Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
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Benedictine with Spokane roots lives two vocations: as a monk, as an artist
Story and photos by Eric Meisfjord, Editor, Inland Register
(From the September 17, 2015 edition of the Inland Register)
Benedictine Brother Claude Lane displays his recently-completed icon of the “Irish Madonna.” (IR photo)
Eastern Washington Catholics might already be aware of his work. Brother Claude Lane, of the Benedictine abbey of Mount Angel in St. Benedict, Ore., is the hand behind the Spokane Diocese’s millennium icon, distributed to parishes and other entities during the celebrations for the year 2000.
Or they might have seen copies of his icons for sale through The Printery House. Another of his icons graces the chapel at St. Peter Church in Spokane.
A more prominent, and more ambitious, project is now in process: a mural of the Ascension, to grace the narthex of St. Peter Church.
Brother Claude is a Spokane native, born in the city at Sacred Heart Medical Center. He attended primary school here, including St. John Vianney School in what is now Spokane Valley, before entering Mater Cleri Seminary, then the Spokane Diocese’s high school seminary in Colbert.
Brother Claude – his Religious name; he was born Dan Thomas Lane – was always interested in art, he said. As a child he would find pictures, especially icons, in books that he would try to duplicate, using whatever materials were available – his way of winding down after a day of school.
“Even as a 10-year-old in the Spokane Valley,” he felt a connection to art, especially icons. “I loved them, tried to draw them.
“I was always drawing,” he said. “School was awful. I hated school. That was my way of relaxing: get a book, a piece of paper, start copying something I saw in a book.”
That early connection to art was reinforced in two ways during his time at Mater Cleri.
One of the priests on staff, Father Anthony King, “encouraged me and gave me opportunities,” he said, including a commission to paint a portrait of St. Teresa of Ávila.
The other was one of his fellow seminarians, Gary Zodrow, a year ahead of him in school. “He walked up to me the first time – we’d been there about a week – in the library, where I was looking at a big, old art book. He said, ‘Do you like art? So do I.’ And from then on we would do art together.”
The seminarian he described as “a great influence” – “he would acquire art supplies. I didn’t really have any way to get them or even knew where, or how to use them, but he did know about that stuff” – also entered Mount Angel Abbey and in time became Abbot Nathan.
Dan left Mater Cleri for his junior year of high school but returned for senior year. He had made the decision to become a Benedictine.
“I was fortunate to have Mater Cleri, have the exposure I did,” he said. From that time came both of his vocations: “to being a monk, and to being an artist. The seeds were planted very, very well at Mater Cleri.”
Benedictine Brother Claude Lane is at work on a mural of the Ascension, for the narthex of St. Peter Church in Spokane. (IR photo)
Benedictine monasticism was always part of his family life. “I grew up mostly with my mom’s parents, Germans from Russia. Very, very Catholic, from North Dakota,” where there was a Benedictine monastery. “Some of my mom’s cousins were and are monks at Assumption Abbey. My grandmother kept in close contact with them. They would pass through. It was very interesting. This kind of constant flow of information, photos of solemn processions, ordinations, I’d see these pictures, hear them talk. They would explain about all things Benedictine, and I was just loving it. Eating it all up. I felt a real connection to it.”
That family Catholicism is also where he gets his sense of humor, he said. “I was blessed in that, too. The Catholicism, but also a kind of droll, somewhat fatalistic sense of humor about life – the glass is always half empty with them. But it’s funny” at the same time.
The next introduction came through a seminary basketball tournament that brought a team and staff from Mount Angel Seminary High School. Dan and Gary traveled to Mount Angel for a visit and met with their vocation director. Between that experience and his family exposure to Benedictine life, “it just resonated with me,” he said. “Gary and I had been talking about monastic life anyway.”
Father Joseph Danneker, the diocese’s vocations director in those days, would help guide the students to a deep understanding of their vocation, which might or might not be diocesan priesthood – and so Dan Lane graduated from Mater Cleri and after a summer pulling weeds at Sacred Heart Parish, entered Mount Angel Abbey with Gary Zodrow.
“I didn’t have the intention of being ordained; I was coming to be a monk of Mount Angel,” said Brother Claude. “I came with the intention of being an artist.”
Another individual who encouraged him was Abbot Damian Jentges, then abbot of Mount Angel Abbey.
Despite what might be a common perception of monastic communities, “on a practical level, art is often not encouraged. Other things need to get done,” said Brother Claude.
There is, of course, the life of a monk, which involves study, lectio divina, praying the Psalms, studying Scripture. “You need a background to do that, in order to do it in the best way possible,” he said. And so he was sent to the seminary’s college, with becoming an artist as “the trajectory.”
Monks also promise obedience. As the needs of the community change, members of the community might be required to take on different responsibilities. “If the abbot decides differently, whatever point you’re at, it means doing what you’re told, no matter what,” he said. Becoming an artist, then, was not necessarily a foregone conclusion.
Eventually, however, he also taught iconography lessons in the seminary. A side benefit was that he “made some very good friends. These priests who’ve turned out to be really good” iconographers.
At its heart, he said, “Iconography is religious. It’s about the Christian faith,” both in its finished product and in process of creating the art. The iconographer not only concentrates on eye-hand coordination, but also learns to “think of things in a different way, in terms of colors and lines, things like that.” He recalled one student in particular who “had so many troubles with his back. Maybe it was even psychosomatic. He started the iconography course. He told me his back should be hurting,” but as he began the iconographic process, “he’d just relax. A lot of those guys would relax. A few have kept it up. They seem to be effective in their work.”
He left the community for a few years in the late 1970s and early 1980s – he worked for a time for a catering service in San Francisco. He returned to the Spokane area at the death of his brother in a car accident and found work here, working with developmentally disabled adults. He traveled, experienced art throughout the United States and Europe. “Those years were a good time,” he said. “I used to say to myself, a person may want to be something, in their heart, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to be that.
“But then, I had this great wonderful refreshing bit of information, or news, or whatever, by way of Father Jeremy” Driscoll, a priest of Mount Angel: the then-abbot, Abbot Bonaventure Zerr, “wanted me to come back. If I wanted to. If I was interested. He would be very happy about that.
“I felt like it was a real call.”
In addition, Abbot Bonaventure was interested in the Eastern Rites and wanted icons for a chapel at the abbey.
“That started me on the road,” said Brother Claude.
He had other tasks as a member of the community: he worked in the bookbindery; managed the abbey’s press operation. Abbot Bonaventure’s successor, Abbot Peter Eberle, “came to me, about 1992, and asked if I’d like to work on icons full time.
“I realized, when I was a kid, of having this fantasy of being a monk and an iconographer. And here I was. Appointed to be an iconographer. I was doing what had been kind of a dream, a fantasy, before I even went to the seminary.”
His current project at St. Peter was the result of another member of the abbey community.
Father Paul Thomas of Mount Angel was in Spokane, visiting with Father Brian Mee, pastor of St. Peter. He saw the large space above the entry doors in the narthex, and reportedly said to Father Mee, “Why don’t you have Claude paint a mural?”
Father Mee took the suggestion seriously. “I suggested the Ascension,” said Brother Claude.
It was fortuitous in other ways. Brother Claude wanted to find a way to spend time in the Spokane area, where his mother lives. With her health challenges, “I wanted to spend some time with her.” His brother and sister and nieces are also in the area, but the commission, if he could get permission, “was a perfect opportunity.”
Mount Angel’s present abbot, Gregory Duerr, “didn’t hesitate” to grant permission.
The preparations for the mural weren’t complete when he arrived in late May, but in the meantime he created an icon of the Irish Madonna.
The Madonna is part of a Scout project on St. Peter’s property. The story of the original Irish Madonna art dates back to the time of Cromwell, and an Irish bishop who had to flee to the European continent, taking the Madonna with him. The art later began to miraculously weap.
The Madonna is represented commonly in Hungarian churches, he said, and is present as well in Toledo, Ohio.
“Mine is an iconized version of it,” he said, painted on birch panel. The result will be framed and displayed.
His mural of the Ascension will also be painted on wood, using acrylic paint. “You want to make a piece of art as light as possible,” he said, whether jewelry, or a chalice, or something else. Weight “ensures damage” if people have to struggle to carry or move it. “Some of the finest jewelry and art objects are the lightest,” he said.
Although his depiction of the Ascension will be installed in the narthex, or entry, of St. Peter Church, icons are “meant to be used and venerated and moved,” he said.
“I remember picking up some of the 400-year-old Old Believer icons” at Mount Angel. The artists “used very lightweight woods.”
His work on the mural at St. Peter will probably continue through “at least September,” Brother Claude said.
The faces of the Apostles aren’t based on anyone in particular, he said. “I made them up,” he smiled.
Spoken like an artist.
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