Communion Of Dreams


Faith.

I wrote this back around 1993, and had it up on my archive site. Yesterday I had reason to look it up, and first looked here, figuring that at some point I must have reposted it. But a search didn’t turn it up, and I thought that I should correct that oversight.

It’s interesting to now look back to it, and to see how little my attitude/approach to the subject has changed with another 23 years of book conservation experience.

 

Jim Downey

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Mark Twain, in his early work Innocents Abroad, described how Christian craftsmen were given special dispensation to enter mosques in the Holy Land in order to install or repair the clocks which called the faithful to prayer.  Sometimes I feel like those clockmakers, and wonder how they reconciled their non-belief in Islam with the service they provided that faith.  Did they feel the grace of Allah’s touch in their craftsmanship, or in the heartfelt thanks and blessings they received from the faithful?

I am a book conservator in private practice in the Midwest, and a significant number of the books I work on are religious texts, usually but not exclusively bibles.  While I am a deeply spiritual person, largely in the Christian tradition, I do not consider myself to be a person of faith, and I have doubts about the existence of a single divine entity by whatever name.  Still, I respect the religions of others, and am comfortable working on the books that deeply religious people bring to me.

Repair of holy scripture is an odd thing for an agnostic to do.  My friends of faith say that it is part of my path of spiritual growth, perhaps the way I will be led to discovery and belief.  Perhaps.  But I consider it more that I am keeping faith with my clients.  A bible, particularly a personal bible which is used for daily prayer and inspiration, is probably more private and revealing than a diary.  I can tell from the way the binding is broken, from the wear on the pages, from the passages highlighted or notes made, what is important to the owner, what their innermost fears and hopes are.  I suspect that often I know more about these things than they do themselves.  I am a therapist of paper and glue.

These books are precious, not in a monetary sense, but in a personal one.  I can see it in their eyes when they bring the bible to me, asking me if it can be repaired, worried less about the cost than the time it will be absent from their lives.  The repair of these books is usually simple and straightforward, just an hour or two of labor.  I can fit this work in between larger projects, and get the bible back to the owner in a matter of just a few days.  This news usually comes as a relief.  But almost always the owner is still hesitant let go of the book, hands slowly passing it over as they search my face for a clue as to whether they can trust me with this part of themselves.  Just as a veterinarian receives a beloved animal who needs treatment with gentleness and grace, out of concern for the owner as much as for the pet, I receive their bibles as a sacred trust.

And when they come for their bibles, I am sometimes embarrassed.  Embarrassed because of the praise, the occasional blessings, and the overflowing joy they feel.  It is times like this that I feel that my hands are not really my own, my craftsmanship and skill not something that I can take pride in, but a rare gift that comes from outside of myself.  And I am grateful, whatever the source, for this touch of grace that enters my life.

 



Another excerpt.

This is from the working draft of Chapter One: Pennant Melangell

“C’mon in,” she said, unlocking the door and stepping inside. They passed through the porch, into the church itself. Just inside she stopped, turned on the lights. With a sweep of her arm, she gestured across the interior of the space. “Now, where do you go?”

Darnell furrowed his brow, scanned the interior. “What do you mean?”

“You want to be healed. Where do you go?”

“Well,” he hesitated. “Well, to the Shrine?”

“You know the legend of St. Melangell. What if you didn’t?”

He looked around. “The frieze?”

She nodded. “All these places tell a story. Sometimes it is just in the layout of the building or what is left of it. Sometimes it is represented in paintings, friezes, or stained glass. You have to understand the story of the place before you can hope to use it.”

“An instruction manual.”

“Of a sort. Some of it will be intuitive – these are built spaces, created by other humans. And so in some sense just part of your heritage. But some of it will be based on symbolism which is drawn from a different culture than what we’re used to now. It may take a little while before your brain adjusts, and sees the proper cues.”

“Learn the language.”

“Close. More like learning the patterns. The rituals.”

“I’m not looking to get religion, sis.”

She considered him. “I know. Think of religion to be just one interpretation of the text. First you need to learn to read. Interpretation can come later, when you’re more fluent.”

Back to work.

 

Jim Downey



An excerpt.

No, not from St. Cybi’s Well.  Not exactly, anyway. Rather, from a travelogue I wrote following my 2006 trip to Wales. This is how I describe the small chapel of Pennant Melangell, which is the site where a lot of the book will be based:

The shrine is to St. Melangell, supposedly one of the earliest such shrines in northern Europe.  It’s been nicely restored, using new local materials to recreate missing pieces, but in such a fashion as to be clear what is old and what is new.  Yeah, that’s the professional book conservator talking there – I appreciate good craftsmanship when I see it.  Evidently the shrine had been pitched (literally) into a local ditch during the Reformation, but was (much) later recovered, then even later properly restored.

The rest of the chapel is stunning, though in an honest and simple way.  It has seen multiple alterations and revisions in the last 800 years (big surprise), but still maintains a sense of what it is all about.  And what it is all about is grace.  No, not in the strictly Christian sense of the term, but in something older, something deeper . . . dare I say in the sense the early Christians wanted to appropriate?

Here we get into what I was talking about when I said that this trip was partly a spiritual quest.  The Celts had notions of holiness tied up with location, of ‘thin’ places where the boundaries between this reality and the other side came together.  You’ll frequently find a river, stream, or spring at such a location.  The whole valley of the Tanat has that feeling to it, but it seems to be particularly strong here, where the young river wraps itself around the church grounds.  The rough circle of the churchyard is bounded by a coarse wall, more like an earthwork than anything.  More importantly, while the wall is higher than either the interior or the exterior ground, the interior is on a slight rise, a slight dome with the chapel at the apex.  It’s almost like it is a lens of earth, focusing spiritual energy.  And that Big Damned Yew tree?  It isn’t the only one.  There are several others of almost the same age at other points on the wall, the anchors of the lens, both to the earth and to the sky.

So, go.  If you make it to Wales, and have an afternoon or a morning to spare, go.  In the coming travelogues I will have other places you might want to visit, each one special in its own way.  But go to Pennant Melangell.  Make a donation of a few pounds if you can spare ’em.  Avowed atheist that I am, I now carry a wallet with a religious inscription that I got at Pennant Melangell, from the self-service/honor system selection of items in the office.  And yes, I even paid for it.

Just thought I would share that passage. Trust me, you’ll see a lot more about this place over the coming year.

 

Jim Downey