One of St Benedict’s directives for Lent is that we should each be given a book that we should read straight through, in its entirety (cf RB 48). Debate has raged over whether a book of the bible is meant or some other volume. I myself have always inclined to the former view. Lent is a time for deepening our knowledge of Christ through reading the scriptures. Of course, we do that every day, but Lent has a special intensity and focus about it; and the fact that we do not choose for ourselves is important. Our Lent Book comes to us as a gift — sometimes a demanding or uncongenial one — and like all gifts has surprises in store for us.
In previous years, when I have suggested different books to different people, I have been heartened by the number who wrote afterwards, sometimes long afterwards, ‘I did not understand, but now I do! A Lent book does not reveal all its secrets at once. It works upon the soul slowly, agonisingly slowly at times. This year in community we are reading the Book of Psalms as our Lent Book. Given that we recite the whole of the psalter every week, including those psalms some more polite people think ‘not quite nice’ in the mouths of Christians, you may wonder why. The answer is simple. The psalter is the prayer-book of the early Church and, indeed, of Christ himself. It has psalms for every mood, including those we try to hide from ourselves or deny that we feel. Lent is about coming closer to God, and that means taking down the barriers we erect to try to keep him at a distance. So we pray the psalms and admit our desire to curse and rage and grumble just as often as we desire to give thanks and praise. The psalms show us ourselves as we are and the mercy God pours out upon us unceasingly. No wonder St Augustine exclaimed, ‘Psalterium meum, gaudium meum!’ (My psalter, my joy!)
Occasionally there is good news. This week we heard that poetry sales in the UK continue to increase, helped by exposure on social media platforms (Instagram alone features 19 million poets with the hashtag #poetry). I turned to The Bookseller for further information specifically about the U.K. and discovered some impressive statistics. Apparently, 1.4 million people in the U.K. write poetry — the same number as those who attend contemporary dance and just slightly fewer than those who attend opera. Of course, The Bookseller isn’t so much concerned with whether the poetry the 1.4 million are writing is any good as whether it sells, but at least their poetry is being published.
When I was responsible for the Stanbrook Abbey Press, I regularly received manuscripts from budding poets. In all but a few cases, alas, I had to find gentle ways of suggesting the waste-paper basket was their best friend. Perhaps I was just unlucky; or perhaps — perish the thought! — I failed to recognize genius. However that may be, as an enthusiastic reader of poetry I am glad to think of all the new poets I have yet to discover and the new ways of thinking and seeing that will result. Good news doesn’t have to be political or economic, or concern the environment or any other cause we feel the need to fight for. Sometimes it appears ‘like apples of gold in pictures of silver’ between the leaves of a book — for many of us, a poetry book.
Yesterday I published my 1700th blog post here on iBenedictines. There were several hundred more on its predecessor Colophon. That means a great many words have been tapped out on my keyboard and launched into the ether. What, if anything, have they achieved? I have thought aloud, irritated, amused, teased, and, somewhere along the line, I hope, have provoked others into thinking. I certainly value the contribution made by those who have commented, as I trust my readers do, too. I hope I have never been nasty or unfair to anyone, though I admit to being quite firm about what is acceptable and what isn’t in the comments section. The readership of the blog has changed over the years. Some read me no longer, or at least do not comment anymore; others persevere with every post. Now, however, I have to make a decision. Should I finally get down to that book I have been thinking about for years, or should I go on blogging? For once, it is an either/or choice because I don’t have the energy to do both. In the past I managed to write before others got up or after they had gone to bed, but I don’t think I can do that any longer. So, assuming I live long enough, it is a straight contest: blog versus book.
Blogging has the advantage of engaging directly with its audience. Responses usually come quickly and often take the subject in different directions from the one originally intended. Notably, it is a form of writing that makes no financial demands on the reader. The monastery pays for the blog and everything associated with it, including the blogger’s dinner. The downside to blogging is that it can lead to extensive correspondence or unintended rows. I still recall with horror being accused of homophobia because I once ventured the opinion that I thought most children did best if they were able to grow up with a mother and father. I didn’t actually receive a death-threat, but it came pretty close. On the whole, however, I’d say blogging is infinitely forgettable. What is written today might as well be ‘in wind and running water writ’. It is truly ephemeral.
A book, on the other hand, is a weightier prospect altogether. It makes a pitch, not for eternity exactly, but for as long as the publisher is prepared to keep it on his or her list. There may be correspondence, positive or negative, but unless one happens to be unusually fortunate, a book can prove almost as ephemeral as a blog. There is, however, always the possibility that it may endure for while; or that someone may read it, perhaps years hence, who would never bother with a blog. And there is always the hope that there may be some small remuneration, a royalty payment or two, to reward one’s labours and put a smile on the cellarer’s face. Writing a book requires more discipline than a blog and a slightly different style. I’m not one of those who think a blog can be conversational while a book must be ‘literary’, but one cannot be quite so self-indulgent in the matter of words or the way one uses them. An allusion that today is funny or topical may be neither tomorrow. In any case, ideas change, and so do we. A book does not reflect such changes: it expresses what we thought and were at such and such a time. It fixes us for ever.
So, decisions, decisions, decisions. Watch this space.
With this fifth post on preparing for Lent we return to my starting-point, RB 49, St Benedict’s chapter on the observance of Lent, and RB 48, with its reference to Lenten reading. (If you wish to follow through Benedict’s teaching in a more systematic way, please see the four posts from 2012 entitled ‘Through Lent with St Benedict‘.)
At the beginning of Lent every member of the community is assigned a book of scripture, known as ‘the Lent Book’, to be read straight through in its entirety. It is meant to be read as lectio divina, that slow, prayerful reading of a text that leads naturally to prayer. Therefore, we don’t, in the first instance, get out our commentaries or multiple translations of the text as though we were about to take an examination in scriptural studies. Instead we get down on our knees and read slowly, patiently, closely. Ideally, we take from our reading a word or phrase that we can chew over at other times in the day so that it becomes part of our very selves.
In previous years I have invited readers to send in a request for a Lent Book to be assigned them. The numbers have grown too great for me to continue to do that but at the end of this post you will find an alternative. The point to be emphasized is that we do not choose for ourselves. We accept what we are given, and if that means we struggle with the text, so much the better. We shall learn something we might never otherwise have done — and that is the point of all our Lenten discipline, to learn something that will bring us closer to God. If we haven’t time for a Lent Book as such, reading through the daily Mass readings is an excellent way of following the course of salvation history in union with the rest of the Church. Others may wish to add something more: a Lenten-themed book of some kind. There is no substitute for scripture, however, and the fact that Benedict includes the Lent Book in his chapter on daily manual labour should alert us to the fact that he expects us to put some effort into it.
Lent Books 2018 Members of the community — nuns, oblates and associates — will all receive their personal assignment. But if you would like to share in this practice, please take the first vowel in your first name and read the book listed below:
a — the Book of Genesis. There are several passages that make us stop short. What sort of God is this? He is as far removed from the conventional picture of an Old Testament tyrant as it is possible to be. Are our ideas of God in need of a shaek-up?
e — the Gospel of John. There is almost too much in this gospel to take in, but its great parables and narrative of the Passion are essential parts of our preparation for Easter. Are we blind or lifeless, too?
i — The Book of Exodus. The liberation of the people of Israel is our liberation, too. The transcendent holiness of God should stop us being casual in the way we treat him. How do we measure up to that?
o — The Book of Ezekiel. Not for the faint-hearted, but another insight into the compassion of God and his burning zeal for his people. Where do we stand in relation to God?
u — I and II Corinthians. Read this in the context of what was happening in Corinth and what St Paul says has an uncomfortably contemporary ring to it. How do we live our faith today?
May God bless all who take this on themselves this Lent.
Having written about brain fog yesterday, it seems only fair to write about clarity today. What do we mean by it? Most people, I think, would reply that we mean the quality of being clear, intelligible, sharply defined. Some of us, however, particularly those accustomed to singing the Divine Office in Latin, might want to overlay such a definition of clarity with something others might find unexpected. The word clarus in Latin is associated with glory, more specifically the divine glory (cf the antiphons for Vespers on Holy Saturday). That takes clarity into another dimension. Just as I argued yesterday that the danger of the many varieties of brain fog is that we use them as an excuse for not making the effort to distinguish between true and false, right action and wrong, so I would argue today that striving for clarity infuses a very ordinary, everday activity with touches of divine glory.
I always pray before I write, and one of the things for which I ask in prayer is that what I write may be clear and truthful. That it should be truthful is, I hope, self-evidently necessary; but clarity isn’t always so easy to achieve and many might argue that it can appear ‘simplistic’ and ‘unprofessional’. (I am thinking here of the turgid prose that too often masks the thought of the academic or expert while proclaiming to the rest of the world that he/she is one who knows — and is keeping the secret close.) In an age where speed-reading and headline-skimming are more and more the norm, I am conscious of how easy it is not to make one’s meaning plain; and even if one does make one’s meaning plain to one’s own satisfaction, there will always be someone who uses words and concepts differently and therefore understands differently. But that doesn’t invalidate the quest for clarity, or lessen its importance.
To be clear, to reflect something of the divine glory, to allow that glory to permeate, infsofar as one can, both thought and speech is not a trvial matter. It is the work of a lifetime — and it is work.
We may be reading less and less but it seems our library buildings are getting better and better. The British Library has just achieved Grade 1 Listed status (see report here). It makes one’s heart rejoice. Time was when our churches and grand houses were the most accomplished buildings, but now it is our libraries. As an erstwhile book designer and printer, I salute this happy change and trust it does not mean that books will soon be as obsolescent as religion and privilege now appear to be.
There is just one little question in my mind. I have never worked in the new BL, though I spent many happy hours beavering away in the Reading Room of the old one. Is it a building that delights its users? Is it, in the phrase beloved of politicians, ‘fit for purpose’? I do hope so. There was a time in my life when I spent long hours in another award-winning library, the Seeley Library in Cambridge. It was the ugliest, most uncomfortable building I have ever read in. It almost killed my joy in history. Awards for one kind of excellence do not always equate to excellence in another. A building may be splendid in itself, but does it also fulfil its function splendidly?
When we came here to Howton Grove, the first thing we established was our oratory or chapel. Not long after came our library, with specially-made shelves, a good strong table and some comfortable chairs for readers. It is a mark of our reverence for the book and for learning that is characteristic of Benedictines the world over. Our library will never have listed status, but it is loved and used. Isn’t that what libraries are all about?
Unless you have foresworn Social Media for Lent, you are probably aware that the monastery dog, Bro Duncan PBGV, is at the vet’s hospital for sick animals, where he has been diagnosed with pancreatitis — a painful and sometimes life-threatening condition. He may be only a little fellow as hounds go, but he has left a big hole. Using a combination of telepathy and soulful staring, he communicates important spiritual truths simply and directly. He is a valuable member of the blogging team, although I am not sure he really understands that not every word with ‘cat’ in it refers to felines. For example, when I told him that the Mystagogic Catecheses of St Cyril of Jerusalem (whose feast is today) are an excellent read, he looked sceptical. Even when I passed him a link to one of the many online translations (http://bit.ly/1Fz6FXb), he seemed unimpressed. There was a certain quickening of interest when I mentioned the section On Meats, but the big yawn that followed my reference to Baptism (Bro Duncan hates getting wet) told me I had lost my audience. May I hope that you will find St Cyril more interesting that Bro Duncan does? It’s a good text to read in Lent/Easter.
Thank you for all the tender enquiries after Bro Duncan’s health. We’ll know more later today. Thank you, too, to those who have sent donations to help cover his vet’s bill. I’ve been asked to set up a Giving Page, but if you would like to contribute, our online donation facility at www.charitychoice.co.uk/benedictinenuns will take donations in any currency and allow UK taxpayers to Gift Aid their donations. Just mark ‘for the use of Bro Duncan’. Paypal can also be used in connection with the monastery email address.
On Sunday a friend called with ‘an old bible’ he had rescued from a bonfire. Could I tell him anything about it? I was expecting an old Bible Society Family Bible or something similar but instead was presented with a small folio volume, bound in calf, and printed in Black Letter. The title-page said everything. My friend’s bible turned out to be a 1607 edition of the Geneva Bible, commonly known as ‘the Breeches Bible’ because of its rendering of Genesis 3.7, where Adam and Eve sewed fig leaves together and made themselves breeches rather than aprons to cover their nakedness.
The Geneva Bible is so-called because it was a translation into English made between 1557 and 1560 by Reformers living in Geneva. It was the favourite bible of English Protestants until the publication of the King James’ or Authorized Version of 1611. Shakespeare used it; the Pilgrim Fathers took it to the Americas on the Mayflower; Oliver Cromwell’s troops even had pocket-sized copies to carry with them in their tunics.
Among the scholars who worked on the translation were William Whittingham, who supervised the translation as a whole, Myles Coverdale, Christopher Goodman, Anthony Gilby, Thomas Sampson, and William Cole. Whittingham was directly responsible for the New Testament, which was published in 1557, while Gilby oversaw the Old Testament.
The first full edition of this bible, with a further revised New Testament, appeared in 1560, but it was not printed in England until 1575 (New Testament) and 1576 (complete Bible). Over 150 editions were issued; the last probably in 1644.
The very first Bible printed in Scotland was a Geneva Bible, which was first issued in 1579. In fact, the involvement of Knox and Calvin in the creation of the Geneva Bible made it especially appealing in Scotland, where a law was passed in 1579 requiring every household ‘of sufficient means’ to buy a copy. The Geneva Bible thus antedates the Catholic Rheims New Testament published in 1582 and the Douay Old Testament published in 1609.
As stated on the title-page, this particular edition was printed by Robert Barker, Printer to the King. He was son and grandson to royal printers (Christopher and Robert senior) but seems to have lacked some of their business acumen. In 1631 he was responsible with Martin Lucas for the so-called ‘Wicked Bible’ which omitted the word ‘not’ from the commandment ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery’. The subsequent fine of £300 may have contributed to his being imprisoned for debt in 1635. He continued to print in prison, where he died in 1645.
The bible under consideration is complete. There is the introductory matter, comprising a prayer, an exhortation to the Christian reader and an early flow-chart on how to read the bible composed by Thomas Grashop, Fellow of All Souls. It is interesting to note the importance attached to hearing the preaching of the word.
Other notable features are the two ‘alphabets’ or concordances of places and names at the end of the bible,
and the not untypical use of the bible by a later generation as somewhere to practise their handwriting.
My guess is that the binding is contemporary. It is of calf, with some simple tooling on the front, and at least one repair.
That is essentially all I was able to tell my friend, but if you happen to be an expert, do please contribute what you know in the comments section. One thing that struck me forcibly was the use of Black Letter or Gothic for the typeface when the beautiful humanist typefaces of Aldus Manutius and others were already transforming continental European printing. Religious books tend to be conventional in their approach. Some of you may remember my sadness that when the new translation of the Missal was released, it was decided to ‘play safe’ and use illustrations derived from a medieval manuscript rather than search out good contemporary work. (And if you want to understand that comment fully, you’ll need to know that I ran the Stanbrook Abbey Press for some years and was much influenced by D. Hildelith Cumming, one of the truly great printers of the twentieth century.)
Note: I apologize for the fact that the this post is late: various alarms and excursions are to blame!
Yesterday I spent some time exploring Hereford Cathedral’s online Mappa Mundi, Chained Library and Magna Carta site, which you can view here (link opens in new window). It is brilliantly done, both historically and technically, and the cathedral authorities are to be congratulated (and thanked) for making such a resource freely available over the internet. Many years ago, when I was making eBooks on a regular basis, I did one on the wood engravings of Sr Margaret Tournour and was fascinated by what the combination of back lighting/high magnification afforded by the computer screen revealed. Here is yet another example of how contemporary technology can enrich our understanding of history and historical artefacts, giving us cause for wonder. If you can, spend a few minutes exploring the Mappa Mundi today.
Today is National Poetry Day. There are so many ‘days’ in the year that I tend to ignore them, but poetry will always be something I treasure. Indeed, if I were given the choice of becoming a saint or a poet, I might have a little difficulty deciding. Happily, I have no choice. I’m not a poet, and sanctity seems ever further off. (Cue wry smile.) This morning, however, I was struck by a thought that I shall mull over for the rest of the day. My (limited) experience suggests that fewer people now care about poetry than in my youth, when we all committed to memory huge quantities of verse which became lodged in our inner landscapes, even among the most unliterary. Not just words but the best words, as Keats would say, became part of our subconscious. Are they still? I have my doubts, judging by the language I read and hear around me.
One effect of this, I think — and it is only one and probably an arguable one at that — can be seen in the loss of the fine-tuning of our emotions and the decline of civility. When Lady Thatcher died, many who had not even lived during her premiership were gleeful and expressed their glee in ways I found small-minded and brutal. I felt a similar revulsion when I read the Daily Mail article about Ralph Milliband. One simply doesn’t say such things — only it appears we do. You may have noticed that it is becoming more and more difficult to escape other people’s use of profanity and vulgarity in tweets and FB updates or even casual conversation. Fuddy-duddy I may be, but the effort to find the right word, to express what one thinks and feels as well as one can —something the poet achieves as no other — is an essential part of what it means to be human. It is closely linked to civility, which is, after all, itself linked to being a good citizen, with all that that implies.
Poetry and citizenship: perhaps today a little dipping into the Greek poets is in order, for they understood both.