Brother Thomas Bezanson was a Benedictine monk and ceramics artist who died in 2007. He accepted the rules of monastic solitude, and followed the advice of St. Benedict who said: “If there be craftsmen in the Monastery, [then] let them practice their crafts with all humility.” Brother Thomas spent the final years of his life at Mount St. Benedict Priory in Erie, PA, with the community of Sr. Joan Chittister. Below Sr. Joan reflects on art and the contemplative life in light of Brother Thomas’ work:
If, indeed, truth is beauty and beauty truth, then the monastic and the artist are one. Monasticism, in fact, cultivates the artistic spirit. Basic to monasticism are the very qualities art demands of the artist: silence, contemplation, discernment of spirits, community and humility.
Basic to art are the very qualities demanded of the monastic: single-mindedness, beauty, immersion, praise and creativity. The merger of one with the other makes for great art; the meaning of one for the other makes for great soul.
It is in silence that the artist hears the call to raise to the heights of human consciousness those qualities no definitions ever capture. Ecstasies, pain, fluid truth, pass us by so quickly or surround us so constantly that the eyes fail to see and the heart ceases to respond.
It is in the awful grip of ineffable form or radiant color that we see into a world that is infinitely beyond our natural grasp, yet only just beyond our artist’s soul. It is contemplation that leads an artist to preserve for us forever, the essence of a thing that takes us far beyond its accidents.
Only by seeing the unseen within can the artist dredge it out of nothingness so that we can touch it, too. It is a capacity for the discernment of spirits that enables an artist to recognize real beauty from plastic pretentions to it, from cheap copies or even cheaper attempts at it.
The artist details for the world to see the one idea, the fresh form, the stunning grandeur of moments which the world has begun to take for granted or has failed even to notice, or worse, has now reduced to the mundane.
It is love for human community that puts the eye of the artist in the service of truth. Knowing the spiritual squalor to which the pursuit of less than beauty can lead us, the artist lives to stretch our senses beyond the tendency to settle for lesser things: sleazy stories instead of great literature; superficial caricatures of bland characters rather than great portraits of great souls; flowerpots instead of pottery.
Finally, it is humility that enables an artist to risk rejection and failure, disdain and derogation to bring to the heart of the world what the world too easily, too randomly, too callously overlooks.
Charles Peguy wrote, “We must always tell what we see. Above all, and this is more difficult, we must always see what we see.”–Sr. Joan Chittister, OSB
From “The Monastic Spirit and the Pursuit of Everlasting Beauty” by Joan Chittister in The Journey and the Gift: The Ceramic Art of Brother Thomas.