Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Beautiful Mercy a collaboration of St. Benedict's Table members

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When he takes his turn leading music at his church, Gord Johnson depends on the inspiration of looming deadlines to compose a new song for worship.

"I just get more and more creative closer to the end," explains the songwriter known for his spare, contemplative song-prayers that have shaped the worship style at St. Benedict's Table.

"The songs are born more out of the text I'm working on for the next Sunday."

Three of Johnson's songs are included in Beautiful Mercy: A Book of Hours, a compilation of music, visual art, creative writing, meditations and reflections by 50 or so congregants of this newest church in the Anglican Diocese of Rupert's Land. The 160-page book also includes a pocket for the 13-track audio CD of original music composed and performed by musicians at St. Benedict's Table, including a song by singer/songwriter Steve Bell.

Bell has also recorded eight of Johnson's worship songs on his 2008 album, Devotion.

Inspired by medieval hand-lettered and illustrated prayer books for Christians who lived their faith outside the walls of the monastery, Beautiful Mercy is organized around the traditional seven daily prayers, or hours, of monastic life. The book includes a creative effort -- visual, written or a combination -- for every prayer time, during each of the seven major seasons of the church calendar. Instead of being a traditional prayer book, this contemporary version is intended to aid theological reflection and insight during times such as Advent, Lent and Pentecost, explains the priest of St. Benedict's Table.

"It may be used devotionally. I would almost see it being used occasionally," says Rev. Jamie Howison of the book that evokes its medieval counterpart with a large italic font, aged parchment-style pages and hand-drawn capital letters designed by church members for this project.

The 20-by-20-centimetre full-colour illustrated book, which sells for $50, will be formally launched Tuesday, March 2, at McNally-Robinson Booksellers at Grant Park Shopping Centre. Howison says presenting it first to a public audience was a deliberate decision to share his congregation's creativity in the context of the surrounding culture.

"When this group of people comes together and somebody shapes it into a book, it's offered first as an act of prayer," he explains of the $15,000 project, which was partially supported by memorial donations. "It's poured out into a society which hungers for things that are beautiful, challenging and true. That's what it means for Christians to do art."

Inspired by the 2008 Winnipeg Art Gallery exhibit of the hand-written St. John's Bible,

Beautiful Mercy celebrates the artistic collaboration of the young, the older and in-between of this congregation of 250, which meets Sunday nights at All Saints Anglican Church on Osborne Street and Broadway.

One of the youngest contributors is Noah Falk, a budding photographer who has already amassed 12,000 digital images.

"Noah is very much in touch with mystery," explains Kalyn Falk on behalf of her non-verbal autistic son, who turns 12 next week. "In his artwork, there's something deep going on. He's writing himself into the story in some mysterious way."

Not only is creativity a mysterious act, it is also an extravagant, but totally necessary one in the lives of the faithful, says Howison, 49, who acknowledges his congregation attracts a larger-than-usual share of the creative class.

The publication of Beautiful Mercy coincides with the fifth anniversary of St. Benedict's Table and is the latest creative effort of this young congregation, which has already produced several music CDs, a couple of art exhibits and runs an ongoing monthly ideas evening at the downtown Aqua Books.

"I think the church of late decided that the spoken, linear, propositional, rational word was the way you did theology," says Howison, a member of the Primate's Theological Commission of the Anglican Church of Canada. "Part of what is being proclaimed here is that theology is also done here through music and art and the written word."

"It also encourages our identity as a community and it gives us something to share," adds Falk, 38, a drummer and choreographer. "There's so much going on artistically and it creates our identity."

For writer and English-language tutor Shauna Budyk, the creative atmosphere at St. Benedict's Table gives her the opportunity to explore ideas and words.

"There's a depth and fullness in the community that allows people to express themselves at a deeper, fuller level," explains Budyk, 48, who contributed a short fiction piece for the Lent section of Beautiful Mercy.

Johnson says the liturgical worship style at St. Benedict's Table gave him the context to write songs in what he describes as a fusion of a contemplative style and North American roots music, a style quite different than other contemporary Christian music. That opportunity for creative expression has rooted his faith, and in turn, allowed him to give back to the wider church.

"True spirituality is finding how you are absolutely unique and God created you," says Johnson, 54, who works as a home renovator. "This is me being able to contribute to the kingdom of God, the body of Christ, the Anglican Communion, of what I believe is intrinsically who I am as an artist. I feel that is my gift to the church."


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 27, 2010 H13

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