Jun 13, 2011

A monk sits among his brothers in a spacious hall filled with slanted writing desks. Although it is daytime, his desk bears its own candle for additional illumination. He has several pots of ink, the fruit of the labor of other monks who gather bark, berries, and minerals from the earth to produce vivid colors for his use. Likewise, the velum he writes on was painstakingly prepared by others.

Because he has a steady hand and very good eyesight, the monk spent years training to be an illuminator and calligrapher. He works with others to produce a sacred manuscript to be used in mass. Around him ordinary scribes do the important work of copying scriptures and other works. Only by possessing these copies can monasteries flung across Ireland and Europe teach the thousands who come to them to learn. Sometimes even nobility and kings come to the monasteries for education and enlightenment. This work is important and valuable, and yet he is careful not to become prideful. He is only an instrument.

Words. The pictures they create in a person's mind. The meaning they speak to one's soul. The monks in the scriptorium copy, draw, paint, and compose, and in doing so they deliver the beauty of words to the people.

It's a great responsibility, working in a scriptorium. But that is not why the monk does it. God Almighty has asked this of him, given him the skill and steadiness. To refuse his calling would be an act of disobedience, and he has taken a vow to obey God and the abbot.

So here he sits while birds sing outside and children frolic in the sunshine. While farmers plow and harpers strum. Only while resting does he pause to consider something besides his brush.

A white cat wanders about the tables, occasionally rubbing his back against a scribe's leg until a rustle in the corner captures his attention. Once the animal's mind is set upon his prey, nothing, not even a human's voice or the offer of a crumb of bread can divert him from his task. God created the cat to hunt mice. God created this monk to hunt words.

Pangur Ban (Old Irish for White Cat)
I and Pangur Ban my cat,
Tis a like task we are at:
Hunting mice is his delight,
Hunting words I sit all night.
Better far than praise of men
Tis to sit with book and pen;
Pangur bears me no ill will,
He too plies his simple skill.
Tis a merry thing to see
At our tasks how glad are we,
When at home we sit and find
Entertainment to our mind.
Oftentimes a mouse will stray
In the hero Pangur's way;
Oftentimes my keen thought set
Takes a meaning in its net.
'Gainst the wall he sets his eye
Full and fierce and sharp and sly;
'Gainst the wall of knowledge I
All my little wisdom try.
When a mouse darts from its den
O how glad is Pangur then!
O what gladness do I prove
When I solve the doubts I love!
So in peace our tasks we ply,
Pangur Ban, my cat, and I;
In our arts we find our bliss,
I have mine and he has his.
Practice every day has made
Pangur perfect in his trade;
I get wisdom day and night
Turning darkness into light.
~Translation by Robin Flower of a 9th century poem written by an unknown Irish monk


  1. Cindy, I'm always learning something new from you! Your words inspire all, especially the diligent monk hunched over parchment with ink stained fingers answering the whispers of the holy Trinity that he's been blessed to hear.

  2. Thanks, Linda. Just realized I forgot the title. Oh well! Glad you enjoyed it.