Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta

Evocative Monastery Photos Serve Up Visual Feast

By LORRAINE V. MURRAY, Book Reviewer | Published November 8, 2007

PORTRAITS OF GRACE: Images and Words From the Monastery of the Holy Spirit; by James Stephen Behrens, OCSO; ACTA Publications (Skokie, Ill., 2007);128 pp. paperback; $19.95.

It is fortunate that we can’t gain weight simply by gazing at a book. Because if that were true, “Portraits of Grace” would be a no-no for dieters.

As this reviewer pored over the more than 100 sumptuous color photographs that grace this book, she felt that she was partaking of a true visual feast.

And what makes it all the more delicious is the realization that proceeds from the book’s sale help the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers.

Father James Stephen Behrens is a Trappist monk and the retreat master at the monastery. His book of striking images from the kitchen, the chapel and the monastery grounds reveals that he also is a master photographer.

The book would make a memorable Christmas gift for anyone eager to glimpse the hidden beauty that permeates the ordinary things of the world.

In one photo, for example, crisp, white dinner napkins have been placed in glasses on a table, with the edges emerging in a distinctly wing-like fashion.

Father Behrens was there at the precise moment when the sunlight flooded the table, casting delicate shadows that give you the sense that the napkins might, at any moment, come to life and fly away.

In another outstanding photo, a simple, shining white bowl is nestled in an equally pristine plate, while the light drenches both objects, imbuing them with a mysterious beauty.

Father Behrens has written short reflections to accompany the photos. Pondering the empty bowl, he mentions how often we ask God to fill our lives with a sense of his presence.

But perhaps God comes to us through things that need filling: “What if God is an empty stomach, a broken heart, an anguished cry, an empty bowl?”

Another photo shows two flower pots leaning on their sides, slightly touching. In that humble moment, Father Behrens perceives a message about friendship and reminds us that “God speaks through silence.”

One of the most powerful photos comes at the very end of the book and needs no words to explain it. In it, leaves are strewn along a brick path with moss growing in the crevices and shadows creating patterns.

Where does the path lead? Who has walked it before? Does it convey loneliness or joy?

Like so many of Father Behrens’ photos, the power of this scene lies in its mystery.

Another photo reveals a thicket of trees, and then a surprise: a large wooden cross with the figure of Christ carved upon it, propped against one tree.

“The meaning of life is often hidden amidst the ordinary, asking only that we pause, look, ponder,” the author notes.

This is exactly what these portraits of grace present. An invitation to pause, look and ponder—and in so doing, to come away feeling refreshed, amused and delighted.

Almost as if one had taken a retreat at the monastery in Conyers.

Retreats invite us closer to God by omitting the things that so often cause stress. Like cars, crowds, advertising and technology.

This book draws us into God’s presence by unveiling the same scenes that might nurture our souls while we’re on a retreat.

A bee dancing on a flower. A hopeful vine inching its way up a tree. A cat perched expectantly upon a brick ledge.

Father Behrens has a gift for perceiving the hand of God in ordinary things. In one photo, for example, a large, intricately woven spider web dangles from a tree like a lace mantilla.

In another, a humble purple flower decorates a vine growing on a fence. A splash of light illuminates the center of the flower, inspiring the author to note: “Beauty is another way God tells us something about divinity.”

“Some of the most beautiful people are simple people who see beauty everywhere, because God is in their hearts,” he adds.

These striking portraits of grace suggest that perhaps the author is one of these people. And when you turn the last page, you may, like this reviewer, find yourself very grateful to Father Behrens for preparing this delicious and soul-nourishing feast.


Lorraine V. Murray is the author of three books, including “Grace Notes: Embracing the Joy of Christ in a Broken World.” Her e-mail address is