by Aidan Hart that depicts Jesus as the Sower. Upon introducing this illumination to the retreatants and examining the details of the artwork, Abbot John was met with stunned reactions.

“There was a poignant instance,” he recalled, “where a woman looking at the illumination asked whether Jesus was really dressed in blue jeans. It was a moment of revelation for her on what we mean when we say that Jesus is the Word made flesh. On the one hand, we have the glory of God in His halo, and yet He is dressed in [modern day] clothes and doing the work of the world, sowing the Word among the people of Galilee.”

Another moment of understanding appeared when retreatants noticed Jesus’ hand extending to throw seeds into the text. “Hart goes and breaks the rules,” Abbot John remarked with a laugh. “The hand on the right breaks the frame and is spreading the seed, the Word, over the rest of the text.”

In this moment, Abbot John explained Jesus is acting as the Sower, despite also being long understood as the seed. Participants were heavily engaged with this new layer of understanding; the text and illuminations combined to communicate something fundamental about who Jesus is: fully human, and fully divine; the Word made flesh.

Something Beautiful Blooms

Illuminations in the medieval Bible would only occur at the beginning or end of a grouping of text due to the limitations of production techniques, unlike The Saint John’s Bible. Abbot John remarks on how crucial the use of computer layout was for the illuminations and text placement for the Bible; connections between words and images could be made to create a Bible that brought new light to ancient texts.

Abbot John Klassen continues his work in bringing The Saint John’s Bible into his retreats, as he feels the illuminations are incredibly powerful in guiding those who wish to go further into a deeper meaning of the scriptures.

Photo courtesy of Saint John’s University, Collegeville, Minnesota. 2014