If you look south at just the right moment while zipping along I-94 through central Minnesota, you may glimpse a cluster of odd-looking structures off in the distance. Structures might be too strong a word as, from that distance, it’s hard to guess what these unnatural-looking shapes are – dead trees, misshapen hay bales, crumbling buildings? They catch the eye because they seem to both blend into and stand out from the rolling fields and prairies that surround them. They appear both organic and manmade.
If you exit the freeway on County Road 159 and follow the road south just a bit, you’ll soon come upon these odd structures.
If you stop to really look, it will quickly become clear that, while constructed by human hands, they almost remain within the realm of nature. The creation of artist Patrick Dougherty, this cluster of five small buildings was constructed using interwoven sticks (mostly willow) harvested from right here in Saint John’s Abbey Arboretum.
If you look more closely and wander through them, you will discover soaring domes, rose windows, arches . . . the architectural elements of a Christian chapel rendered in twigs and branches.
If you are quiet when you enter, you might discover another world. While this work is usually referred to as Lean on Me, Dougherty’s own website calls it Monk’s Cradle. Both names are apt. Despite their openness, the light inside the chapels is muted and the outside world begins to fall away. It is as if you have entered a protected place that straddles the worlds of nature, God, and human beings. It is a place out of time and it is easy to imagine an ancient world where children in simple dark cloaks contemplate the word of God and what it means to live in community, a place where spirit and community quietly grow.
Monk’s Cradle/Lean on Me is likely to remain standing through the end of this summer. While the structures have stood longer than anticipated (they were constructed in fall 2012), they will be removed when they become unstable – this is likely its last summer. Check the stickwork website for updated information on the structures. To visit the site, take the exit for Stearns County Road 159 off of I-94 west of Saint Cloud. Follow the signs south toward Saint John’s Abbey Arboretum; you’ll see the structures almost immediately. There is a small parking area here and paths into the rest of the arboretum area.
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