The Art of Holy Doodling

It is early Saturday morning at Sarum College in Salisbury. Outside my open window, the birds are singing their morning praise as the stately Salisbury Cathedral listens and watches in somber silence from just across the lawn.

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Bambi and I spent most of this week in a seminar on “Celtic Spirituality” with some delightful English friends and an Oxford don or two. The gist of our learning was that people far smarter than I don’t use the term “Celtic Spirituality.” The expression is much too vague to be much of use to people who really know what they are talking about. Since I don’t suffer from that hindrance, I am soldiering on in my quest to learn more about the spirituality that hails from Irish saints Patrick, Columba, Hilda, and others from the 5th century onward.

Within thirty minutes of my seminar, I was ready to concede the point that “Celtic Spirituality” is not an academically credible term. However, the next several days were devoted to exploring a variety of esoteric medieval texts that demonstrated contemplative mysticism, the celebration of creation, a holistic spirituality of the sacred and the secular, and an embrace of the feminine experience of God were not unique to the early Irish expression of Christianity. OK, point made. Now might we now talk about the relevance of all this to our lives today?

That never happened so I was fortunate to discover the art of holy doodling. That is my term for what the monastic monks did when the brain-grinding work of copying one more page of a highly stylized Latin or Old English manuscript proved overwhelming. With their quill pens, they doodled in the margins of their lambskin or calfskin documents. The technical term for these scribbled notes or drawings is “marginalia,” but I prefer “holy doodles.” The latter expression eases my guilt at doodling my way through the duller stretches of this week’s seminar.

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Here’s some of my favorite holy doodles that hearken from monks writing in the margins of 9th-16th century documents:

“Writing is excessive drudgery. It crooks your back, it dims your sight, it twists your stomach and your sides.”

“New parchment, bad ink. I say nothing more.”

“That’s a hard page and a weary work to read it.”

“As the harbor is welcome to the sailor, so is the last line to the scribe.”

“Now I’ve written the whole thing: for Christ’s sake, give me a drink!”

Usually, when rendering a biblical manuscript, the scribe’s comments were interpretive or helpful. But when copying less exalted material, the monks’ holy doodles were fanciful, funny, and even indecent. If you doubt me, check out this web link: Holy Doodling.

So there you have it: I have joined the exalted ranks of the holy doodlers. It helped while away the hours this week as some of them passed by at a glacial pace.

The takeaway for the good members of Knollwood Baptist Church (www.knollwood.org, the congregation I am blessed to serve as pastor)?

The next time I see you doodling in your bulletin as the sermon grinds on and on, you’ll get no grief from me!

Blessings,

Bob Setzer, Jr.

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Sabbatical Soundings: From the spirited Irish northwest to the stodgy English south

As of this writing, Bambi and I are at Sarum College in Salisbury, England. Sarum is an ecumenical center for learning that hosts a variety of graduate-level seminars. Theological education of some variety has been going on here for the last seven hundred years. We are here participating in a one-week seminar on “Celtic Spirituality.”

Our accommodations are in a lovely 17th century building designed by the famed architect, Christopher Wren. There are no screens on the gabled windows, just a sign that says, “Don’t let the pigeons in the windows!!” Apparently, screens (and air conditioning) are twentieth century innovations that have not yet reached this side of the Pond.

Sarum College bedroom window

The college is located just across the lawn from the majestic Salisbury Cathedral whose 400 foot spire is the tallest in Britain. The cathedral also houses the world’s oldest working clock and the best preserved of the four original copies of the Magna Carta. The interior of the cathedral features the soaring arches, buttress, and ceilings that are a staple of gothic architecture. I attended an Evensong service yesterday in the cathedral and marveled at the stunning clarity of the music and songs ringing out within the stone walls.

In some ways, our proximity to Salisbury Cathedral is a strange place to study Celtic spirituality, a form of piety that took shape in the magical, airy hills of Ireland. Saint Patrick and his kin (Columba and Bridget, the other patrons saints of Ireland) delighted in encountering the Divine in the grandeur of the natural world. As a result, they birthed a brand of Christianity much more personal, heart-centered, and sensual than the more rational, regimented expression of the faith based in Rome.

Window view of cathedral

Fortunately, we began our sabbatical journey on a whirlwind tour of northwest Ireland where early versions of what might be called “Celtic Christianity” stirred to life. The awe-inspiring scenery evoked wonder at the cosmic Artist who first wooed it all to life. The dark, rich greens of pastures speckled with sheep, framed by a deep blue sea surrounded by rocky bluffs, stirred the senses and awakened the soul.

So now Bambi and I are in Salisbury, beginning our formal study and hoping to integrate these seemingly contradictory worlds: one defined by natural grandeur and a spirituality of the heart and the other defined by stunning human achievement and a spirituality of the mind. Since Jesus invited us to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, I have to believe there is room for both.

Meanwhile, keep us in your thoughts and prayer and we will surely do the same for you.

Blessings,

Bob Setzer, Jr.

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