Today, among other things, we saw an original edition of Richard Hooker’s Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity; an original 1552 Book of Common Prayer; a slew of absolutely beautiful Bibles; and so much more. It was amazing to dye back in time to a period where books were beloved and treasured items. Not to mention the number of people involved in crafting these works of art. As we looked at a Book of Hours the librarian rattled off about a dozen people who were involved in the creating of an illuminated book, and that did not include people making the paper or binding the book.
This week I have been struck by the variety of stories books tell in a way I have not been before. It was as if this experience dug into my soul a bit deeper. Not only are there the stories of the text of a book, but there is also the stories the books tell over time.
Take for example the book I have been reading this week. This week I set out to reread Thomas Merton’s Thoughts in Solitude. First, there is the beautiful theological and spiritual discourse Merton writes. Second, there is my story of the book itself. Whenever I bring a book somewhere to start reading, I pick up a bookmark from wherever I am. (I have a lot of Seven Stars book marks). More often than not, I leave that bookmark tucked in the book once I’ve finished reading. As I opened my copy of Thoughts in Solitude on Saturday (11 March 2017) a book mark fell out. It was a prayer card from Canterbury Cathedral from the last time I was here nearly six years ago. I haven’t thought about this book much over these last few years, and yet there is something about my story that connects this book with this place. I wonder if I’ll remember that the next time I travel to Canterbury? Finally, there is the story of the book before it got to me. I was given this book in June 2007 as a high school graduation gift. It was given to me by a priest in my diocese, who bought it when they were in seminary. All this tradition – all of these stories – in a single, falling apart, paperback.
Today we saw the stories of history being told by the books on display. One of the books has a calendar of saints. Someone had very carefully taken a knife and slashed through the saint’s names. It was done so carefully that no other pages were damaged and the names were still legible. The librarian wondered with us about the story of this book. Maybe it was done during a more Protestant era, and the owner wanted to make a “good effort” to make the book less “Papist” while still being able to use it for worship. Maybe they were just hedging their bets knowing that the Protestant-Catholic pendulum would eventually swing the other way. It is a sorry that reveals something to us about religious life in England during the 16th century.
These pages also tell another story. One name was cut out of the book, a simple slash would not do, the person had to be removed completely. It was the name for December 29 – Thomas Becket. Somewhere in this book’s history the decree of Henry VIII was carried out and thus the attempt to erase Becket from the history of this book.
I find these stories fascinating. They are a window into the lives of the faithful throughout generations. While I knew all of these histories, today I really saw these histories.
Tonight I give thanks for tradition, for stories, for books that invite us to step back in time and encounter the holy in New and unexpected ways. I wonder what stories you books will tell to a future generation?