An artist has a canvas, a bricklayer has a house, and a baker has a cake. What they and so many others have in common is the chance to stand back and take a look at the results of their work. Literally and metaphorically, the proof of their effort shows in the pudding, and that’s what allows so many people to point to the product of their toil with justifiable pride.
But what about those who have nothing to show for all their work? What if the whole point of their job is to leave no trace of their contribution? Such is the case with my colleague Tim, who has worked with The Saint John’s Bible for more years than either of us wishes to count. Nearly two years ago Donald Jackson and his team completed the hand-written and illuminated Bible that Saint John’s had commissioned eighteen years ago. From the beginning it was a masterwork, and by now it has sparked the spiritual imagination of millions of people around the world. But when the team had finished the final folio of the Book of Revelation, which just happens to be the last book in volume seven of the project, there remained one really big task. Next came the creation of the Book of Honor.
The Book of Honor is the roster of all those whose generosity made possible The Saint John’s Bible. It has the same dimensions as each of the seven volumes of the Bible, and it’s been fashioned from the same materials: vellum, hand-made inks and paints, and gold leaf. It was designed to sit alongside the other volumes, and the good news is that it too is nearly done. But not quite yet.
While the toughest part of the creation of the Book of Honor is now behind us, there remained a few odds and ends that could only be done after everything else had been completed. Proofreading was one of those, and that onerous job fell to Tim and to another colleague, JoAnn. Reading hundreds and hundreds of names and dedications was daunting, and for the sake of accuracy they decided to do it all backwards. Starting with the last word on the last folio, they worked their way back through 1,500+ names, until they finally reached the beginning. That had to be a riveting experience.
That still left perhaps the most thankless and anonymous task of the entire project. Before anyone could write on the vellum, somebody had to pencil in the lines to guide the calligrapher’s quill. Once the text was complete, then somebody had to go back and erase every last one of those lines; and it was Tim who drew the short straw. To him went the honor, as well as the tedium, of removing any and all trace of the pencil lines that had made possible the elegant array of lettering. His goal? Make it look like there had never been anything there in the first place.
Obviously this is not work for a novice, since the trick is to erase the lines but not the letters that sit on them. It takes a practiced hand and meticulous care, and my guess is that it takes a special kind of humility as well. This is not a job for someone with a big ego, since the whole point is to leave the impression that there had never been anything there in the first place. The goal is to highlight the art of the one who wielded the quill, but not leave a monument to the guy who wielded the eraser.
So what kept this from becoming a mind-numbing experience for Tim? First off, an aching shoulder prevented him from falling asleep. Second, he discovered a rhythm and a reflective quality as he worked around each and every letter of the text. And as he touched every single one of the 1,500+ names, he appreciated once again just how many people it had taken to make this whole thing possible.
What Tim might hesitate to point out is the importance of all those whose work had a rather anonymous quality about it. Certainly the star talents who created The Saint John’s Bible were absolutely necessary; but those talents relied on the people who sanded and smoothed the vellum, who prepared the quills, who bought the supplies, and who did the thousand and one things that made the more visible work possible. And of equal value was the work of the one who erased the lines, which allowed the lettering to hover effortlessly over the page.
In his Rule Saint Benedict asks his monks not to take inordinate pride in their work, in part because they should never think themselves indispensible. At the same time he values work, and work can be especially beautiful when so many hands have banded together and labored toward a common goal.
As for all those who are blessed to have a task or job for which there seems nothing to show by way of results, they should take heart. Such people allow others to shine. Such people allow others to do their work. On these sometimes anonymous contributors the fabric of any community depends.
So to my colleagues Tim and JoAnn and to all in the world who make it possible for the stars to shine in the firmament, I give thanks. The Saint John’s Bible is better because of their efforts. And so is the world.
+On June 25th and 26th I took part in the annual investiture of new members in the Western Association of the Order of Malta. The vigil service took place at Our Savior Parish, the Catholic chapel at the University of Southern California; while the investiture took place the next day at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles.
+Last week we had the unusual circumstance of the passing of two of our senior monks. Fr. Barnabas died on June 23rd, while Brother Nicholas died on June 27th.
+On June 24th, the feast of Saint John the Baptist, Michael Hemesath — the President of Saint John’s University — hosted the monks, staff and faculty at an ice-cream social in the monastic garden.
+The photos in today’s post were taken by my colleague, Tim Ternes, who was responsible for erasing all the lines from the Book of Honor. In the coming year we will formally unveil the Book of Honor, but for now this blog constitutes the first semi-official glimpse of these marvelous folios. The final photo is one I took on a highway just outside of Palm Springs, CA, last week. Those are not clouds behind the mountain, but rather it’s smoke from a major fire. To my surprise there were small fires alongside the shoulder of the road, and that made stopping somewhat dangerous. I was just overwhelmed by the extent of the drought in California, and it’s clear that a great many trees simply will not make it through the summer. What a tragedy this will be for the landscape.