The Saint John’s Bible is a theological and artistic masterpiece commissioned in 1998 by a group of Benedictine monks in Minnesota and led by renowned calligrapher Donald Jackson. Imitating the grand manuscripts produced in Medieval times, the St. John’s Bible was hand-written and hand-illuminated by a team of six scribes and six illuminators, using vellum (calfskin), quills and ink from minerals and plants.
The project was estimated to take three to four years and cost a few million dollars to complete. But only after 12 years and approximately $13-15 million was the bible finished.
Currently, there are 299 sets of 7 volumes of the St. John’s Bible in existence. Through the generosity of Joanna Sullivan, a loyal benefactor of Chaminade University, one of these copies has been on display in the Sullivan Family Library since June 2010.
Although the St. John’s Bible, based on the New Revised Standard Version, has been accessible to the Chaminade community for the last nine years, no one at Chaminade has had the training to explain it or teach on it. But during the week of March 11, Chaminade welcomed Bob O’Connor, Ph.D., from St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, Texas, whose roles are project director of the St. John’s Bible Heritage Edition and university ombudsman.
Throughout his visit, O’Connor led three sessions in which he helped attendees understand how the sacred art found in the St. John’s Bible can transform lives. O’Connor began each session with a lecture-style presentation and concluded by allowing attendees to ask questions while they viewed the bible. The on-campus sessions were open to the entire Chaminade community.
O’Connor explained that the ultimate goal of the St. John’s Bible is to “ignite the spiritual imagination of the world,” which he believes occurs when people look at the volumes.
One of the unique aspects of the St. John’s Bible is that the illuminations include modern-day events, technologies and discoveries in a way that celebrates science and connects it to religion.
For example, weaved throughout the Psalms Frontispiece are oscillograms, recorded lines of sound, taken from ancient chants of cultures from around the world. O’Connor noted that Jackson chose to do this because the Psalms are intended to be sung, not read.
In addition to the Psalms, other illuminations that O’Connor touched upon in his presentation included Creation, Garden of Eden, Sower and the Seed, Eucharist, The Life of Paul, Anthology of Luke and Genealogy of Jesus.
A theme that remains constant throughout the entire bible is flecks of gold scattered across the illuminations and texts. According to O’Connor, gold—which doesn’t oxidize—signifies the presence of the divine, meaning the presence of God.
Brother Edward Brink, vice president for mission and rector, hopes that by inviting O’Connor to Chaminade to teach about the St. John’s Bible will help members of the Chaminade community become more imaginative about their faith.
“[The St. John’s Bible] has the possibility of capturing imagination and making a link for both our students, our faculty and staff to the basis of this university,” says Bro. Ed. “I think it could open doors and windows for people to think about and imagine our faith in a different way.”
This reimagining of faith already seems to be happening on campus. Bro. Ed says that roughly 40 people attended the first session of the week, many of which were students participating in Campus Ministry’s Awakening Retreat. According to Bro. Ed, two of those students were intrigued to learn more and were among the 20-25 people who attended the second session.
In addition to the three public sessions, O’Connor also visited two Chaminade classes during his trip—Christian Prayer and Gospel of John and Poetry and Drama. He also presented at six religion classes at St. Louis School and ended his week on Friday with a private presentation for Bishop Larry Silva and a presentation to the young adults from EPIC Ministry.
Bro. Ed hopes that now, people at Chaminade will be inspired to become trained on the St. John’s Bible or that the university can continue to bring people like O’Connor in so that informational sessions like these can happen on a regular basis.
“It can be a very creative way of helping people to understand their faith,” Bro. Ed said. “I’m a big believer that part of what God wants us to do is to imagine. He wants us to think beautifully, He wants us to use the creation that He’s given us to understand who He is more, and I think that the artwork is part of that.”