“... among them was a man clothed in linen, with a writing-case at his side’ ’’ — Ezekiel 9.2
There is a cute cartoon of a morose individual who complains that because he has such beautiful handwriting, no one believes he’s an actual doctor. I’m certainly old enough to have gone to school when penmanship mattered, and my school reports always included devastating comments from my respective teachers about the appalling state of my letters.
It could have been worse. The year before I started, left-handers were still having their offending hand tied behind their back in the hopes that the true right-hander might emerge. Instead, I watched as my hand inevitably dragged through my words, smudging the infantile printing, and making my teachers seethe.
I’m sorry to say that my handwriting has not improved over time. Technology, though, has definitely made this less of an issue. As I’m beginning to understand, even spelling is no longer as critical, with both my children relying on auto-correct to make necessary changes. However, just because I can’t write beautifully doesn’t mean I don’t admire it deeply, and the Saint John’s Bible, filled with extraordinary versals, ligatures and descenders, and over 1,100 hundred pages of handwritten text, still makes me wish I could do justice to my frustrated inner scribe.
St. Mary’s University in Calgary is only one of three institutions in Canada that owns a Heritage Edition of the Saint John’s Bible, the first illuminated, hand-written Bible commissioned by Benedictine monks in over 500 years. I expected to learn a fair few things when the volumes arrived on campus in 2012: about book production, about liturgical decision-making, about Scripture. What I didn’t expect was to learn about the human impact of the written word. At a public event when we first unveiled the volumes, one of our students read the 23rd Psalm for the news cameras. Halfway through, however, her voice broke, and she paused before resuming more slowly. Later she commented that she had never quite “seen” the words before; that the immediacy of the handwriting made the beautiful, but “historic” wording intimate and unexpectedly available.
I shouldn’t have been surprised by this. After all, a handwritten thank-you note still trumps an email; a personally signed letter is still more meaningful than one with a printed signature. This, for me, is the hardest fact to communicate to younger audiences: that the Bible is not just antiquity, but immediacy. It is not just an artifact to admire, but a living entity to encounter. And sometimes it is useful to connect with it not through technology — movies and 3D scans — but through humbler means that remind us that a human hand once had the chance to write the word of God. Saving text, perhaps, instead of saved text?
Turcotte is president of St. Mary’s University in Calgary.