ARCHABBOT KURT STASIAK: The thing I remember most about my vow chart, we signed them on the altar when we make solemn vows. We actually put the chart on the altar and sign it. If I look at my signature today, it kind of goes at a 45-degree angle from the bottom left, to the upper right, which is just an indication of how nervous I was at the time.
BR. SIMON HERRMANN: You're listening to Echoes from the Bell Tower, stories of wit and wisdom from Benedictine monks who live, work and pray in southern Indiana. I'm Br. Simon.
BR. NATHANIEL SZIDIK: And I'm Br. Nathaniel. Br. Joel and Br. Kolbe are taking a little bit of a break for the summer, so we're your hosts for this episode.
BR. SIMON: There's a hidden treasure at Saint Meinrad that only a handful of people see. In the Archabbey Archives, located in the dark, cold basement of the library, are file after file of vow charts from monks of our community.
BR. NATHANIEL: Today, our episode is about artwork, specifically the artwork on those vow charts. This episode is meant to go along with an article that was published in the summer issue of theOn the Hillnewsletter. So, let's get started.
BR. MARTIN ERSPAMER: My name is Br. Martin Erspamer. I'm a monk of Saint Meinrad Archabbey and the resident artist, I suppose.
BR. SIMON: Br. Martin has been doing the calligraphy and artwork on vow charts for more than 10 years. The very first chart he did was his own.
BR. MARTIN: It was an illustration of a monk holding up his chart and offering it to God. There might have been the hand of God coming down to grab it.
BR. NATHANIEL: Some of our listeners know what a vow chart is, but for those who don't, Br. Martin explains…
BR. MARTIN: A vow chart really is the contract that a monk makes with the monastery stating that he will abide by the vows that each monk takes and the customs of the monastery. It's written twice in the life of a monk - the first time at his first profession, and the contract specifies that he will observe the vows and theRuleand the customs of the monastery for three years.
BR. LORENZO PENALOSA: It's almost like there's an asterisk there saying, okay, I'm limiting this to three years. So I vow obedience, stability, and fidelity to the monastic way of life for a period of three years.
BR. SIMON: This is Br. Lorenzo. He's been a monk for four years and soon in August he will be making his solemn profession.
BR. LORENZO: The second time would be at solemn profession, at least three years after the first vows. And there's no more bracket, no more asterisk there. It's just, I vow obedience, stability, and fidelity to the monastic life, basically forever.
BR. MARTIN: There are two charts in the life of every monk. Immediately after being signed, they go to the archives and stay there until the time of the monk's death, at which point when the monk is laid out in the monastery, his vow chart will be placed on top of his casket as a symbol that he completed his contract with the monastery.
BR. NATHANIEL: We have had a bit of a debate on which vow chart goes on top of the casket. Here are Br. Joel and Br. Kolbe. They sat down a couple weeks ago to talk about this very issue.
BR. KOLBE WOLNIAKOWSKI: Which one did they put on our casket? Is it the one that we, simple?
BR. JOEL BLAIZE: I always heard it was simple vows goes on the casket. But then somebody was saying no. But I think they were wrong.
BR. KOLBE: I think it depends. I think it depends which one looks better.
BR. JOEL: Oh, really? So, maybe there's not just a custom that ...
BR. KOLBE: Yeah, but like, simple vows is gonna be the correct date of our vows.
BR. JOEL: Yeah. Yeah, I hope it's my simple vow chart. I want people to look at that and be, "That's kind of goofy." I guess that fits.
BR. SIMON: Simple vows are the vows we make at our first profession. Br. Martin and Br. Lorenzo both agree that it's the solemn profession chart that goes on the casket.
BR. NATHANIEL: We reached out to Fr. Meinrad, who serves as the Archabbey archivist, to solve this mystery.
FR. MEINRAD BRUNE: When they have the casket in the church, the secretary to Fr. Abbot asks for the chart of first profession, and that is on the casket so people see that, what year they made first profession and became a monk.
BR. SIMON: There you have it! Br. Joel will be happy to know the chart from his first profession will be on his casket when he dies.
FR. MEINRAD: When they live their life at Saint Meinrad, it's the first vows that really is counted for jubilee celebrations and also for the tolling of the bells when they die. So if they're in 60 years coming from their first profession, the bell will ring 60 times.
BR. NATHANIEL: Both the first profession and solemn profession vow charts can have artwork, but many times the art on the first profession chart is much more elaborate.
FR. MEINRAD: And the reason is this, they have lived three years the monastic way of life and I think the emphasis is more on writing out the chart and really expressing their desire to make solemn vows. It doesn't mean that artwork isn't done, but sometimes your first profession charts are more filled with decorations of beautiful paintings.
BR. SIMON: Vow charts are part of Saint Meinrad's living history. So when a monk dies or if a monk leaves the community, the chart remains in the Archabbey Archives as property of the monastery.
BR. MARTIN: It's interesting that these things are kind of brought out 30, 40, 50 years after someone has signed them. That's the one and only time after the date when it's signed that they're viewed by the community.
BR. KOLBE: That is one thing almost every monk goes to look at, like, when we're paying our respects at the end at the Office of the Dead.
BR. JOEL: Yeah, everybody wants to see ...
BR. KOLBE: See the vow chart.
BR. JOEL: They've gotten bigger over the years, haven't they? Because some of those old guys that died, theirs was just this, almost like ...
BR. KOLBE: Like, a Post-It note. I'm just joking.
BR. JOEL: Yeah, but smaller than, like a piece of computer paper.
BR. KOLBE: Yeah.
BR. JOEL: Like, a little notebook page. And then ...
BR. KOLBE: And Brother Martin gave us, like, nice paper to write on.
BR. JOEL: Yeah, and so we've been doing that. And there used to be a size restriction on the chart because of where they were being stored. But apparently, that's not the case anymore. So the last one to take vows, Brother Stanley, had this, it was almost like a poster board.
BR. KOLBE: Yeah.
BR. JOEL: The size was, giant vow chart.
BR. KOLBE: It didn't fit on the podium.
BR. JOEL: No, on the end, yeah.
BR. KOLBE: On the end of the ambo, no.
BR. NATHANIEL: Each monk's vow chart is different. Some have just the words of the vows and others are covered in beautiful, and very detailed art. The look of the charts has changed over the years, depending on the tastes of the monk making vows, the artist and even the time period.
BR. SIMON: In Chapter 58 of theRule of St. Benedictwe read about the procedure for receiving brothers and the only stipulation it makes about vow charts is that they're signed by the monk making vows.
BR. MARTIN: I guess when theRulewas written, there were many people who probably were joining the monastery that did not know how to read or write. It was not uncommon that someone else might write the chart for them, but they had to use either an X or their thumbprint or something to sign their own name.
BR. LORENZO: Basically, I think for a vow chart, the only thing really necessary are the words themselves. We have a formula for that, very ancient formula. You can still look back at old documents, pretty much the same wording now in English, but before in Latin. But I guess in the monastic tradition, we have this beautiful, beautiful tradition of illustrated manuscripts. In the Middle Ages, you had lots of monk scribes who were copying Bibles and important books and they would decorate them with images.
BR. NATHANIEL: Having illustrations on our vow charts is just a part of our monastic heritage.
BR. MARTIN: That part is interesting, that even though technology has certainly changed dramatically in a thousand years as far as the technology of producing books, the skills are still preserved in the monastery that allow people to produce an illuminated page by hand.
BR. SIMON: Every monk has the option to create their own vow chart, or Br. Martin offers to do the calligraphy and art.
BR. MARTIN: For me personally, it just becomes kind of a labor of love for another member of the community. It's part of, I think, the beauty of community that each person kind of contributes the skills that they have for the good of the entire group. This is like the skill that I can contribute to the other people that are coming in.
BR. NATHANIEL: For first profession charts, Br. Martin tries to bring out the character of the monk he's making the chart for.
BR. MARTIN: If the monk is a little bit of a rascal, that might come out in some of the little detail marginal artwork around the vows. If he has a specific characteristic, like maybe red hair or is a little heavier than the ordinary monk, that is somehow expressed in the vow chart as well. Sometimes it might be, for example, a portrait of the monk offering his vow chart to the Virgin Mary, or it can be a portrait of their patron saint. It's one or the other, usually.
BR. SIMON: Archabbot Kurt wrote out the vows on his chart, but he asked a classmate to create the artwork.
ARCHABBOT KURT: I did a very rudimentary calligraphy on my solemn vow chart, nothing to brag about. But, again, that wasn't the focus of what I was doing at the time. So, it was okay. I wanted my name to be there, and I did that with as much nervous flourish as I could.
BR. NATHANIEL: The art is a black ink drawing of Abbot Kurt's patron saint. There is a town in the drawing and a bird. Abbot Kurt explains…
ARCHABBOT KURT: Yes. Well, my patron saint, you wouldn't expect this from somebody with the name of Kurt, but at the time my patron saint was Constantine, who is in the eastern Greek Orthodox Church. He ended up being sealed in a cave with seven of his followers because of the persecution of Christians. They evidently died in the cave, and a couple of centuries later they found the cave and uncovered it, and low and behold these guys were still alive.
So, in the legend of the Eastern Church, Constantine and his followers became known as the seven sleepers, which is okay with me. That's one thing I do like to do, but they were considered some of the early witnesses to the resurrection. So, that's why he's dressed in the black garb, and that special hat.
The town behind him, I think, is Constantinople. Then, there's a little symbol of a legendary bird from German mythology that is in there. That's because I was born in Germany, and by blood I am German. So, I asked my classmate to include that as a symbol in there, too.
BR. SIMON: We have a picture of Abbot Kurt's vow chart along with all the others we are talking about in the blog post for this episode. You can find those at saintmeinrad.edu/echoes.
BR. NATHANIEL: Br. Joel decided to do the calligraphy and art on the vow chart for his first profession.
BR. JOEL: We had a week of retreat leading up to our vows, so I thought that was a good way to use my nervous energy in a healthy way. And I don't know, I just wanted to make it more personal. I felt like I could do it and not do a terrible job, so, and I had the time, so I thought I would just do it.
BR. SIMON: Br. Martin gave him four sheets of really nice watercolor paper. He messed up really bad on the first three.
BR. JOEL: And the fourth one, everything was perfect. The art was ... I was really happy with the art. The lettering was just fine, no major spelling mistakes. And then, the very last line, I screwed up one of the words. So I had to do, like, what they used to do in the middle ages and stuff and draw this kind of fancy arrow and tie in the correction. But that just makes it ... It just ties it in with the rest of history. So, monks have been making mistakes for 1,500 years.
BR. NATHANIEL: The artwork was created with colored pencils and Br. Joel included a lot of symbols tied to his patron saint and to Saint Meinrad himself.
BR. JOEL: The first word in our vows is the word "in," as in, "In the year of our Lord, whatever." And so, it's kind of traditional to make the "I" in the "in" really fancy. And that's where the art comes from.
And so, I base mine off of my patron Joel from the Old Testament. Joel was a Hebrew prophet and telling Israel that they needed to repent in the face of this locust swarm that was coming. There's a line about the locusts running up the walls. It's the army of the Lord running up the walls. So, my "I" is basically this big stone tower that's supposed to be like the walls of Jerusalem.
And I drew me at the top of it, kind of with my hands up, like not knowing what to do. And then I've got seven ... they're not really locusts. I made those ... they're like grasshoppers climbing up the tower. Actually, I based them on the spider crickets that live in our basement in the monastery. Because I see those all the time.
So, I've got seven spider crickets climbing the wall trying to get me. And so, I picked seven, for the seven deadly sins, you know. And the one at the top is kind of heavier than all the other ones. And I always joke that it's gluttony is winning the race to get me. Because that's probably my favorite of the deadly sins.
And I don't know, I tried to make the art look sort of like a storybook illustration. So it's a little bit cartoony. Not nearly as beautifully artistic as the ones that Br. Martin does. But there's some humor in it and other details. There's a red door that I tried to make look like Saint Meinrad red. A lot of the buildings and stuff around Saint Meinrad are painted this red color. And so, I tried to tied it, I tried to make my little tower look like it could be a Saint Meinrad building.
And there's three steps leading into the tower, because three's the ... you know, like three for the trinity, or whatever. A special number.
BR. KOLBE: Oh, there is, uh, three vows.
BR. JOEL: Oh, three vows, that's it. That was it. It was three vows, totally.
BR. SIMON: Br. Lorenzo also created his own vow chart. Calligraphy is one of his hobbies, so he did the calligraphy first and decided he could probably do the illustration as well.
BR. LORENZO: Before first profession, I agonized and agonized and agonized over what image I was gonna to put on my vow chart. I consulted Br. Martin months in advance and all that stuff. So I actually had this idea of like, okay, Our Lady of Einsiedeln and a lot of other things. And then I got my name two days before my first profession and I just threw out all of those things and thought, "Okay, I'll do something that's related to St. Lawrence." In my vow chart image, there on the bottom, there's a grill with fire and St. Lawrence was martyred, but he was roasted alive.
BR. NATHANIEL: At first profession, a monk takes a new name and he usually finds out what his name will be a couple days before the profession. We did an episode on this back in 2016. It's episode 3 if you are interested.
BR. SIMON: The illustration ended up being a self-portrait and included symbols related to his patron saint, St. Lawrence.
BR. LORENZO: It depicts myself, a monk, with some of my favorite tools, favorite things. Like for example, there in my image, I have my camera on me and I'm holding a calligraphy pen. Those were the two things that I love to do the most. And then I'm holding the "I," the letter I, that is a beginning of the vows itself, the words, "In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen." Yeah, I love it because it's very, very personal since I got to do it myself.
BR. NATHANIEL: No matter how simple or decorative a vow chart is, it serves as a tangible symbol of the vows every monk makes.
BR. LORENZO: As Catholics, we use lots of physical symbols to express the mystery of everything. We use bread, wine, water, all these beautiful physical symbols. And so the vow chart is a physical symbol of the greater mystery of the vows I'm making.
BR. SIMON: For solemn vows, a monk reads his vow chart out loud and signs the vow chart on the altar.
BR. KOLBE: But everyone who hears it at the time in the church, I'm just realizing, that's not everyone who I made the vow to, as well. I definitely made my vows to God but everyone who comes into my life, I'm vowing to be a monk for them in some way.
BR. NATHANIEL: Thank you for listening to today's episode about the artwork on vow charts. You can see pictures of the artwork on vow charts and read the article in theOn the Hillnewsletter on the blog for this episode at saintmeinrad.edu/echoes.
BR. SIMON: Today's episode was edited and produced by Krista Hall, with the help of me, Br. Simon, Br. Nathaniel Szidik, Mary Jeanne Schumacher, Jim Paquette, Tammy Schuetter, and Christian Mocek. The music was written and produced by Br. Joel Blaize.
BR. NATHANIEL: A special thanks goes to Fr. Meinrad Brune and Br. Stanley Wagner, for giving us access to the vow charts in the archives, and to Archabbot Kurt Stasiak, Br. Martin Erspamer, Br. Lorenzo Penalosa, Br. Joel Blaize and Br. Kolbe Wolniakowski.
BR. SIMON: Br. Joel and Br. Kolbe will be back for one more episode about the "One Bread, One Cup" program. Subscribe to Echoes from the Bell Tower on iTunes, Stitcher or wherever you download your podcasts so you don't miss that episode.
BR. NATHANIEL: Own it, own it, he messed up really bad.