Little-known vow charts big part of archabbey historyJanuary 29, 2019
By ALLEN LAMAN
ST. MEINRAD — From regal to psychedelic, the beauty of the little-known — and seldom seen — monastic vow charts at St. Meinrad Archabbey leaps off their pages. The unique, handcrafted sheets of paper serve as a physical contract between the establishment’s monks and God.
Friday, four novice monks in the Spencer County religious community engaged in a public vow profession that cemented their commitment to monastic life. One of them, Jean Fish, compared the significance of the occasion to a wedding — a day that marks the end of one life and the beginning of another.
But before he and his fellow new brothers officially completed their path into St. Meinrad’s circle of monks, they were called upon one by one to roll open their final vow charts, sing them in front of a packed congregation at the Archabbey Church of Our Lady of Einsiedeln and sign them on an altar. The documents are now stowed away for the remainder of the monks’ lives.
“It’s definitely a memory that I’ll keep with me,” Fish said of making his chart. “In a way, it felt like it was sanctifying the space that I was working in. The spirit of the room felt different.”
The charts signed on Friday are significant because they symbolize a lifelong commitment for the monks, who are no longer considered novices. Fish and the others in the ceremony — Simon Herrmann, Nathaniel Szidik and Joel Blaize — also signed a separate chart when they professed their first vows three years ago.
Charts stored in the on-site archive room date back to 1888. Each one follows the same, written script regarding obedience. But no two are exactly the same.
“It’s a chance for a monk to express the tradition and his own individuality at the same time,” said Kurt Stasiak, St. Meinrad’s archabbot. “We have the traditional formula, but he is very free to do what he wants in terms of art, in terms of the actual layout of the formula. He can dress it up as much as he wants, he can keep it as simple as he wants.”
Some sheets filed in the archabbey’s archives feature no illustration at all, while others are adorned with vibrant depictions of saints, biblical figures, and other unique attributes. Fish’s, for example, features an image of Jesus knocking on a door. Blaize’s includes musical notation that follows the melody of the song he sang as he presented his vows.
“My main work is in music,” Blaize said. “Working in the liturgical music office and cantering and writing and adapting Latin chant. So, I spend a lot of time doing that sort of thing anyway. So, [it was] just another way of personalizing it and making it my own.”
The monks weren’t required to create their first or final charts by themselves, however. An artist in the St. Meinrad community has crafted many for his brothers since arriving at the archabbey 14 years ago.
Brother Martin Erspamer estimated he has made at least one annually since. Nestled in his studio on the St. Meinrad grounds, he created both Herrmann’s and Szidik’s ornately-designed final vow charts in the days leading up to last week’s profession.
“It’s an exercise in graphic design, and also it’s a way of taking care of your brothers,” Erspamer said. “Doing something good for them.”
When they die, the monks’ first vow charts will be dug out of the archive room and displayed on their caskets as a symbol that they lived up to their promises. For now, they rest laminated alongside hundreds more.
“It’s part of our tradition,” Stasiak said of the charts. “The chart speaks to us with the words that are on it, but it also speaks with the history about it.”
He concluded: “Every time we go through this, the history just gets reinforced.”
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