Illuminating the Manuscript (1st Sunday of Lent)

(from Love or What You Will by Gwen Adams, (c.) 2010)

“Impassioned thoughts, high aspirations, sublime imaginings, have no strength in them. They can no more make a man obey consistently, than they can move mountains.”
—Ven. John Henry Cardinal Newman, “The Religious Use of Excited Feelings,” Plain & Parochial Sermons

Their hearts burned, these monks who called Christ the Bridegroom, and sought him with a love called impatient, countenancing no delay. For His sake they renounced power, wealth, fame, sympathy—all the comforts of life, all the salt that makes such comforts palatable.

For His sake the monks broke their sleep, rose early, and kept vigil, like travelers or soldiers.

It was always so cold. In the morning, the wash-water was frozen in the basin. One man had chilblains.

When they did have riches, it was not at times of their own choosing; when power came to them, it was not when they would have wanted it. It was like two roads diverging and meeting again in strange places, sometimes parting a lifetime. The monks walked on the right-hand side, and those years when the roads converged, we said they were just like us. But then the road would fork in its own time, and the right hand side turn down into the rocky gully with the naked tree branches bare against the sky. Then we knew—“Theirs is a different road.”

There was no forming of pet pleasures and attachments—
“I must have cream with my coffee”
“I don’t see salt on the table”
“Have dinner without me, I want to finish—”

No going for a bite to eat later that night. No going out.
No sleeping in. No skipping tasks. No freedom to do whatever you want, when you want to.
No spider’s threads to wrap a sleepy soul. They were too alive.

Not all succeeded in the ideal, of course, but many did.

When monasteries were common, many an unknown and obscure man threaded his prayers faithfully in and out of the day, like a long piece of ribbon marking the pages of a psalter. They serenaded the Christ with songs and canticles.

These were not men who bore a meager love.
These were not men who entertained a mild affection.
Such passion was different from what we now call by that name.

They gazed with the calm intensity of the surgeon and the watchmaker. The gaze never wavered. They were like the tight-rope walker, pole balanced hand to hand while the music drifted up from below.

What did they seem when the empire fell, and the roads sprang with weeds and the schools crumbled away and a man could not walk safely abroad? A high stone wall and a bell-tower, monks raking the hay, Latin and a room of manuscripts, and a guesthouse with a basin to wash the feet of the weary traveler. The secret garden.

What must they look now, with our empires, roads, and schools, when a man cannot walk safely abroad.
Theirs is a different road. “Monasteries remind us of what we are for.”

Their love was not emotional, or uncontrolled, not vapid or silly,
Yet it was not choleric or overzealous.
And it was not weak.
Their love was real—
Hence calm—like the healing cut of the surgeon’s knife;
Steady—like the watchmaker’s hand and face bent over his work; dependable and balanced.

This love copied the texts, black stroke on stroke, each letter formed to a pattern. All a man’s life poured into the ink and gold, every breath measured in a phrase, heart’s beat in a letter stained red with true love’s blood, in a picture of a holy virgin with child, wearing a red gown and a blue mantle and a gold halo of precious gold leaf, purchased by men who denied themselves in everything.

The mixing of pigments and making of pens, raising of sheep, preparing their skins for parchment to bear the words of the Bridegroom.

Attention and focus, calm deliberation, steady undying love made the manuscripts. They sit under glass now. What lover loves so truly, so well,
giving so little,
only his all,
asking so much,
nothing but Him?

There was no shouting of Hosanna! first and then Crucify Him!, but only the scratching of the pen as it copied out
Love is as strong as death

Many waters cannot quench love
If a man offered for love all the wealth of his house, he would be utterly scorned.

EXAMINATION: Is my love emotional, uncontrolled, vapid and silly, choleric, and over-zealous? Do I seek consolation, spiritual thrills? Do I love the sight of myself loving God, more than God Himself?

Related reading
Psalms 27, 33, 42
Rule of St. Benedict, Commentary on the Rule of St. Benedict by Dom Delatte
Song of Songs
Jean LeClercq, The Love of Learning and the Desire for God

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