Late last year, I went on a retreat. A copy of Ronald Knox’s New Testament translation accompanied me. I’d heard that Monsignor Knox had succeeded particularly well at rendering Saint Paul’s labyrinthine syntax into clear English. Never having quite followed the various threads of inspired argument through more than five or six chapters of Pauline prepositional phrases and dependent clauses at a single sitting, I was eager to see if Knox could make the longer epistles more intelligible to me than his predecessors (Douay-Rheims-Challoner; King James; etc.) and successors (New American Bible; Revised Standard Version; etc.) had done. The central project of my retreat would be to study Knox’s version of Saint Paul’s letter to the Romans as a single piece of literature, reading all sixteen chapters of that longest epistle in order and in as few sittings as possible.
Having done it, I can recommend it: Knox’s Paul is lucid indeed–lucid enough to read with pleasure for sixteen-chapter stretches; lucid enough to make the letter read like an actual letter, addressed to you and me, rather than like a sentence-diagramming exercise. So the project succeeded in its immediate object. As for how well it succeeded in its higher objects of bringing forth the fruits-by-which-you-shall-know-the-reader, and aiding the salvation of (one or more) souls—well, it’s a little early to say. But Monsignor Knox has done his share. His work is good fruit in itself, whatever may sprout from the seed.
There’s another priest who also deserves credit for fixing one of Paul’s lessons in my memory—an architect. I mentioned that my reading of Romans took place during a retreat. The venue was Prince of Peace Abbey, a Benedictine monastery in Oceanside, California. As the photos on the Prince of Peace website suggest, the largest part of the monastery’s physical plant dates to the 1980s. Something about the buildings’ hard-edged modernism (domeless, archless, vaultless; even the columns are square, not circular, in cross-section) combines with the SoCal beach-ridge setting to give Prince of Peace a Star Trek look—specifically, a Star Trek: The Next Generation look. But although the architectural style of Prince of Peace lacks any of the curves necessary to connect it to historic monastic architecture (whether of a round-arch or a pointed-arch variety), and although this deliberate ahistoricism is a fault, still, the buildings have their own virtue.
They are the designs of the Mexican Benedictine priest Gabriel Chávez de la Mora. Before my retreat, I had never heard of him; having looked up photos of his other works since my visit to Prince of Peace, I find them also too deliberately ahistorical. But even if the buildings of Prince of Peace show too little deference to tradition, they still show, and encourage, reverence toward God.
The walls and columns consist mostly of cubic, unpainted gray blocks, so that you pray, work, eat, and sleep surrounded by grids. After spending 26 hours inside those grids, I did not feel oppressed by Father Gabriel’s rectilinear monomania, but, rather, focused by the consistency of his design. The regularity of all those little squares-and-squares-and-squares complemented the regularity of the daily liturgical cycle—the one marking off space at set intervals, the other marking off time, both of them abstracting from the subtler order of nature. When the tower bell sounded, the horizontal edges of all the squares along the halls and corridors conducted the eye, the mind, and the rest of the self along an invisible z-axis toward the abbey church. And the squares’ vertical edges continued implicitly, invisibly, infinitely into the sky above and the earth below.
Nor did Father Gabriel’s design succeed only on the basis of its orderliness (so comforting to us animals shaped by the dangerous unpredictability of a fallen world) and its pure God-of-the-philosophers abstraction. It also, despite its excessive ahistoricism, called to mind concrete historical realities of our redemption. In the first place, Father Gabriel designed the abbey church’s tabernacle as a modernistic Ark of the Covenant, built from gold cubes of approximately the same dimensions as the monastery’s ubiquitous gray blocks. To see the blocks anywhere in the monastery was to remember the tabernacle in the church. In the second place, the regularity of the walls was relieved here and there by the raising of five blocks—one “middle” block and the four blocks sharing its edges—into a Greek cross. Thus, not only did one imagine the horizontal lines extending toward infinite horizons, and the vertical lines extending toward infinite heights and depths; one also grew to see crosses, large and small, in all the intersections.
And that is where Father Gabriel Chávez de la Mora conspired unwittingly with Monsignor Ronald Knox and Saint Paul of Tarsus to fix one lesson in my head—and, I hope, in my heart. I was sitting in a colonnade, with my back against one of Father Gabriel’s cross-gridded walls, facing another grid, and flanked by two more, when I read Monsignor Knox’s translation of Romans 6:3-5 (emphasis added):
You know well enough that we who were taken up into Christ by baptism have been taken up, all of us, into his death. In our baptism, we have been buried with him, died like him, that so, just as Christ was raised up by his Father’s power from the dead, we too might live and move in a new kind of existence. We have to be closely fitted into the pattern of his resurrection, as we have been into the pattern of his death [. . .].
 A 24th-century Starfleet uniform would look at least as natural in those surroundings as a 21st-century Benedictine habit. More than once, I felt a temptation to pull out my smartphone—that proto-tricorder—and scan the colonnades for life-forms. By God’s grace, I managed to resist.