Consecrated life and photography seem to go together.
A significant number of priests and religious in Oregon have embraced the art of light and composure. These expert practitioners of prayer and service seem naturally to have a deep appreciation for the beauty of God's creation, from flowers and sunrises to weather-seasoned human faces.
For some busy parish priests, treks for nature photography offer delicious solitude. For several religious, who tend to train their cameras on people, photography indulges a fascination with moments of human existence, which also reflect the creator.
Benedictine Abbot Gregory Duerr, spiritual leader of Mount Angel Abbey, humbly declines the label "photographer," preferring to say that he enjoys the hobby. His interest goes back to the time he entered the abbey 55 years ago. Abbot Gregory maintains his vow of stability — rarely traveling — and trains his camera on flora and scenes at the hilltop monastery, which overlooks Willamette Valley farmland. Each August on the feast of Jesus' light-filled Transfiguration, the abbot notices that, from the abbey's angle, the sun rises just behind Mount Hood. This year, he photographed the meaningful celestial alignment.
"When you think of it, the possible correspondence between being a monk and being a photographer (or one who enjoys photography) is not without reason," Abbot Gregory says. "As one grows in a more and more contemplative attitude, then one is all the more in awe of the many epiphanies of the divine beauty and goodness that surround us on all sides. A photographer, you might say, is one who desires to capture those epiphanies of beauty and thereby remain longer in awe of the sublime."
Msgr. Charles Lienert, longtime inner-city pastor in Portland, developed his love of photography when he was 10 and received a Brownie camera as a gift from his parents. He has experimented with large landscape cameras and now uses digital and photo-enhancing software, glad to part with the darkroom and its chemicals. He says his favorite subject is the “incredible beauty of God’s creation.”
“We don’t always see with our eyes. We see with our whole being,” says the priest, whose photo collection includes mountains, bridges, waterfalls and ocean scenes. He looks at people and marvels at them, especially the diverse congregations at St. Andrew and at Immaculate Heart parishes, where he served before retiring this year. He hopes to spend more time with photography, sharing his work with family and friends.
"Photography is a good hobby in that you can spend a half hour walking around the neighborhood or spend a whole week somewhere," Msgr. Lienert says. "And one advantage of being retired is that you can go when the light strikes you."
One of his fondest memories is as a young priest in North Portland in the late 1960s. Immaculate Heart received a donation of used cameras, and he started a summer photography class for inner city youths. After a lesson, he'd turn them loose to photograph the district.
"They had wonderful fresh eyes," he says, still admiringly.
Sister Charlene Herinckx, superior general of the Sisters of St. Mary of Oregon, has been taking photos as a regular hobby for 30 years. It began when the parents of one of the other nuns held an anniversary celebration near the motherhouse in Beaverton. Those who saw her photos of the event told her she had a good eye.
In addition to chronicling events, she began taking what she calls "pretty pictures," many of them flowers. She frames the photos as gifts or auction items and makes greeting cards.
For this longtime math and science teacher, photography became "my little window into artistry."
Sister Charlene is never without a camera. She packs one on outings. She also scales the roof of the majestic motherhouse to get photos of Mount Hood or the sunrise. A veteran of the days of film, she now uses digital.
Brother Dick Reseska has spent decades living and working quietly at Our Lady of Guadalupe Trappist Abbey near Lafayette. The prayerful communal life suits this mustachioed man, who was born and raised in New York City. As he has for years, Brother Dick pulls out his camera when the monks have a special event or when he goes on his annual camping trip.
His passion for photos goes back to the mid 1950s, when he graduated from college and ROTC and was stationed to an Army anti-aircraft unit on Okinawa. He acquired a Nikon S-2 and used it to capture images of Japanese life.
"I was overwhelmed with the beauty and culture in Japan," Brother Dick says. Later, he toted the camera as he hitchhiked and traveled to Latin America. He kept carousels of slides to show patients at the Massachusetts psychiatric ward where he later worked. His images also came in handy during a stint as a geography teacher.
Brother Dick took more photos on mission trips to Latin America in the 1990s, reveling in the color and vibrance of the people. This summer, he'll be taking his camera on a backpack trip to the Crooked River National Grassland between Redmond and Madras.
Benedictine Sister Hilda Kleiman has a newfound interest in photography. A writer, she's been teaching journalism at Mount Angel Seminary and so has been studying the art of freezing moments in time.
"One of the parts I have enjoyed the most is learning about what constitutes a good photograph," she says.
Her favorite subjects are the students and faculty at the seminary. She takes photos of faces in particular, hoping to give a sense of the many cultures, ages, and activities at the hilltop school.
"I like that photography has a language all of its own, the language of the image," she explains. "We can learn to communicate clearly and more effectively using that language, just as we can using the written word."
Photography is a spiritual endeavor for Sister Hilda, a former scholar of English literature who professed vows in 2008.
"In the context in which I am working with photography, it connects to good stewardship and good communication," she says. "It is another way in which we can share the gospel and share with others the good work of Mount Angel Seminary."
One of the most fervent of Oregon's consecrated photographers is Father Patrick Brennan, pastor of St. Mary's Cathedral in Portland.
His love for photography, he says, grew out of affection for Viewmaster slide viewers and National Geographic magazine. He got his first Kodak Instamatic in grade school and has been hooked ever since.
Each year, the Portland-born priest spends his scant vacation time in the high deserts of the American West. His love for the "dry side" came as a boy, when his family traveled from soggy Portland to Warm Springs and he marveled at arid treelessness.
"I find it a great place for pictures," he explains. "I try to give that same feeling of light and dry air."
In remote places like Hart Mountain or Lake Abert near Lakeview, Father Brennan revels in the feeling of being far from civilization. He has a penchant for slightly decaying Main Streets in dusty small towns. Grain elevators thrill him.
"Photography fulfills the creative urge in me, but it is more than self-expression," he explains. "I try to reveal the beauty that is all around us, even in the most unlikely places."
The former seminary rector, now pastor of the Archdiocese of Portland's principal church, appreciates solitude in and about places like Burns, Baker, Condon and the Wallowas.
"I find those places clear out anything that might be rumbling around in me," he says. "I feel refreshed and energized being in what people call the middle of nowhere."
When scripture mentions the desert, Father Brennan notes, it's a place where both God and demons dwell. Though for him, the desert is mostly a place of good and beauty, he seeks to take photos that convey the land's ambiguous stark enthrallment.