Dublin: How to Pray When You Have a Desk Job

At Trinity University in Dublin, along with the Book of Kells, there were other medieval manuscripts on display. The Book of Armagh, the Book of Darrow, and (one of my favorites) the Book of Mulling were all there to ooh and aww over.

Illumination of St. John from the Book of Mulling

It is perversely comforting to find the monks and nuns of the Middle Ages wrestling over the same issues we wrestle over today. In particular, how to pray when you have a desk job.

One display case held a copy of a sermon preached at the Durham Cathedral in England sometime in the 1100s. I was really touched by the details and the craft.

Medieval Allegory of the Scribes Tools

The parchment on which we write is pure conscience;
the knife that scrapes it is the fear of God;
the pumice that smooths the skin is the discipline of heavenly desire;
the chalk that whitens it signifies an unbroken meditation of holy thoughts;
the ruler is the will of God;
the straight-edge is devotion to the holy task;
the quill, its end split in two for writing, is the love of God and of our neighbor;
the ink is humility itself;
the illuminator’s colors represent the multiform grace of heavenly wisdom;
the writing desk is tranquility of heart;
the exemplar from which a copy is made is the life of Christ;
the writing place is contempt of worldly things lifting us to a desire for heaven.

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Howth: What the Heck’s the Book o’ Kells?

Our writers’ conference has officially ended. We had our reading last night and said our goodbyes over breakfast this morning. Today, Katie Chilton and I took the DART into Dublin. First on our itinerary was The Book of Kells at Trinity College library.

The Book of Kells was written around the year 800 AD. It contains the four gospels and is written on vellum made from 185 calf skins. It contains a Latin text of the Gospels in tiny script with amazing decorations of illumination in the margins, in the text, and whole decorative pages throughout. The manuscript was given to Trinity College in the 17th century. Two volumes can normally be seen each day, one opened to display a major decorated page, and one to show two pages of script.

Today’s pages were the illuminated title page from the gospel of Mark and a text page was Matthew 5:35-48 (“You have heard it said: An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth …”)

Cat, mouse, host - Detail from the Book of Kells, Trinity College, Dublin
Cat, mouse, host - Detail from the Book of Kells, Trinity College, Dublin

One of my favorite images is apparently a reference to a medieval joke/conundrum: It shows a cat chasing a rat or mouse that is eating a Eucharistic host. The unanswered question was: If Jesus says “I am the bread of life and whoever eats of this bread shall have eternal life,” and if the host is truly turned into the Body of Christ so that all who eat of it will have life eternal, then what happens to the mouse who nibbles on the Eucharist in the middle of the night? And what about the cat that eats the mouse?

Ah…the human tendency to make simple things complex. What would we do if we couldn’t dither about such conundrums?.