Hand-Lettered Inheritance

 

Gospel of Matthew St. John's Bible

Handwriting is more of an archaic art all the time—we even have apps for keeping our grocery lists. But as a calligrapher and as someone who loves books, I remain inspired by those monks of centuries past. They lit a candle in the dark ages, toiling away in their scriptoriums to copy manuscripts by hand. Their work was their answer to the question of what must be preserved, and what deserves to endure.

Today we are long past relying on scribes to copy out manuscripts, which makes the St. John’s University commission of a hand-lettered edition of the Bible all the more remarkable. Commissioned in 1998 and completed in 2011, it is a new work of calligraphy on a scale not seen for centuries. Even more exciting is that the volume containing the gospels is on display at the Berea College library during this academic year. The book is under glass, but five days a week it is turned to a new page.

 

2014-10-11 St. John's Bible at Berea

From the design of the book to the life in every line of the handwritten text and the artistic rendering of beloved passages, the work is beautiful. It brings together art, design, calligraphy, history, language, religion, and spirituality, yielding a result that elevates each of these realms. Donald Jackson, the Artistic Director of the project, said, “The continuous process of remaining open and accepting of what may reveal itself through hand and heart on a crafted page is the closest I have ever come to God.”

 

Matt 22.37-40 St. John's Bible

There is something about the willingness to undertake such a massive project that is beautiful, as well. Enormous coordination of effort and the resources required might be expected for the construction of a building or the making of a major film, but such largess is like breaking open the alabaster jar when lavished on rendering the written word. This project affirms both the unique value of these long-preserved scriptures and the power of words on paper.

Seeing this beautiful manuscript is a reminder of the ability of the written word to preserve and connect. Writing has long been a conduit for energy and inspiration to flow from one era to another, from one person to another, across vast expanses of time, geography, and culture.

 

Detail of St John's Bible - Matthew

Life was breathed into these words when they were first spoken, and into their recounting by those who recited them later. Life was poured into the lines by the writer’s hand and with each scribe’s individual pen strokes. Each step of the way, the energy of an individual person, expended in a singular place and time, created the link between the past and present. The technology that allows us to easily disseminate words and images is a wonderful tool, but technology also makes it easy to forget the individual people behind all our communication.

Words matter. Ideas matter. What we say, what we remember, what we write matters. As we live out our lives, linking the past to the future, we serve in the same role as those ancient scribes. We don’t use quill and ink, perhaps not even paper, but we play our part in preserving and communicating those things worth passing on. We have new tools, but the same task.

 

Detail St. John's Bible

 

What text shall we hand down?

 

Art and Sanctuary

Last weekend I had the pleasure of hearing a folk music performance that happened to be given in a church sanctuary. The setting had me thinking about the idea of sanctuary and how it is created—or at least invited. Even more, as the evening progressed I was able to experience the mysterious arrival of that sense of sanctuary as it permeated the room.

I didn’t know the music of Iris Dement before I saw her perform, but I was immediately charmed by how she connected with her audience. She shared how vulnerable she felt coming out from behind her piano to face the crowd with only a microphone stand and a guitar to “hide” behind. And when she mused aloud about her songwriting prowess, asking “What is the opposite of prolific? Because whatever that word is, that’s me,” I was taken by both her understanding and her acceptance of herself.

The venue was the historic downtown First Presbyterian Church, where stained glass and ornate wood carvings spoke of the long traditions that shape Christian worship. “This pretty room,” Iris Dement called it, in a way that appreciated her surroundings even as she resisted their traditional gravity.

She spoke of her family, and the songs she shared about them honored those lives who so clearly informed her own. She alluded to her spiritual journey, remarking that in reading back through the stories in the Bible, “I found that I didn’t love them as I used to” except for the one she wrote about: the parable of the good Samaritan.

In sharing so much of herself as well as her music, she drew her audience close. She exuded both humility and strength, presenting herself simply as she is. I don’t know her story, but I know that kind of firmly rooted stance is hard-won.

The architecture and design of the space we were in brought forward the idea of sanctuary, a word that sets out the spiritual aspirations for the place. It’s meant to offer a respite from the clamoring world, a place where we can hear the still, small voice that reminds us who we are and where we can find the heart of life.

But on that evening, the experience of a sacred space apart from the world was ushered in by this talented musician whose maturity as a person as well as an artist enabled something rare and wonderful to happen in that setting.

Art at its best creates sanctuary. An artist who grapples with what matters most, then brings skill and dedication to expressing what she encounters, offers work that can elevate our lives. Art in all of its forms invites us into a space apart from the schedules we keep and the demands we meet, where we can be refreshed by the encounter with another soul. It brings the renewal of spirit we sorely need to live our lives the best we are able.

Worship at its best works this way, too. It’s an art form in itself, enriched by architecture, music, language, and dramatic ritual. Good worship depends on good art. Meaningful worship, like meaningful art, is soul work. The encounter that happens through that work, whatever the setting may be, is where we find sanctuary.

Sanctuary is a gift. We invite its presence by the deepest human work we do, but when the spirit of sanctuary descends, with the peace that passes understanding, it is a gift of grace. May we find those spaces in our lives that quiet our minds and soften our hearts. May we know sanctuary.