A Review of “Contuitus,” written by Fr. Michael Patella


Over the years, there have been many documentaries of monastic cloisters, life, and silence.  Through them we have seen why men and women have been attracted to monasticism, why they have entered communities, and why sometimes they have left them.  Br Simon Hòa-Phan’s video installation, Contuitus, however, is not one of those documentaries; rather, it is a work of art that leads us to consider the something more fundamental to monastic life, specifically, its ability to take the ordinary and live it in an extraordinary way.

The title itself, Contuitus, from the Latin verb, contueor, meaning to ponder, contemplate, or survey, gives us a clue to the kind of exhibit attendees will see.  Br Simon-Hòa’s installation does not provide any answers, not a single one.  He only asks a question, then another, and another.  Sometimes he shoots a series of questions in rapid-fire order, and at other times he studies only one drawn out inquiry.  Yet, all the time the interrogations are visual; not a word is spoken: Why is that elderly monk standing there among the leaves?  Why does that monastic habit fall on top of the young monk over there?  Why do we have to walk past a photo of a dead monk projected on the floor?  Why do two monks pause on a path to await a third to join them?  Why is one monk caressing the crucified Christ, while two others walk away with the altar crucifix?

Then there is the stunning photography incorporating architecture old and new amidst the natural landscape of Saint John’s: Stella Maris Chapel in all seasons, the mist-shrouded Sagatagan, and numerous processions in and out of the Abbey Church.  What kind of life is Br Simon-Hòa showing us, and how privileged are we to be invited in to see it?

The installation is not limited to the photography; sound is used sparingly but resolutely. Within the main gallery there are numerous people—mostly monks, students, faculty, and staff of the School of Theology•Seminary—reading from the chapter on hospitality in the Rule of Saint Benedict.  It is a constant refrain, in male and female voices, each with their different accents and emphases, “All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ…”(53:1).  Walk a few steps further, and the plaintive, almost melancholic, sonority of a single cello takes over, and in fact, becomes the dominant tone of the second gallery, if not the whole show.  The mellow, baritone tune is most prevalent where photos of the same scene (the southern shore of the Sagatagan) taken from three different angles are fused onto a single screen.  Here, Br Simon-Hòa presents one of Saint John’s most beloved views; it is something familiar now displayed as a texture of flora, fauna, water, snow, rain, and sunlight, lots of sunlight.

What makes this installation so captivating is the poetry.  The digital photographs, modulated voice-overs, and a hypnotic cello move the viewer into the heart and soul of the vocation.  State of the art technology becomes the medium leading us through the Sturm und Drang of 1500 years of monasticism as lived at Saint John’s Abbey today.  Br Simon-Hòa has given us a contemplative survey, a contuitus, of the whole ontological fabric of monastic life with its faith, doubt, joys, sorrows, pitfalls, triumphs, beauty, and ugliness.  No documentary this.  Br Simon-Hòa maintains that monks seek to do ordinary things in an extraordinary way.  With his Contuitus, we see the grace necessary to do so.


Exhibit Information

Contuitus: A View from the Monastery
February 3 – March 14, 2014
Alice R. Rogers Gallery and Target Gallery
Saint John’s University’s Art Center

The clearly defined space and subject matter created in this video installation by CSB/SJU art faculty member Simon-Hòa Phan, OSB, explores his personal reflections about monastic life.

Please note: the SJU Art Center will be

closed from February 28 – March 10, 2014.

Planting seeds, growing roots

tree roots

Four years at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University of living, breathing, laughing, studying, and praying have allowed me to develop a real sense of “home” here.  Graduating from St Ben’s was difficult. I did not want to leave my friends, my professors, my community. My time spent at CSB/SJU was filled with biology lectures, lab notebooks and frog muscle dissections. My conversations revolved around the ability of chimpanzees to possess the capacity for language, the influence of odor and emotion on memory, and the various developmental stages of a chick embryo. Never did I anticipate that I would one day return “home” to study theology.

Fast forward a bit. The year after I graduated I spent serving in Denver with the Colorado Vincentian Volunteers.  I embraced every minute of the joys and struggles that come from educating others on the reality of poverty, living in community, and striving to live in solidarity with those we served.  As the time came to start thinking about the next chapter in my life, I was excited. I was ready for another grand adventure.  I wanted to go somewhere far away from home. Take me to Africa. Send me to Europe. Let me stay in Denver.

My searching and praying led me to a place I never expected, good ol’ St. John’s School of Theology.  In the midst of discerning my next endeavor, signs of God’s grace started springing up all over the place.  For the first time in my life, the path I was to take was entirely clear.  I knew where I was being called.  But I had no idea why.

Having spent a little over one semester at the SOT, it is so good to be home. After continual discernment, I feel that this is where I belong right now. I have a new-found adventurous spirit that desires to travel and needs to be fed.  But, right now, I need to establish my roots.  I am here to strengthen the foundation of my faith (academically and spiritually).  And though, this adventure is not like one I ever imagined, it is an adventure in itself. A beautiful, life-giving, heart-captivating, question-stirring adventure.  My time here is reminding me to treat each day as a new adventure as I strengthen the roots that will ground me for all future endeavors.

written by Laura Shrode, graduate student

Saint John’s School of Theology

Breaking Bread

The loaf that became a legend

If you’ve dined at Saint John’s, you’ve probably had the pleasure of sinking your teeth into a slice of fresh Johnnie bread. However, you don’t need to be on campus to hear talk of Johnnie bread, it’s known nationwide! This loaf is indeed legendary.

Johnnie Bread has been a daily staple of the Benedictine monastic community here in Minnesota since 1856 when Saint John’s was founded. The recipe was brought to Minnesota by pioneer Benedictine monks who came from Bavaria, Germany by way of Pennsylvania.

Johnnie bread in wrapperabbey concrete In the 1950s, the school was looking for funds to help build up the campus. Student population was growing, and more space was needed to house and educate them all. Walter Reger OSB, academic administrator and alumni director at the time, worked with food chemists and a local bakery to create a mix commercial bakers could use to make Johnnie Bread. The sales from the mix would help fund the schools building projects. By 1958, 56,000 loaves of Johnnie Bread were being baked and sold to customers from Seattle to Baltimore! The secret was out.

What a loaf can do

If you’re hungry, it will feed you, but our Johnnie bread is doing much more than that. Proceeds from the sale of the loaves and mix is making a difference for people in many ways, including playing a part in the construction of our Saint John’s Abbey Church during the 1960s. Proceeds from bread sales contribute to scholarship funds for students. In the Benedictine tradition, the bread serves as a reminder of daily work and a symbol of hospitality.

About the loaf 

  • Weighing in at two pounds each, Johnnie bread is made in batches of 65 loaves each day.
  • SJU students and staff bake the bread, taking two to three hours per batch start to finish.
  • The bread went nationwide in 1958 when the mix for commercial bakers was created and 56,000 loaves were being baked daily.
  • In 1959, royalties on the bread was bringing in $20,000 per month.
  • The labeled bread bag that you’ll find each loaf in was created in the 1960s when the bread was used as a fundraiser to build the Abbey Church.

You can get your loaves and bread mix at the Great Hall Information Desk and at the Saint John’s Bookstore. The bookstore sells loaves that are evenly pre-sliced as well as the whole loaves, though we can’t take credit for the expression, “The best thing since sliced bread!”

Make a joyful noise

++HoneycombRedTCan you imagine a more beautiful sound than a choir of young people singing praise? The good news is that you don’t have to imagine this; we’ve got that choir here at St. John’s School of Theology: The National Catholic Youth Choir (NCYC)! Continue reading