An act of praise and celebration

By on March 2, 2010

Beautiful Mercy, A Book of Hours: Beautiful Mercy/A Book of Hours is a collaborative book/CD project involving almost 50 contributors, all connected to the church community of saint benedict’s table.

Five years ago, saint benedict’s table was formally established as a congregation within the diocese of Rupert’s Land. Since then, it has been a church community with a vision for cultivating, encouraging and producing art. So it is fitting that the publication of Beautiful Mercy/A Book of Hours has been timed to coincide with our fifth anniversary. The completion of the book and its accompanying CD marks a deepening of our commitment to seeking the face of God through word, image and sound.  It marks yet another beginning.

It all started on a winter day in 2008. I went to the Winnipeg Art Gallery with one of the students from our community to see an exhibit of the St. John’s Bible, part of a massive recent project creating the first hand-lettered and illuminated edition of the Bible since the invention of the printing press. “We should do something like this,” she remarked, and after the exchange of a few email messages, an idea was born.  A couple of key people came onboard, and we soon had not only the necessary organizational skills and experience, but also the right kind of expansive thinking to put it all into motion.  

The medieval “Book of Hours” was a daily prayer book designed for those outside of the walls of the monastery.  Predating the invention of the printing press, such books were available only to the wealthy, and in what can be read as a kind of propaganda, the illuminations generally reinforced the social and political norms of the day in a way favourable to the status of the wealthy and powerful patrons.

Well, we were not much interested in propaganda, and in fact, our version might be seen as a subversion in its attempt to creatively re-imagine this tradition.  To this end, we invited the people of our community to contribute not only prayers and other devotional material, but also poetry, reflective prose, song lyrics and recorded music. Our illuminations include not only drawings, but also photographs and just about any other medium we could successfully translate to the printed page.  The result is a full-colour hardcover book of 160 pages, with an accompanying CD of 13 original songs.  The book includes seven entries, reflecting the seven “hours” of prayer in the monastic tradition. Each hour represents one of the seven major seasons of the church calendar, for a total of 49 sections.  In a nod to the medieval versions, a circle of our artists created a series of hand-crafted “drop caps” that are featured in each entry.

It is interesting to note that the section that received the most response was the penitential and arid season of Lent. We’ve come to suspect that it reflects some shared sense that ours might be an age in which the people of God most need to learn to spend time in the wilderness.

The second most popular season turned out to be Advent. We have included three recorded songs within this season, and could have easily included another two as Advent pieces as well. All of this new music—for a season that is so thematically rich yet almost completely overshadowed by Christmas in the popular imagination.  I read this as a sign that our community has managed to get an Advent sensibility deep into our bones….not an easy thing to do in a society so notoriously unbalanced in its approach to Christmas.

For more information on Beautiful Mercy/A Book of Hours, visit www.stbenedictstable.ca

Jamie Howison is the founding pastor of saint benedict’s table, an alternative liturgical community in the diocese of Rupert’s Land.

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