The Human Touch

Back when grade school was called grammar school and the verb form of “text” did not exist, the Sisters of Charity at Immaculate Conception Grammar School in Montclair, New Jersey, took English, the parts of speech and sentence structure very seriously. They taught us why it’s important to avoid dangling modifiers, when an adverb can modify an adjective, and how to diagram complex sentences. The blackboards at Immaculate, which seemed to extend 50 yards, were filled with the horizontal and diagonal lines of Sister Alice Bernadette’s dissection of sentences from Huckleberry Finn and Call of the Wild. Her circuitous diagrams had multiple tentacles snaking this way and that and, somehow, she found a home for every word in the sentence.

Despite my efforts to follow along in a spiral bound notebook, my adjectives would inevitably run out of space and, instead of heading southeast under the nouns they modify, they would detour due south, scrunched up against the notebook’s spiral coil. I lacked the foresight to leave enough space for compound-complex sentences and I lacked Sister Alice Bernadette’s perfect Palmer penmanship. For me, writing on a horizontal line was a challenge – forget about diagonal lines.

Fast forward 35 years. Diagramming sentences is a lost art and my #2 pencil has given way to a keyboard and now, the iPad. But when it comes to texting, I can’t stop capitalizing the first letter of a sentence, organizing my message in paragraphs, and using the punctuation marks drilled into us by Sister Alice – despite the extra time it takes to find those secondary function keys on my mobile phone. I’m reasonably proficient on a QWERTY keyboard, but mobile phones are another story. The combination of small, multifunction keys in a two inch-by-two inch array makes texting an agonizing exercise – especially when you’re fighting ghosts from fifth grade English class.

My kids make fun of my carefully constructed messages and could care less about grammatical decorum as they truncate every word down to just a few characters or just one.

My text: Kids. Mom and I are going to a movie. Please keep the kitchen clean, let the dog out and let us know if you are going out.

Reply from Mary: ok c u have fun!

Reply from Carolyn: k

Reply from Connor: [no reply]

On the brevity scale of written communication, we are quickly approaching absolute zero. Traditional letter-writing – the kind we read about in the biographies of Jefferson, Adams and Madison – has been replaced with winking semi-colons, open brackets and other modern day hieroglyphics. Lately, I’ve noticed these squiggly characters migrating from cell phones to email and on to letters. It won’t be long before dictionaries are forced to deal with contracted words that are part letter, part symbol.

There’s nothing wrong with texting, but its convenience is so attractive we can’t help but fill the airwaves with meaningless chatter and we feel obligated to constantly respond. In a recent New York Times article on the downside of texting, Sherry Turkle, a psychologist who is director of the Initiative on Technology and Self at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, commented on our obsessive urge to respond to text messages. “If you’re being deluged by constant communication, the pressure to answer immediately is quite high. So if you’re in the middle of a thought, forget it.”

Our ability to concentrate and truly listen used to be much better. Early humans used the oral tradition to pass down epic poems and detailed family history from generation to generation. By using parchment and quill pens, society recorded these stories and created beautiful works of literature that are still enjoyed today. For example, Shakespeare’s 37 plays and 154 sonnets were all written using goose quill and handmade inks, which seems rather daunting compared to Microsoft Word. I do wonder how much Shakespeare would have accomplished if he was constantly interrupted by text messages, voicemail, and email.)

A modern day example of this more thoughtful and deliberate approach is The Saint John’s Bible the first handwritten, hand-illuminated Bible commissioned by Benedictines monks in over 500 years. This work of sacred art is entirely counter-cultural. The calligraphy and illuminations were completed in 2011 and, because many of the completed pages are on an international exhibition tour, the seven volumes won’t be bound for another 5 years.

Donald Jackson, one of the leading calligraphers in the Western world, is the artistic director of this monumental project. Mr. Jackson’s team of scribes and artists, located mostly in Wales and England, are meticulously drawing every letter, every word, and every verse of the Bible on calfskin, using goose quills, homemade inks and gold leaf. A single page in this Bible can take one or two days to complete – assuming it consists of just letters; some of the more complex illuminations can take months.

Although these timelines are antithetical to our modern pace of life, The Saint John’s Bible has been worth the wait. The gold- and silver-laced contemporary imagery of this Bible makes Scripture resonate with today’s world. For example, The Valley of the Dry Bones illumination depicts the horror of Auschwitz and Cambodia’s Killing Fields. The Genealogy of Jesus includes double-helix DNA strands, which celebrates our Lord’s direct connection to Abraham and Sarah. And the depiction of Adam and Eve as Africans affirms what most anthropologists believe: the cradle of humanity began in the region we now call Ethiopia. There are 160 illuminations in The Saint John’s Bible; each one connects with Scripture in a very special way.

A few years ago, representatives from Saint John’s University had the honor of visiting the Pope and presenting The Saint John’s Bible. When he opened the pages of the Apostles Edition, one of twelve fine art editions of the Bible, Pope Benedict XVI said, “This is a work of art!” He turned another page and said, “It is a great work of art!” After a few more pages, he told the audience, “This is a work for eternity!” Millions have visited exhibitions of original manuscripts from The Saint John’s Bible and the BBC documentary, “The Illuminator,” has been aired on stations around the world.

Universities, libraries and museums have also recognized the ability of The Saint John’s Bible to captivate. In 2009, the Heritage Edition – a limited edition fine art version of the original – was presented to St. Martin-in-the-Fields Anglican Church in London, where it will be on permanent display. In anticipation of this celebration, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, wrote, “We tend to read greedily and hastily, as we do so many other things: this beautiful text shows us a better way.”

St. Martin’s and other institutions are sharing this gift with their communities because beautiful words on paper give us pause and touch us in ways that aren’t possible on electronic displays. Also, these editions of The Saint John’s Bible will be preserved for hundreds of years giving future generations a glimpse of our world at the start of the 21st century – which leads to an interesting irony of the digital age.

The Wall Street Journal recently reported on Saint John’s University’s use of advanced imaging technologies to digitize Egyptian manuscripts from the 2nd century BC. While 21st century technology enables us to preserve handwritten relics from 4,000 years ago, the history we are making today, through the messages we text and email each other, has an ethereal quality that lacks the staying power of manuscripts, letters and works of art.

Why is this? One reason is the logjam of messages in our inbox and our desire to clear it as quickly as possible. But there’s another reason. The logical left side of our brain appreciates the convenience of electronic messaging and the ability to organize and access information quickly and efficiently. But the right side of our brain – the spiritual and creative side – wants something more. It prefers the human touch of those homemade birthday card we receive from our kids, the handwritten letters our grandparents exchanged during World War II and an illuminated Bible – crafted by hand – using vellum, goose quill and gold leaf.




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