Illumination

by Jessica Hickey, (c.) 2010

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

"The whole philosophy of Hell rests on recognition of the axiom that one thing is not another thing, and specially, that one self is not another self. My good is my good, and your good is yours. What one gains another loses. Even an inanimate object is what it is by excluding all other objects from the space that it occupies; if it expands, it does so by thrusting other objects aside or by absorbing them. The self does the same. . . 'To be' means 'to be in competition.'


Now the Enemy's philosophy is nothing more nor less than one continued attempt to evade this very obvious truth. He aims at a contradiction. Things are to be many, yet somehow also one. The good of self is to be the good of another. This impossibility He calls Love, and this same monotonous panacea can be detected under all He does and even all He is."
(C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, Ch. XVIII.)

"No man has ever seen God; if we love another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us."
(I John 4:12)

In the year 635, the Irish monk St. Aidan was sent from Iona at the request of the Northumbrian king to found an abbey upon a little island. This island, just off the north coast of England, came to be known as Holy Isle, or Lindisfarne.

There, Aidan and his brothers worked and prayed, producing by a slow labor of love the illuminated Gospel manuscripts, some of which survive to the present day, and from this isle they put forth the roots of a Christian civilization, a civilization which was built on love, as our recent popes have reminded us.

The love of these monks intrigues me, for by some standards, their output was incredibly limited. A monk might live a lifetime of toil in the abbey's scriptorium without ever completing a single book.

This is partly explained by the delicacy, precision and intricate detail of the illumination. Each letter was inscribed with utmost care, some with elaborate ornamentation. Looking closely at one of these illuminated pages, patterns emerge, constructed of interlacing motifs: coiling knots and crosses, flowers and herbs twining together, birds, beasts, and fishes, angelic and saintly faces. The pages appear to be living, which in the theological sense, of course, they are. Designs involving thousands of miniscule dots, known as rubrication, were also used to adorn the initial capital letter of the sacred page. On one such page from the Lindisfarne Gospels, over10,600 dots were counted.

The scribe's work was small, his whole sphere of influence just the fly-leaf before him. Yet each brushstroke was carefully planned and executed to produce the utmost beauty of which his hand was capable. The words he copied were sacred, and he treated them as such, giving all that human effort and nature's resources could provide. The result was in the shining images of Revelation, the breath of God on calfskin, colored golden, lapis blue, emerald and roseate, such as may be seen in the Gospels of Lindisfarne, and the work of its sister house at Kells. Small, perfect, love made visible--like Christ Himself when he entered the world as a meek and tiny Child.

Some of the monks also took on the task of recording the events of their time, preserving the stories of their foundations and their saints. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is such a history, terse and brief, compiled by the English monks of this era, with just a few entries for each year. I remember the great sorrow I felt when, completing a translation exercise for a course in Old English, I worked out the following entry for the year 793:

In this year fierce, foreboding omens came over the land of Northumbria ... These signs were followed by great famine, and on January 8th, the ravaging of heathen men destroyed God's church at Lindisfarne.

Northern Europe had awoken: first the Vikings, and then later, the Danes. Descending upon the monastic settlements in search of treasure, they pillaged and burned these little works brought forth by love. And as with Lindisfarne, so too fell the abbeys of Kells and Iona. Under the torch and the sword of the Northmen, the monks were slaughtered or fled, leaving the bones of their founders behind them.

G. K. Chesterton captures the spirit of these times in his Ballad of the White Horse:

The Northmen came about our land
A Christless chivalry:
Who knew not of the arch or pen,
Great, beautiful half-witted men
From the sunrise and the sea.

Misshapen ships stood on the deep
Full of strange gold and fire,
And hairy men, as huge as sin
With horned heads, came wading in
Through the long, low sea-mire.

Our towns were shaken of tall kings
With scarlet beards like blood:
The world turned empty where they trod,
They took the kindly cross of God
And cut it up for wood.

Their souls were drifting as the sea,
And all good towns and lands
They only saw with heavy eyes,
And broke with heavy hands,

Their gods were sadder than the sea,
Gods of a wandering will,
Who cried for blood like beasts at night,
Sadly, from hill to hill.

They seemed as trees walking the earth,
As witless and as tall,
Yet they took hold upon the heavens
And no help came at all.

The invaders of this story stand in complete contrast to the monks of history. These latter were artists and creators, who with crushed berries and bits of feathers brought God's revelation before men's eyes. The Northmen, however, are mighty and blind; they destroy but they cannot build: "They only saw with heavy eyes, /And broke with heavy hands."

In this tale, Chesterton's King Alfred, grieving for the state of his realm, remembers an illuminated page shown him by his mother, and has a vision of the Mother of God:

And he saw in a little picture,
Tiny and far away,
His mother sitting in Egbert's hall,
And a book she showed him, very small,
Where a sapphire Mary sat in stall
With a golden Christ at play.

It was wrought in the monk's slow manner,
From silver and sanguine shell,
Where the scenes are little and terrible,
Keyholes of heaven and hell.
. . .
Fearfully plain the flowers grew,
Like the child's book to read,
Or like a friend's face seen in a glass;
He looked; and there Our Lady was,
She stood and stroked the tall live grass
As a man strokes his steed.

Her face was like an open word
When brave men speak and choose,
The very colours of her coat
Were better than good news.

Chesterton's Alfred, seeing perhaps what the artist saw, has a glimpse of the heavenly, and is in fact drawn into an encounter with heaven. Following this, he is able to take heart for the battles ahead, and ultimately to be victorious.

As for the monks of this time, the real men of Iona, Kells, and Lindisfarne, their desire to keep the light of faith in the world did not perish. The gilded and jeweled book-covers were added to the spoils of the Northmen, but by some great providence, some of the illuminations themselves survived. With their books, the brothers fled, regrouped, rebuilt--continued their work. The raids were repeated, sometimes driving the monks into hiding inland, but they preserved that which they loved and carried it into the future.

Now, it would be easy to draw parallels to our own dark times, to mourn our losses, to speak of great battles against a new pagan barbarism. Today, however, I'd like to think like a monk, that is, to think smaller, to think not of what has been lost but of what ought to be created: heaven's light manifested in the miniscule, love shown in perfect rows of tiny dots.

Cardinal Francis Xavier van Thuan, whose cause for canonization was recently opened, has said: "A straight line consists of millions of little points. Likewise a lifetime consists of millions of seconds and minutes joined together. If every single point along a line is rightly set, the line will be straight. If every moment of a life is good, that life will be holy."

Like the monks, Cardinal van Thuan is concerned not with the great tragedies or victories, but with taking each moment with care, making each moment a point of entry into the heavenly by doing it right. By rightness, I think perhaps I might better say, in perfect charity, for this is what is so often most lacking. After all, it was not a priggish desire for perfectionism which drove the monastic scribes, but a need to take the beauty and love of God and to translate into a small human art.

St John provided us with opening quotation of this meditation: "No man has ever seen God; if we love another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us." All that is Divine is manifested in us by our charity. Our very first Pope likewise adjured us: "Above all hold unfailing your love for one another, since love covers a multitude of sins." (I Peter 4:8)

One does not become holy, more perfected by Divine love in theory. It is when we awaken in the morning and begin the day, when things are lost are lost and broken, and people irritating, the weather disagreeable, the cupboard empty and the news bad, when there is a headache or hurt feelings or simply too much to do--this is when it is time to take up the quill and begin the rubrication, placing each point rightly, with colors celestial, giving the very best we have.

The mother of one my students told me once that she had had very little opportunity for formal religious education, but that her father had been a very pious man, and that he had taught each of his children: "Before your feet touch the floor in the morning, you must call upon the Holy Trinity." In doing so, he invited holiness upon himself, and began the first lines of that pattern that would be continued in his children and grandchildren.

God wishes to help us; He wishes to teach us the perfection of love, and to give us the ability to see that the good of others is our own good; the happiness of others is our own happiness. There is a gratuity and abundance of this desire, something that cannot help but express itself, something which is also captured in the burgeoning illuminations of Lindisfarne and Kells.

C.S. Lewis reminds us in The Four Loves:

"In God there is no hunger that needs to be filled, only plenteousness that desires to give. The doctrine that God was under no necessity to create is not a piece of dry scholastic speculation. It is essential. Without it we can hardly avoid the conception of what I can only call a 'managerial' God; a Being whose function or nature is to 'run' the universe, who stands to it as a head-master to a school or a hotelier to a hotel. But to be sovereign of the universe is no great matter to God. In Himself, at home in 'the land of the Trinity,' he is a Sovereign of a far greater realm. We must keep always before our eyes that vision of Lady Julian's in which God carried in His hand a little object like a nut and that nut was 'all that was made.

God, who needs nothing, loves into existence wholly superfluous creatures in order that He may love and perfect them. He creates the universe already foreseeing . . . the buzzing cloud of flies about he cross, the flayed back pressed against the uneven stake, the nails driven through the mesial nerves, the repeated incipient suffocation as the body droops, the repeated torture of back and arms as it is time after time, for breath's sake, hitched up. If I may dare the biological image, God is a host who deliberately creates His own parasites; causes us to be that we may exploit and 'take advantage of' Him. Herein is love. This is the diagram of Love Himself, the inventor of all loves."

Possessing this diagram of gratuitous love can change us. We find that there is an intuitive rightness about charity that draws us. A child coloring instinctively chooses the color which is most beautiful for his purpose and is happy; it is its own reward. I believe the monks must have felt in their art this same rightness, that it belonged. Sketching out the tiny triads of fishes which revolve around the letters of Luke's Gospel, the artist must have felt: this ought to exist in that time and place.

In the same way, the beauty of charity deserves to exist in our temporal moments, the Gospel illuminated in human action. May we all learn all together the art of inscribing it there.

"I pray You, noble Jesu, that as You have graciously granted me
joyfully to imbibe the words of Your knowledge;
so You will also of Your bounty grant me to come at length to Yourself,
the Fount of all wisdom, and to dwell in Your presence for ever."
(St. Bede the Venerable, Abbot of Jarrow in Northumbria)

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