By Brian Nixon, Special to ASSIST News Service
ALBUQUERQUE, NEW MEXICO (ANS — November 6, 2017 — Tucked in the southern portion of Albuquerque, New Mexico lies 70 acres dedicated to the Norbertine Abbey of Santa Maria De La Vid . To the north of the Abbey is 120 acres of solar panels, to the East is the Rio Grande River, to the West are desert mesas, and to the south, the Isleta Pueblo. Isleta is Spanish for “little island.” The Isleta people have occupied the region since the 14th century. The area is tranquil and beautiful, a territory dedicated sacred space, community, and ministry. It truly is an island in the high desert.
After living in Albuquerque for almost ten years I’ve told myself over and over that I wanted to visit the Abbey. I just never carved out time. But with the recent Share the Journey art exhibit — running through December 16, 2017 — sponsored by the Abbey, I knew a visit was in store .
Arriving at dusk with my family, we found our way to the library, the largest theological library in the region, and one of the spaces housing the artwork. My wife, Melanie, and I began to look at the art, our son, Cailan, grabbed a book from the shelf and found a chair, listening to a group of musicians sing hymns.
The art exhibition showcased artists from the community, reflecting life as journey; a sojourn “shared together, yet experienced through different and personal paths” as the information provided by the Abbey stated.
As we strolled over to the sanctuary—another place housing art and music, we were greeting by people exiting a Taizé prayer service, an interdenominational gathering the Abbey hosts every third Friday. Men and women in white robes were intermixed with people in regular dress, all with smiles on their face.
I was intrigued.
And though I’m familiar with many Orders within the Catholic Church, the Norbertine is one that is not as common. I grabbed some literature, learning about the Abbey and the Order.
Concerning the Order the information stated, “The Norbertine Order is now nearly 900 years old, one of the oldest Roman Catholic religious orders in the world. In the valley of Premontre in France, a small group of men gathered on Christmas Eve, 1121. Led by Norbert of Xanten in Germany, they committed themselves to God, to one another, and to the vita apostolica or to the life as the early Christians did. They built an abbey at Prémontré to be the first home of their service. Communities of Norbertine priests, brothers, sisters and laity can now be found around the world.”
And regarding the Albuquerque Norbertine Abbey, the information indicated, “The Norbertine Community of Santa Maria de la Vid Abbey is the youngest Abbey in our Order. Founded in 1985 as a foundation of St. Norbert Abbey in DePere, Wisconsin, we were elevated to a Canonry (self governing body) on the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, December 12, 2011. We were elevated to the status of an Abbey on August 2nd, 2012, the highest state a house can hold in our ancient order.”
The general outreach of the Abbey was specified as “planting the seeds of our ancient tradition to live a life of community, contemplation and compassionate service with the people of God in the southwestern United States. “ The mission stated, “The Risen Christ sends us Apostles to witness the reality and the power of a Christian community of faith by living a simple communal life according to the Rule of Augustine and the ancient traditions of the Order of Premontre by loving service … especially to its poor and needy.”
I was fascinated, wanting to learn a little more.
After a quick Google search I discovered that Norbert (1080-1134 AD) was a friend of Bernard of Clarivaux (1090-1153 AD), the devotional writer, reformer, and abbot. Norbertines are also known as Premonstratensians and White Canons. And of particular interest, I found that the Norbertines are not monks but Canons Regular, priests living in a community. Norbertines work involves preaching and pastoral ministry, serving in parishes close to their abbeys or priories.
Learning this about the Norbertines made sense as I walked the facility, seeing many rooms dedicated to counseling, prayer, and what seemed like group discussion and retreat space. I got the sense that the Abbey was very active, ministering to a host of people.
Something else that caught my attention — particularly as an artist — is that the Norbertine Order has nine centuries of patronage of the arts and encouraging creative expression. No wonder they were sponsoring an art exhibit.
The artwork represented a host of artists, from children to professional, with special emphasis given to the themes of immigration, faith, and refuge. There was an impressive array of work displayed, from paintings, collage, photography, and sculpture.
Of particular interest to me was the iconography of Russian-born and University of New Mexico graduate, Julia Lambright. I recently watched an episode on PBS’s Colores that highlighted her work, so I was glad to see her art in person . There were two pieces of Lambright’s in the exhibit, a Virgin and Child and one entitled Trinity. Both were exquisite.
Concerning her art, Ms. Albright states, “A work of art is a living thing, with a body as well as a spirit… This is what I felt first when I began practicing Russian icon painting and this is what became an inspiration for my paintings. Despite many barriers, I found it important to challenge this view and approach canonical icon painting parallel to my contemporary artistic practices. My personal communication through this type of image has touched me at completely different levels; as I believe that icons possess the power of spiritual revelation… .”
Yet one does not need to just look at the work on the walls to appreciate art, the Santa Maria De La Vid Abbey building is artwork itself. The sanctuary is small, but striking, highlighting tiled floor, wooden arches, tasteful Christian imagery, pottery, and minimalistic windows. The sanctuary both captivates and calls for deeper contemplation. And a stones throw away from the sanctuary stands the Commons building, designed by Robert Habiger.
To say the experience at the Abbey was well spent would be an understatement; between the art, the mission, the buildings, and exhibition, the whole encounter emboldens deeper engagement, encouraging multiple visits and thoughtful interaction with the people, place, and space.
Santa Maria De La Vid Abbey is a little island, indeed.
- You can watch Julia painting here: https://finearts.unm.edu/watch-julia-lambright-hybrid-iconography-creations/
Photo captions: 1) Santa Maria De La Vid Abbey. 2) Santa Maria De La Vid Abbey sanctuary. 3) Artist, Julie Lambright. 4) Statue in the Santa Maria De La Vid Abbey library. 5) Norbert of Xanten. 6) Brian Nixon.
About the writer: Brian Nixon is a writer, musician, artist, and minister. He’s a graduate of California State University, Stanislaus (BA), Veritas Evangelical Seminary (MA), and is a Fellow at Oxford Graduate School (D.Phil.). To learn more, click here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brian_Nixon
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