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Sunday Worship 7 August | Sacred Spaces: scriptorium

Updated: Mar 18

Luke 2:41-52 (NIV)
Every year Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem for the Festival of the Passover. When he was twelve years old, they went up to the festival, according to the custom. After the festival was over, while his parents were returning home, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but they were unaware of it. Thinking he was in their company, they travelled on for a day. Then they began looking for him among their relatives and friends. When they did not find him, they went back to Jerusalem to look for him. After three days they found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him, they were astonished. His mother said to him, “Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you.” “Why were you searching for me?” he asked. “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” But they did not understand what he was saying to them. Then he went down to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them. But his mother treasured all these things in her heart. And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man.

The last of the seven sacred spaces we are considering is ‘Scriptorium: a place of study’, and this is probably the space which feels least familiar. Unless you have any interest in monasteries, you may not have even heard the word scriptorium before. The way to understand it is through the word script, which is something written. The scriptorium was then the writing place, the room where mediaeval monks would copy out texts, which was the only way of reproducing books before the invention of the printing press.

 

It may sound like dull and repetitive work, and I’m sure it was at times, but many of the manuscripts these monks produced were things of extraordinary beauty. The eighth century Lindisfarne Gospels are held by the British Library, in their permanent display of treasures, and if you ever get a chance to see them, then I do recommend taking it. Having studied the Lindisfarne Gospels in modules on Anglo Saxon history and mediaeval literature, it was quite an emotional experience when I saw them for the first time. The carpet pages, which are decorated with incredibly detailed patterns, are absolutely stunning. And that particular manuscript is written in Latin, but with an Old English gloss added between the lines in the tenth century, which makes it the earliest surviving translation of the gospels into the English language.

 

I think that particular quirk demonstrates quite clearly what George Lings says is the most important aspect of Scriptorium, that it was a place where knowledge was passed on. The Lindisfarne Gospels are a wonderful artistic achievement, but above all they were written so that others could read the life and words of Christ, first in the language of the church and then in the language of the people, so that this extraordinary knowledge could be shared and understood more widely. It is in part because of the devotion of these monks in their scriptoriums that we ourselves have been blessed by the stories and wisdom of scripture.

 

And it really was devotion. It is thought to have taken ten years for the Lindisfarne Gospels to be written, and the widely accepted tradition is that the original manuscript was the work of a single hand, Eadfrith the Bishop of Lindisfarne. The pages are vellum, made from approximately one hundred and fifty carefully prepared calf skins, and Eadfrith manufactured ninety of his own coloured inks made from only six local minerals and vegetable extracts. When books are mass produced on machines or delivered electronically to our devices, it is easy to forget just how much work went into producing texts, just how passionately people had to believe in the importance of the words they were writing out by hand.

 

So far Scriptorium may sound more like a place of work than a place of study, and producing manuscripts was certainly part of the work of a monastery, but it was work that enabled study. When finished, the manuscripts could be used in worship or kept in the library for other monks to read and reflect on, with regular meditation on scripture being an important part of most monastic rules. But the writing of the manuscripts could also be seen as a form of study in itself. I know of ministers who will write out the passage they are preaching on as part of their preparation, as it helps them focus on the text in a different way.  With no backspace key or tippex, I imagine the monks who worked in the scriptorium had to pay very careful attention to the words they were copying, and I can only imagine what new insights came to them as they did that.

 

I want to go back to the idea that Scriptorium is about the passing on of knowledge, because that is so important. Lings says "Both Judaism and Christianity are faiths grounded in the conviction of God's historical intervention, such as in the exodus and exile, the incarnation and resurrection. From this follows both a command and an impulse to pass on the stories, orally and by writing." Deuteronomy 11:18-19 instructs the people of God to "Fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds; tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Teach them to your children, talking about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up." Psalm 78:4 declares "We will not hide [the things our ancestors have told us] from their descendants; we will tell the next generation the praiseworthy deeds of the Lord, his power, and the wonders he has done." Jesus spoke of passing on all that he had heard from his Father, and instructed his disciples to do likewise. And Paul's letters not only share a great deal of knowledge, but also speak of calling and training teachers so that it can go further still.

 

Ours is a faith not only of the head but also of the heart, and I believe that we can all have direct experience of God, but it is only because of the stories that have been passed down that we can begin to make sense of it. Faith is so much more than knowledge, but that doesn't mean we can do without it. We need to know how Jesus lived and what he taught so that we can follow in his way. We need to know that the prophets spoke of peace and justice so that we can understand those things are the heart of God. We need to know that the psalmist cried out in lament and fear and anger so that we can be released to do the same. That's why it is good that we spend time in study, whether that is in church or in house group or in quiet moments alone.

 

There are a number of things that can help with that study, from daily reading guides to apps to practices like lectio divina. If you would like help finding something that will work for you, chat to me afterwards. For now though, Lings offers a couple of words of caution to bear in mind. He speaks first of a corruption from transformation to information which has happened in the way we approach learning. The point of study should be to change us, not simply to fill our heads, and so we should be thinking quality not quantity. We need to slow down, to be willing to sit with an idea or go back over a passage until it moves us or our perspective.

 

He also warns that the internet has opened access to a near endless stream of data, so that "we seem to be a society addicted to putting out and following more information". In many ways the democratisation of knowledge is a good thing. If anyone can learn anything and anyone can publish anything, it is harder for the powerful to act as gatekeepers and the powerless can have a voice. But without appropriate checks, it is all too easy for lies and misinformation to spread, and for us to find ourselves in echo chambers where we only listen to the voices that agree with us. We need to be discerning in the way we engage with information, listening to voices beyond our immediate circle and testing everything we hear for the truth. In the context of this reflection, we may be thinking most particularly about how we study scriptural and spiritual matters, but that applies to how we engage with news and other media too.

 

I want to end by thinking back to the reading we heard earlier, because we don't simply receive knowledge, but engage with it. When Jesus' parents found him in the temple, he was not just listening to the teachers, but asking questions and offering answers of his own. Clearly Jesus was exceptional, but it was the depth of his knowledge and the tenderness of his years that amazed people, not the fact that he was asking and answering questions at all, and I think this story offers us a pattern for our own study. Judaism has a wonderful history of debate and interpretation surrounding its scriptures, and I think it is something the church would do well to learn from. It is right and good that we ask questions and express doubts and extend challenges and offer answers, that we wrestle with scripture as Jacob wrestled with God. It may not always be comfortable, but there will often be a blessing at the end of it.

 

I'm not going to propose a full Bible study to end, but I do want to hand over to you for a few minutes, so we can start practising what I've preached. You may like to use the worship notes on the Contact to note down some of your responses. You may like to chat to someone next to you about a reflection or question you have about something you have heard today. Or you may like to take your thoughts to God in prayer.


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If you would like to reflect more deeply on the sacred spaces we are exploring this summer, you can find reflection questions in the file below.

Stoneygate Baptist Church teaching series Summer 2022
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