Lectio Divina

I’ve just come back from the library where I spent the day looking at the first group of manuscripts for my project on prayer. Needless to say, things did not go quite the way I had planned. Of course, I had my list of manuscripts that I would like to consult, and the letter of introduction from the fellowship foundation worked a treat when I asked to look at some of the more “select” (aka particularly rare and/or beautifully illuminated) manuscripts. To be sure, the letter cannot of itself gain me access to everything I might like to see. Some of the manuscripts on my list are classified as national treasures, and thus require the consent of a curator for me to consult. But this is somewhat by the by; I knew that I might have to pick and choose a bit on what I was able to see, e.g. if some of the more precious books were too fragile or out on loan or on display. No, the problem was not with whether I was allowed to look at the books. Rather, the problem—if there was one—was with the books themselves.

Just to give you a picture. The list that I have is far from comprehensive of everything that I might conceivably want to consult contained in the British Library collection; even so, it runs to nearly seven single-spaced pages and something along the lines of 150 items. At a maximum, given the restrictions that the library places on numbers of books it will fetch per reader per day, I would be able to consult only 10 of these books per day, and I am only here for two weeks, not all of which will be spent in the library. So, say I read for eight days, I could conceivably work through about half of the items on my list, some 80 books. Well, I’m already behind: I looked at two and a half today.

I could plead jet lag: I’m still feeling the effects even as I try to write this reflection and there was a moment around 2pm when I really wished that the manuscripts room still used its old foam supports for the books so that I could lay my head on one and take a nap. But I was excited enough to be working with such wonderful books that even so I was still able to concentrate fairly well. And yet, I still only managed to work through, as it were, one fifth of my total allowance for the day; I barely cracked the third book before it was time to turn everything back in and close up for the day. What happened?

In a nutshell, the books wouldn’t let me read them any other way. How many of you have ever worked with a manuscript book? They really are unlike printed books in many important ways. It is not just that their scripts are sometimes difficult to decipher; some early printed books use just as obscure (to modern readers, at least) a system of abbreviations, not to mention typefaces. Nor is it that they do not typically come with the full apparatus that makes it so easy to navigate modern books (tables of contents, running chapter headings, indices); all of the books I am consulting have already been catalogued (they are in the British Library, after all, not some obscure mountain-top abbey with only a mad old man who knows what is in them), and I could easily page through them looking for the particular items that I would like to see. If I were more efficient—more scientific, as it were—then perhaps I would not be so easily distracted by the books as books. I would simply go through them looking for the evidence that I need, ticking off details and piling up data.

But these books were not written to be read in this way, certainly not the first one I had the pleasure to see. Whereas when I requested it, I had simply intended to note the other pieces that it contained in addition to the prayers that I knew about, instead I found myself starting trying to read. It was not possible simply to page through noting folio numbers where each item started and stopped. Here were meditations on what it meant to prepare the soul for approaching God, confessions of sin and belief in the Trinity, dialogues between the soul and self, the soul and God, the soul and Holy Wisdom. Whereas my “scientific” self was feeling the pressure to see as much as possible, to compile as large a data set as I could on which to base my conclusions about the frequency and, thus, importance of particular approaches to prayer, the book that I was reading refused to allow me to treat it as simply a data point in some larger set of “devotional collections copied in the 14th century.”

Rather, or so I started to realize when I was only halfway through the book (no, I was not reading it word for word, but I was looking at every page, trying to fix the experience of being with the book in my memory), this book could all by itself become the basis for the book that I want to write because to explain everything that it contains would take a book. And this was only the first book that I had had the opportunity to read. Modern printed books are not like this; at least, I do not experience them this way. They are, in a way, not really real; perhaps because they are so easily replicated. But I think it is more than this. Modern books are written and printed to be read in a particular way, typically for information or, if they are fiction, for entertainment, but only very rarely so as to be read in the way that manuscripts like the one I encountered this morning demand to be read. “How to” books come close—perhaps this is why I like them so much—but even they, in their printed form, remain somehow remote. With a manuscript, even a fairly plain one containing only texts found in multiple copies elsewhere, one knows one is in the presence of something unique.

Perhaps this is why they resist being counted: no matter how many there are, this book here is the only one of itself in the world. Like souls, each one matters utterly, no matter how much it may look or sound like every other book—or soul—in the world. How could such a book ever be “normal” any more than a person? I am reminded of a quotation that I kept over my desk while I was writing my first book. At the moment (and at this distance) I can’t remember who it was by or exactly the wording, but the gist was that each of us has the opportunity for the Spirit to express itself in a particular way to the world and if we block that expression (out of fear, out of a conviction that we have “nothing to say”), then it will be lost forever. Medieval writers are sometimes still chided for not trying to be original. Certainly, there is very little “original” in most of the books I am going to be looking at: the majority contain only psalms and other standard pieces intended to frame them. The wonder is that even as copies of the same text, they are never exactly the same.

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