Deliver us from Atrophy: on disconnection from the Written Word
My father gave me this page (in photo above) when I was about twelve. It is from a Lady’s Prayer Book, used for devotional reading, and was crafted in France sometime between 1390-1420 AD. This particular section of the text is a exposition of the petition “Libera nos ad malo” (‘Deliver us from evil’), from the Matt. 6:9ff version of the Lord’s Prayer in the VG (Pater noster). Through my childhood it hung on the wall above my bed, where I could look at it while resting. I brought it with me to college and university, and it now hangs in our home, in our living room.
As a child I would ponder the beauty of this written text, and how the actual scripting of words is (or can be) both an art and a discipline. To think that people hand-wrote out the entire texts of books! How they must have valued these treasures: the hours and hours of labour, not only to convey the text, but to do so in a medium of beauty.
How frail the paper looks – how incredibly valued that must have been even before being touched by a drop of ink. Today we whip something off with a home printer, read it through, and toss it out – often forgetting even to recycle. How much our attitudes have changed even since my days as a child when I could hear through the walls the tapping of my mother’s typewriter, labouring for hours with dysfunctional ribbons, messy carbon copies, and an erasing pencil…long before ‘correction fluid’ was available.
“In the beginning was the Word”…
We take written words for granted now. Most of us are literate, and yet we are so surrounded by text – in our work, our entertainment, in the advertising which bombards us – that we rarely even register half of what we see. We don’t stop to marvel that with our very own hands we can take a pen and carve out a meaning on a piece of paper – let alone take the time to consider doing so beautifully. Why bother? Somehow we have reached an age in which the ability to communicate clearly without the aid of electronics is considered superfluous – I know no child today who is taught penmanship in school, and all too many who tell me that they cannot read ‘cursive’…even when it’s a note left on the counter by their own parent.
Once upon a time my medieval page was a treasure of incredible value, gathered with others into a leather-bound trove. Fingers carefully turned it, lips articulated the words it bore. Letters had been painstakingly stained into a fragile medium so that communication could be touched, mouthed, sounded out – not just for one, but for many, down through the centuries. Touching the same page, mouthing the same words, sounding out again and again… the inked meanings shaping and guiding layers of prayers of meditation, spanning time and space far beyond the imaginings of the original communicant.
Hundreds of years later, and thousands of miles away, a little girl was moved to consider the gift of a book and the beauty of the page, the ink, the word…and later, to wonder how our contemporary distance from the physicality of text in general has changed our reception and contemplation of the particular:
“In the beginning was the Word…..”
(first written for ITIA Art exhibition, St Andrew’s University, circa 2004; re-published March 2016 for blog Everyday Theology)