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.


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.


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 (, 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!


Bob Setzer, Jr.


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6 thoughts on “The Art of Holy Doodling

  1. Jo Ann W. Goodson says:

    This is great. Now I know that you are human. I very seldom read a book from a library any more because of my “need” to doodle. All my bibles and most all my books, other than fiction, etc. I have written in the margins and inside cover. I’m so thankful that you and Bambi are having this wonderful opportunity and that so far you have enjoyed yourselves. Keep the pictures and “writing” coming. My prayers are with you both.

  2. Charlie Massler says:

    The rabbit doodles somehow made me think that this time of study will likely become a true ‘rabbit trail’ journey, orchestrated from on high. God bless you both as you go where you are being led. Enjoy!

    • A “rabbit trail” journey, indeed, Charlie. Since we only nailed down the high points of our itinerary beforehand, I’m sure there will be some rabbit chasing (hopefully, Spirit led) along the way.

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