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From cloister to
notes on my spiritual journey - Roman Verostko 2012
Detail of "Deciding?", oil painting on canvas, 1951, (click for full view)
A year after I graduated from the Art Institute of Pittsburgh (1949) the U.S. was engaged in military conflict with North Korea and I was of draft age. The tragedies of World War II were still fresh in my mind, especially that of my older brother George who had been blown up in a half track in Germany in the last throes of the war. Such memories fueled my interest in a way of life withdrawn from the turmoil of war. Through the influence of another older brother, Bernard, I began reading about the history of western monasticism.
Bernard had committed himself to monastic life a couple years earlier. My weekend visits with him at the St Vincent monastery deepened my interest. But it was Thomas Merton's popular Seven Storey Mountain that captured my imagination and drew me to romantic notions of a cloistered life. On my 21st Birthday in 1950, I entered a scholastic program at St. Vincent as my first step to becoming a fully committed Benedictine monk and a priest. My interest in monasticism intensified as I learned more about Benedictine traditions associated with art and spirituality. The painting above was made during the time when I pondered whether I could or would make the leap to to take vows and enter my Novitiate year. I entered the Novitiate in 1952.
|Picture of US 9th Armored Division halftracks advancing through Engers, Germany, on March 27, 1945. Four days later, George's halftrack, similar to this one, was hit with a rocket and George was killed.|
|Thomas Merton as a Cisterian Monk (1915–1968). His autobiography, Seven Story Mountain, first published in 1948 sold over 600,000 hard cover copies. Several colleagues, who were about my age and had entered monastic life then, had also been influenced by Merton's book. This increase in vocations suggests that our experience of WW II, the war in Korea and anxiety over the emerging cold war had set the climate for this surge.|
Those years were filled with enthusiasm and a sense of adventure as I found satisfaction in the study of language, philosophy, spirituality and theology. None of these studies ever settled definitively all the disturbing questions I had pertaining to my experience of "Faith". Underneath my enthusiastic commitment there lurked, to some degree, a "doubting Thomas" within myself. My "doubting self" faded in the presence of the learning and strong spirituality I found in several of the older monks. This was especially true of teachers and mentors like Demetrius Dumm, Ildephonse Wortman and Rembert Weakland. Their depth of experience, breadth of knowledge and peaceful demeanor drew me deeper into the life. Yet, in hindsight, I wonder if I wasn't, from the beginning, on an inevitable course that would lead me eventually to leave this way of life.
I created this work while I was in residence at St. Michael's Rectory on West 34th St. in New York where I had a studio space. The Abbot had sent me there to pursue further studies in art history, theory and practice.
The crucifix above exemplifies the marriage of my life and my art during my monastic period. This work presents a suffering body as a twisted form fashioned in red clay mounted on a cross. The cross, painted white with colorful geometric forms complements the form it supports. Human suffering is represented by the clay form while the white cross stands for transformation or resurrection. The process of human suffering is viewed also as a process of transformation like two sides of the same coin. My "New City" paintings symbolized human passion and transformation in a similar way. My art in the 1960's grew from a view of our life's journey as a transforming process through the "vale of tears" to the "New City", the New Jerusalem, the promised land, life after death.
New City, Summer, 1968 (4 ft by 4 ft)
Crayon and acrylic on industrial grade plywood, wire brushed to reveal grain, primed with white gesso. Click image for detail.
Spontaneously drawn crayon markings on large stained fields share the same picture space with carefully sized geometric forms. Each paired form is divided with approximate golden section ratios and painted with color contrasts based on spectrum distances echoing a similar ratio. The marriage of these form oppositions, as in the crucifix above, represented my belief then in life's journey as a transforming process that ultimately resolves conflict and suffering in the New City, the New Jerusalem.
This "New City" series dates from 1964 to 1968. This one is the last in that series..
In January of 1968, about eighteen years after my first steps into that life, I made the decision that I would leave the monastery. I could no longer adhere to the core beliefs on which it was based and would definitively break sacred vows I had promised to keep for my entire life. Since that time friends have wondered about how I experienced that change and where it has taken me. The process was a kind of "growing up" in terms of my responsibility for what I represented to others. My life as a monk was rooted in a belief in divine revelation. My life represented a living testimony of that faith. Within a believing community faith is cultivated as a gift to be treasured and guarded above all else. My "growing up", in regard to my experience of "faith", led me to that moment when I could no longer, in my deepest self, honestly embrace scripture as a divine revelation. I could not continue, as it were, "to bear witness". The transition phase of my "faith experience" came to maturity during the time especially when I worked on the "Psalms in Sound and Image" and the concrete castings for the new St. Vincent Monastery (1966-1967).For several years leading up to 1968 my meditations often led to more explicit doubts about what I believed or thought I believed. My work as an artist came to be fraught with ambiguities in both form and content. My experimental audio-visual presentations posed evocative texts about our experience of life without pointing to answers. My "Psalms in Sound and Image" celebrated nature and the "marvelous" aspect of commonplace life. Those works led me to place more trust in my own experience of life. My innermost beliefs became disturbing questions I could not reconcile with my experience.
Belief in scripture as divine revelation had faded. I had been hiding my unbelief with subtle rationalizations. I experienced myself emerging as an existential contradiction, an "unbelieving" believer or, the opposite, a "believing" unbeliever.
Detail of a mural I painted on the stairwell wall rising to my studio located in the religious studies building, Catholic University, Washington DC, 1965 or 1966 (?)
While working as a Staff Editor for NCE (1964-1967) I bargained for a studio where I could work on my art during weekends and spare moments (see Note 1). The second floor of the Religious Studies offices, located then in a frame house on 7th Street, served as my studio. I painted a mural on the stairwell wall rising to the 2nd story. This work was conceived as a wall illumination of a text embellished with abstract expressionist brush strokes & crayon markings bearing the experience of human anguish. The text from Ibsen's play, "Brand", haunted me at the time: "Does it all count for naught with Thee that man in anguish strives to be?" The saving feature for my belief at that time may have been the "Voice" responding to Brand's plea, "God is love" (see Note 2).
My final confrontation with the concept of "Faith" in Revelation took place in the last months of 1967 and the first weeks of 1968. In January, following a lecture tour with my "Psalms in Sound & Image", I found peace. While my innermost faith had evaporated and I stood on the threshold of the unknown I also experienced a liberating invasion. Unwieldy doctrines that weighed heavily on me for decades faded. Their believability and binding force disappeared. I found myself free to follow the truth of my inner experience, an experience that would lead me more deeply into nature's sanctuary for renewal.
This liberation was strengthened with my friendship with Alice Wagstaff who chaired the graduate school of Psychology at Duquesne University in Pitrtsburgh. We had met in 1967 when she was invited to conduct a seminar for Deacons on "client-centered" therapy at our St. Vincent Seminary. Our friendship grew via correspondence, shared cultural events in Pittsburgh and eventually meetings whenever we could find occasions to meet. As our relationship passed the threshold of casual friendship the option for a radical change of life turned into practical plans to get married. I left my monastic life at the end of the academic year in 1968 and signed on for a teaching job at the Art School in Minneapolis to begin in September. I spent the summer in Pennsylvania preparing coursework and planning a new life with Alice. We were married on August 11th and moved directly to Minneapolis.
Alice at the entrance to the Peace Garden, Minneapolis, Spring 2001
Leaving the monastery turned out to be a liberating experience for both of us. Our marriage brought us both to a sanctuary of inner peace. The restraint of unwieldy “creeds” was gone. My mind embraced the freedom to explore and ask questions without twisting answers to fit inherited beliefs. And it turned out to be OK to embrace life as a mystery without having an answer.
Freed from the time consuming repetition of prayers and religious ceremonies I had more time for my study and studio. More importantly, regional nature preserves became my sanctuary for meditation and reflection . Coupled with the study of world cultures these meditations nurtured a growing interest in our human relationship to nature and ecological ethics. For me our nature preserves emerged as precious "sanctuaries" of our time, cathedrals nurturing life.
|Peace Garden, Minneapolis, Spring 2001|
Through these sanctuaries the mystery of life and the immensity of cosmos has seeped more and more into my consciousness. This new life heightened my inner experience of "being here", awakening me to the binding interconnections to each other, to other life, and to the earth. This experience has charged me with a spiritual strength and peace I had not known before. It has brought me to embrace life more fully and to stand without any fear of the unknown.
Note 1. I was appointed Staff Editor for Art & Architecture for the New Catholic Encyclopedia, a 15 Volume standard reference published by McGraw Hill in 1968. This project kept me in Washington at Catholic University for most of the time from 1964 to 1967.
Note 2. *Brand is quoted from PART III, A TIME TO CAST AWAY STONES
BRAND: (his face lifted up towards the descending avalanche):
The jaws of death encompass me
Does it all count for naught with Thee
That man in anguish strives to be?
(The avalanche sweeps him away. The valley is buried in snow. Through the roar a Voice is heard.)
VOICE: God is love.
Ibsen: Brand, trans. W.H.Auden, in Dag Mammerskjöld, . (New York: Alfred A.Knopf, 1964), p.204
*Thanks to to Aaron Marx for confirming my source.
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