A few weeks ago, one of my graduate classes visited the rare book room at the university library. There we were able to stand in close proximity to, but not touch, a book written in the twelfth century. Over two-hundred pages long, the book was the work of five monks writing by hand. Recorded within it are the sermons of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux in Latin. With the aid of the professor, who was the only one allowed to touch the book, we examined the vellum (animal hide) pages, the Gothic script, and the binding. We were shown places where colored ink was used for enlarged letters at the beginning of paragraphs. The decoration was simple, yet beautiful. Most importantly, the professor taught us how a paleographer would catalog the book in front of us. We were, from all appearances, studying the book.
However, as we looked at the book, I couldn’t help feeling that our study was somewhat superficial. After all, the book presumably contains the sermons of Saint Bernard. A group of monks considered the preservation and spreading of these sermons important enough to labor over this book, putting delicately printed letters down on carefully ruled lines. Someone could and perhaps has taken time to transcribe the difficult to read Gothic script into our modern Roman script. Further effort would be needed to translate the Latin into English. A person, at this point, could then study the book. The book would surely tell a lot about the time that Saint Bernard lived in. A student would be able to research his theology and rhetorical style. This information would make a great thesis paper, or a book on the history of 12th century Christian mysticism. That would be studying studying the book. And yet, I felt that there was another layer to penetrate.
From all accounts Saint Bernard was a wise man who devoted his life to following God. His experiences and the time he lived in surely gave him unique insights into Christian life and growth. I was curious to discover what Bernard knew that I did not. What did he have to say in those sermons which could penetrate into my own life. What in his sermons could teach me and shape the way I live. This too would be a way to study the book.
This short experience, I think, reveals something about the nature of what it means to study something. At one end of the spectrum, we can look at what we study as mere subjects something to be placed between glass slides and examined under a microscope. We establish a one way relationship with the what we study.
We can also reverse this relationship, effectively placing ourselves under the microscope, allowing the object to study us. This allows what we study to make comments about ourself. Depending on the situation, one or the other may be needed. A reciprocal relationship can even form in which we critique the object of study while allowing ourselves to be critiqued.
However, I have observed that the tendency among those who make a profession of study is towards the former. Historians, scientists, theologians, and literary critics all fall into this category. This is not wrong, but it is not enough. I am thankful to Malcolm Guite for the discover of these lines from George Herbert’s poem The Elixir.
A man that looks on glass,
On it may stay his eye;
Or it he pleaseth, through it pass,
And then the heav’n espy.
We may look at and study a piece of glass or we can look through the window and be transfixed by the vision that comes to us through the glass.
Now this approach to study is not limited to academia. It may occur in our encounters and interactions with people. There is movie, which I have only seen once, called Certified Copy. The story is centered on two characters. One is an art historian/critic. He is erudite, a little cold, and slightly arrogant. We find him at the beginning of the movie giving a lecture on his newly published book. What he emphasizes is the need for objectivity when studying art. We must not allow ourselves to become attached to a piece of art. For when we allow a connection and feelings to form, we lose our ability to evaluate with objectivity.
The other central character is a woman who attends the lecture. She is evidently emotionally vulnerable. One suspects that this vulnerability has caused her to be taken advantage of in many romantic relationships. Yet, for as many times as she has been trampled upon, she continues to risk having her heart broken.
After the lecture she invites the man to meet with her. We suspect that she is a little attracted to him, but she also has some opinions about his approach to art which she would like to share with him. The rest of the movie is a dialogue which take place between them as they drive and walk through the countryside and towns of Tuscany. Gradually, the viewer discovers that there is a continuity between the way each of these characters approach art and the way they approach other human beings.
I confess that I am constantly treating other human beings as mere bodies. They are a collection of likes and dislikes, a talking Meyer’s-Briggs profile. I think the poet Czesław Miłos looks at human beings as one looking through the glass in his poem, The Fall.
The death of a man is like the fall of a mighty nation
That had valiant armies, captains and prophets,
And wealthy ports and ships over all the seas,
But now it will not relieve any besieged city,
It will not enter into any alliance,
Because its cities are empty, its population dispersed,
Its land once bringing harvest is overgrown with thistles,
Its mission forgotten, its language lost,
The dialect of a village high upon inaccessible mountains.
Those who study theology are liable to fall into the distanced mode of study. God becomes merely the subject of study. Such people know a great deal about God, just as a paleographer knows a great deal about a book. Their study becomes their god, not God himself. But just like people, God will occasionally leap out at us. The specimen breaks free from the formaldehyde jar. Then we realize that we are at the end of the microscope. How we respond to those situations makes all the difference.