On November 27, 1995, I sat down to lunch with Donald Jackson, whose day job at the time was scribe to the Queen of England. He and I had just spoken at The Newberry Library in Chicago, and we were dining at a restaurant called The Italian Village — which still exists, I believe.
Normally lunch should not count as a big deal, and there’s no reason anyone should remember a particular lunch nearly twenty years later. To my credit, I can’t recall what I ate that day, save that it was probably Italian. But I do recall the substance of our conversation. That day Donald Jackson proposed what eventually would become The Saint John’s Bible.
That lunch no longer matters that much, save for the fact that last week I put a little bit of closure on a venture that began at that meal. That day, when I told Donald that we at Saint John’s might be interested in his proposal, in my heart of hearts I thought I was crazy for saying it. But crazy or not, I said it, and I now realize that the Holy Spirit may have made me say it. And crazy or not, we did go ahead to create The Saint John’s Bible, and the rest is nearly history.
Even before we began, we knew we’d need help from all sorts of people — especially from the donors who would make it possible. Since no one had done this in five hundred years, we had to guess at the cost, and we thought it might take seven years. On both we were wildly conservative in our estimates, but thank goodness we didn’t know any of that at the time. We also had no idea whether enough people would step forward to make this possible. But to recognize them, we decided to create The Book of Honor, and it would list all those donors and their dedications.
Like everything else, creating even The Book of Honor became a bigger deal than we had ever imagined. Recently, however, calligrapher Diane von Arx, working in collaboration with Donald Jackson, has completed it. It’s turned out beautifully, and eventually it will go on display alongside the Bible, as testimony to how God uses us mere mortals to transmit the Word of God from generation to generation. This time around, however, God has reverted to the use of human hands to make the Bible, rather than relying on machines; and the Bible is all the better for it.
Last Thursday I made my mark on The Book of Honor. For that volume I had composed an introduction that gives a synopsis of the Bible’s creation, and in it I noted those who made interventions that were decisive in bringing it to completion. Diane had then transcribed it onto vellum, in elegant lettering and illumination; and all that it lacked was my signature.
That morning was as close as I’ll ever come to living out the stereotype of the medieval monk. I’ve never used a quill pen; and I’ve never written on vellum. But on that day I had ten minutes to develop the expertise, and in less than ten seconds it was all over. There was my signature, resting on the vellum. It wasn’t as elegant as Diane’s script; but I knew from experience that it was still a vast improvement over all those medieval charters on which illiterate nobles and bishops had inscribed their “X.” At least I knew how to spell my own name, and I’d written it legibly. And with luck it will still be there when someone reads it a thousand years from now. It’s likely my only contribution to civilization, and it chills my spine to think about it.
But the ease of a signature allows one to forget how long and how much work this took. It also erases the memories of just how important perseverance was for its success. In his Rule Saint Benedict suggests that monastic life requires “perseverance in the monastery until death.” At first blush that sounds pretty depressing, like a life sentence in a prison. But it’s actually a reminder of the importance of hanging in there for the long haul on anything that’s important. It’s a reminder that most things worth doing are never easy. Things worth doing well generally take a lot longer than we bargained for. And that’s as true in monastic life as it is in marriage and friendship. Perseverance through thick and thin is what brings anything of value to completion — including a Bible that was only supposed to take seven years.
Of course perseverance and the long view run counter to the working principles of our era. The financial markets, for example, lose patience with any company that fails to make a huge profit in its first quarter of business. Sadly, the same is often true in human relationships, when people are unwilling to give each other the time and space to grow. And how many of us shrink back from challenges that take extended work and perseverance? I know that’s why I quit piano lessons after one year. I reasoned that if I couldn’t play the best of Beethoven after twelve whole months, then what was the point of all that practice?
Here’s what I’ve learned in the interval between November 27th, 1995, and last Thursday. First, I have no future as a professional scribe. I can write a fairly neat note card and sign my name adequately enough, but anything beyond that I leave to professionals like Diane. They do elegant work that my own right hand will never equal.
I’ve also become adept at weighing the pro’s and con’s of new projects. I’ve learned the power of arguments like “we’ve never done that before,” which doesn’t justify any course of action, one way or the other. It’s just an observation, and that’s all. I’ve also learned that ten reasons against doing something can be very compelling, but that one very good reason for doing something can scatter the other ten like so many bowling pins.
Most of all, I’ve learned the importance of perseverance. All things of value take time. They take energy. And they often take a huge investment of our character and determination. These are among the key ingredients to accomplishing anything of value in life. And so, once again, Saint Benedict is not wide of the mark in his advice to monks, and to others as well. It does indeed take perseverance until death to get the greatest of things done.
+On August 6th I signed my name in The Book of Honor, the companion volume to The Saint John’s Bible. That morning I discovered that writing with a quill pen on vellum is not all that hard. It just sounds hard because few people write that way any more. The hard part is making the quill pen, which Diane von Arx graciously did for me. Otherwise, we’d still be sitting there.
+Last week was very quiet at Saint John’s in terms of meetings and the presence of groups. However, I was delighted to welcome one of my former students and his family, who currently live in Luxembourg. The next day I welcomed an alumnus from San Jose, CA.
+To Greg Anderson I owe the picture of my hand, signing the page of vellum. The two photos further down the page show freshmen registration, which has taken place on Friday’s through the second half of the summer. The initial gathering of students and parents takes place in front of the Humphrey Auditorium, where the statue of Saint Benedict plays host.