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Sunday, April 30, 2017

St. John's Bible continues to illuminate

Years ago, I had the chance to write  about the St. John's Bible when it spent some time at John Carroll University. It is so distinct and unique that I recognized the art immediately when I received a copy of Health Progress, the quarterly journal of the Catholic Health Association. Throughout it's latest issue, there are pages from the St. John's Bible used as illustrations. It's quite stunning. Here's my story again from the June 2008 Catholic Universe Bulletin. I recommend perusing some of the images on the St. John's Bible website

St. John's Bible illuminates the word of God for our time
By Wendy A. Hoke
UNIVERSITY HEIGHTS—St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minn., is essentially a train stop, a modern campus that marks time by the rhythm of the monks who call the abbey home.

Just an hour from the Twin Cities, it also is home to a spectacular work of art. For the first time in 500 years, the Benedictines of St. John’s Abbey have collaborated on a handwritten and illuminated bible known as the St. John’s Bible.

If your summer travel plans don’t include a trip to the Twin Cities, you can head over to John Carroll University, where just inside the Grasselli Library is a copy of the Wisdom Books of the St. John’s Bible, a gift from Target Corp., in honor of retired Target Executive Vice President John Pellegrene, a North Canton native and John Carroll alumnus.

The oversized Bible is rich with imagery from a craft that dates to the ancient world, when manuscripts were on scrolls of papyrus, according to Joseph Kelly, professor of religious studies at John Carroll University. By the Eighth and Ninth centuries, Benedictine monasteries of the west, under the patronage of the Emperor Charlemagne, began writing and illuminating not just sacred works, but also secular works such as love songs.

Near the end of the Middle Ages, however, capitalism and the need for a literate public led to more widespread printing of books. Illuminated manuscripts were left to history.

But in the early 1970s, Donald Jackson—senior illuminator to the Queen of England’s Crown Office—appeared on NBC’s “The Today Show” where host Barbara Walters asked him about his life’s dream. His response? “I would like to write the Bible.”

Later he would describe his dream as, “The calligraphic artist’s supreme challenge (our Sistine Chapel), a daunting task.”

Sharing his life’s dream on national television brought him to the attention of St. John’s Abbey, a Benedictine monastery with the largest collection of manuscripts in the world—10 million images and 2 million manuscripts, according to Craig Bruner, director of operations, The St. John’s Bible.

Jackson was the main attraction at the first calligraphy conference held at St. John’s in 1984. During an interview with Minnesota Public Radio, he reiterated his desire to write the Bible, something Abbey community kept in mind as the relationship between them continued.

In the mid-1990s, in preparation for a millennium project, Father Eric Hollas of St. John’s asked Jackson over lunch if he would make the word of God live on the page.

“Do you want it?” he asked.

The answer was unequivocally yes. Jackson and St. John’s Abbey would illuminate the St. John’s Bible—a celebration of books, the book arts and religion.

Video accounts on St. John’s Web site show Jackson using the ancient practice of preparing his Quill, stripping its feathers and mixing his inks with egg yolks for lasting color.

In March 2000, the first words were penned.

In the beginning was the Word, And the Word was with God,

And the Word was God. Brother Dietrich Reinhart, OSB, describes the frontispiece as, “The word of God striding out of cosmic time into the world we live in.”

When complete in late 2009 or early 2010, the entire St. John’s Bible will comprise seven volumes—Pentateuch, Wisdom Books, Psalms, Prophets, Gospels and Acts of the Apostles, Historical Writings and Letters and Revelation, according to Bruner.

In all, the St. John’s Bible will contain 1,160 pages and 160 illuminations. While the originals will be housed at St. John’s on permanent exhibition, reproductions like the one at John Carroll will travel the world.

While the text is rooted in history, using ancient methods, it is also very much a product of its time, according to Kelly.

“When medieval scribes were writing and illuminating the Bible, they wrote and illuminated what they knew—flora, fauna and people around them,” says Bruner. “It was modern to them just as the illuminations in the St. John’s Bible reflect the flora, fauna and life of people today.”

In the opening to Matthew with the genealogy of Christ, the illuminations feature the double helix of DNA embedded in the manuscript. “That locates this work in the 21st century, because that’s when human genome project was completed,” says Bruner.

The books are more a work of art than scholarly text, but Bruner says the original will be used liturgically for Christmas, Easter, graduation and other major celebrations.
And there’s a hope the reproductions, which will make their way around the world, will ignite spiritual imaginations.

“We’re trying to make a statement about faith and the importance of art and imagination,” says Brother Reinhart in a video about the project. “The fact that there’s common ground for us to stand on in a world torn apart by violence and hatred and it’s to be found in the sacred texts that enliven and enrich all cultures on this planet.”

Visit for information, photos and video of the project.

Hoke is a freelance writer.

Materials used in the original St. John’s Bible

The original Bible is made on calfskin vellum, specifically prepared for writing. The reproductions are made on 100 percent cotton archival paper.

Inks used include lapis lazuli, 24-karat gold leaf and 100-year-old Chinese black inks made from candle soot.

The gold leaf is decades old and made by hammering pieces of gold flat until it is foil thickness. Calligraphers use a substance called gesso—white lead, fish glue and plaster—that they paint on and let it dry. Using a small tube in their mouth they blow on the gesso to warm it up and create a surface glue that they put the foil on. Using a burnisher, (a stone mounted on a wood handle) the calligrapher rubs the foil, making it permanent.

Monday, October 10, 2016

From patient to survivor

Survivor (noun): One who continues to live after illness, accident or war. 

 "So when do I go from patient to survivor," I asked my oncologist earlier this month. It's a question that has consumed me since surgery in July. 
Clockwise from top left: Flowers sent to my work from my hubby and boys;
certificate of completion from radiation; bathroom is full of creams and gels;
champagne and balloon from my good pal and neighbor.

"Oh, Wendy, you were a survivor the first day you walked in here," she said. 

Love her optimism. It's one of the reasons I chose her as my oncologist. And of course she's right. There was never any question of survival in my mind. But I wanted to know at what point I refer to myself as a survivor. 

"I'd say as soon as you're done with your radiation," she said. 

Today is that day. Chemo, surgery and radiation are now in my rear-view mirror. I'm far from done with breast cancer. My tumor fed on estrogen. So for the next five years, I'll take a pill daily to block the estrogen and hopefully prevent any recurrence. Reconstruction will be next summer. It takes about six months for the skin to totally heal from radiation. And then we will resume the expansion process to prepare for reconstruction surgery sometime next summer. 

The journey has already been 13 months and I have survived. April and Anne Marie, my radiology techs, told me they had a special song for me today. And as I began my series of deep-breath holds one last time, I heard Elton John sing, "I'm Still Standing." Made me smile. 

Cancer stays with you. The physical reminders are many--mastectomy scars, chemo hair, fragile veins and a burned and blistering armpit from radiation. I'm managing with my assortment of gels and creams and hope to see improvement by the end of this week. 

But even when the physical reminders have healed and reconstruction is complete, cancer will remain a part of my psyche. The challenge is to not let the worry keep me from living. Treatment necessarily requires you to press the pause button on many aspects in life. 

Today,  I'm pushing play.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

You are where you need to be ... just breathe

Radiation treatment has begun and it's the final stage of my cancer treatment. I'm in week two of a six-week course of treatments that last all of five to eight minutes. By October 10th, I'll be done. The countdown to completion is on.

Unlike chemotherapy or surgery, radiation cannot be seen or felt. It's a big ole mystery to me. So I ask questions. Its effects are cumulative, I'm told. Eventually, it will lead to fatigue and skin changes such as sunburn and possible blistering and peeling of skin. Beautiful. Can't wait. Right now, I don't feel much of anything.

Two techs--April and Anne Marie--line me up under the linear accelerator (LINAC for short). Sounds scary, I know, but it looks a little like other scans, only larger. But there's no comfy cushion on the table. I'm on a sheet on the hard table with my head resting in a clear plastic mold. They slide a leg rest under my knees, which helps me to relax. (Side note: I need one of those for home.) I grab onto the handlebars above my head and let my elbows drop to the trays positioned on either side.

In preparation for treatment, the techs tattooed tiny freckles on my chest and sides to ease with the lineup. I lay heavy on the table while they use the sheet to position me perfectly. With the mother of all remotes, they move me up and under the LINAC. "Turn your head slightly to the right." I always forget that part because I'm fascinated with watching the red and green lights. The red creates a target on my chest. The green looks like some kind of measurement device striped down the middle of my chest.

A cross is cut into the ceiling tile above me with red LED lights glowing from within. I asked what it's for and it's simply a center point for alignment. All the lights are cool and distracting. I want to turn my head, but I have to remember to keep it angled.

Because my tumor was on my left breast, the radiation oncologist was concerned about my heart being in the way of the radiation beams. "How long can you hold your breath?" he asked me. "I don't know. Pretty long, I guess. 30 seconds, maybe. Should I practice?" I'm nothing if not a good student.

He explained that when I hold my breath, my heart moves up and to the right away from the radiation beams. So each of the six angles begins with instructions over the intercom to, "Breathe in ... breathe out ... breathe in ... and hold."

An electrical buzzing sounds though I cannot see or feel anything.  I fight my body's urge to twitch while holding my breath. I close my eyes and find my zen. "And breathe." Phheeeewwwww.

The LINAC moves around me with batwing-like trays coming in close, showing red laser lights across my body and then slowly, smoothly flying out again. Each time, it's a different angle targeting the beam on what's called the "tumor bed." The large round accelerator uses a series of "fine, tungsten leaves" to shape the beam to the precise shape of the tumor bed. I can see and hear these leaves being adjusted in the accelerator, almost like the aperture on an SLR camera.

With each position, I hold my breath longer ... 10 seconds, 17 seconds, 22 seconds. And then I'm done. And I'm one step closer to being a cancer survivor instead of a patient.

Thursday, September 08, 2016

If You Were Born Today, September 8:

If You Were Born Today, September 8:
You are not only creative, you are able to channel your vision into practical avenues of expression. You are not well-suited to routine work. Your mind is always busy, and if you’re not using it productively, you are given to worrying and overanalyzing. Some worrying is good–you are strong at organizing. Too much, and you fret over the small stuff. Overall, however, you are hopeful and fresh and have an unusual spin on life that intrigues others. You are hard-working, inventive, and talented. Your ideas are gold–you can turn a brainchild into something lucrative. Famous people born today: Pink, Peter Sellers, Patsy Cline, David Arquette, Martin Freeman, Jonathan Taylor Thomas.
Happy Birthday also to Ruby Bridge, Matthew Dellavedova, Bernie Sanders, Sid Caesar, David Carr and the Virgin Mary.

Monday, September 05, 2016

A year of living with cancer

My husband tried to get me to open up. We had a long weekend ahead of us to wait to learn the "official" results of my biopsy. It seemed I was doomed to have all diagnostics on Fridays when the delay in getting results would be excruciating.

I kept telling myself, "You can deal with anything once you know what it is."

But over the Labor Day Weekend in 2015, no amount of self-talk was working on my psyche. I knew I had breast cancer. I didn't yet know what kind or what stage. I knew I was facing surgery, chemotherapy, radiation. Though I did not yet know in what order. Very few people in my life knew what was happening at this point.

When you're inside your head and afraid, you feel utterly alone.

My three sons were away for the weekend. We had no plans and in retrospect, we should have crammed our weekend full of fun stuff. "Let's take a drive," my husband said. We wound up at the Rocky River Marina, watching boats gliding up and down the river. As we sat on a picnic table, I confessed that I felt alone.

While I was at my lowest emotional point, no tears would come.

I just kept cycling through a series of questions. How would the boys handle my weakness? How would my husband? Could I work? What if I couldn't? How would we pay the bills? Will I feel sick? Will I look sick? Will I die? How will my family go on without me?

Speaking the fear always makes it seem less scary.

"You have to tell people," my husband said. "Give them a chance to care for you." Of course he was right. Virgos have a tough time depending on people or even sharing their innermost thoughts. We like to go along as if everything is fine and under control. But I knew I would need the support and love of others to carry me through. So I sent my first email on Labor Day evening 2015:
 I need to share some news. I've been diagnosed with breast cancer.
There. I typed the words. It would become easier the more I said it, but that first time on September 7 was difficult. Everyone asks the obvious:
Did you find it yourself or on mammogram? Found it myself and had been ignoring for long time. I'll write about that another time. 
What kind and what stage is it? I have estrogen positive, ductal carcinoma. My opinion on stage was that I didn't care to know. It would have no bearing on how I would face this. 
What's the prognosis? Really?!!! This is not a question you ask someone who was recently diagnosed with cancer. Because here's my response: I'm gonna fight with everything I've got and I'm going to recover. What other prognosis is there?
 After 3 p.m. on Tuesday after Labor Day I was in my car in a downtown parking garage leaving a meeting. I called the surgeon's office to get the biopsy results.


"Wendy Hoke."



"Wow, that's..."

"Today, yeah."

"Happy Birthday. OK, doctor will give you a call back."

The mid-morning sun filters through the trees
to illuminate this statue I see on my daily walks.
As it turned out the results weren't ready until the next day. The lab was delayed because of the Monday holiday. But once I had the official results, I was relieved and then anxious to get started on treatment. I would have a series of scans--bone, heart, PET, CT--all to confirm it had not spread anywhere else and that my heart was healthy enough to get blasted with chemo.

"Wendy, you cannot hold your breath in the scan and hope it doesn't find cancer," my mom, a 17-year survivor of non-Hodgkins Lymphoma advised. "Go into the scanner, close your eyes, give it up to God and let the machines do their job."

So while I would not sleep the night before these tests, I did as my mom so wisely counseled. A good friend had given me bracelets, one with the Virgin Mary and the other a Shamrock. As my hands were clasped above my head, I would hold the charms and recite the Hail Mary. It helped to calm me down and I'm sure it kept my blood pressure normal.

On the morning of Wednesday, September 30th, I got a call from my oncologist saying the cancer had not spread and in a change of plans she wanted to get chemo started that day. I was at work, heading into a management meeting....literally standing in the hallway when I got the call. In retrospect, it was a good thing. I didn't have time to think or worry. I just said, OK.

"Before we begin, I need you to sign this consent to treat form," my oncologist said.

I read it over and the box was checked, "I consent to this treatment to cure my cancer." (bold is mine)
"Cure? We use that word?" I asked. She nodded. "It's an aggressive treatment plan, but yes."

"I'll gladly sign that and I'd like a copy for my records."

It's a year of your life and then it's over or so goes the traditional thinking. But my cancer was stage 3 and nothing about my treatment was traditional. I started with chemo and thought I'd have surgery after. Instead, I was put on Tamoxifen to help further shrink the tumor. I had mastectomy six weeks ago and tomorrow I head back to work AND begin radiation, my final stage of treatment.

We're at the year mark and the active treatment end is in sight. But I'll be on anti-estrogen medication for five years. And the process of reconstruction following mastectomy probably won't happen until next summer. But as my plastic surgeon said the day after surgery:

"Once you finish with radiation, you can start to reclaim your life."

I'm not waiting until after radiation. I reclaimed my life once I realized what was at stake a year ago. I notice things more acutely -- colors, smells, sounds. I smile easily, which is something I've always done. I give hugs freely. And I count every day as a blessing.