A Benedictine monk explains why preserving ancient religious texts is vital

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From the Balkans to the Middle East to Africa and Asia, Father Columba Stewart has spent the past two decades photographing and digitally preserving some of the world’s most treasured religious texts.

“Even though manuscripts – hand-written books – are at least a few technological steps behind the way we access information today, we still rely on them to access the past,” the father said. Columba, specialist in primitive religions.
“To know what is most important to these communities, to understand the questions they asked and what gave them purpose and identity, we need to read their manuscripts.”

Father Columba is a Benedictine monk based in Collegeville, Minnesota and the executive director of the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library at Saint John’s University. In October 2019, he delivered the final Jefferson Lecture to be held before the pandemic at the Warner Theater in Washington, D.C. The series is run by the National Endowment for the Humanities to honor the most distinguished intellectual achievements in the humanities.

A damaged Umayyad mosque in Aleppo hours before the Syrian army regained control of the historic building, October 14, 2012. Before the war, Fr. Columba was responsible for digitally transferring 3,300 Syriac, Christian Arabic and Armenian texts to Syria. (Tauseef Mustafa/AFP via Getty Images)

“The discipline of listening is now a dying art. Equally threatened are the stores of wisdom contained in the world’s manuscripts, targeted by those fearful of difference or threatened by imaginations larger than their own. These old books are caught up in the indiscriminate destruction of war and abandoned by the displacement of their owner,” he said in his lecture, Present and future cultural heritage: the long-term vision of a Benedictine monk.

“The wisdom they contain is being eroded by the oblivion that besets a diaspora community cut off from its roots, resettled in a strange place and often suffering the slow but inexorable loss of its distinctive language and ways.”

After delivering his Jefferson Lecture, Father Columba addressed IDEAS host Nahlah Ayed on her work and the value of preserving manuscripts.

Here is an excerpt from their conversation.

NA: I mean this phrase, “the discipline of listening”. Could you explain what makes listening different from courtesy and good manners?

FC: True listening requires attention. And I think the ability to pay attention and focus is one of the many things at risk in our current, modern culture. I’m aware of this myself because of my use of digital media and my research online and… what it’s done to my own attention span. And so the ability to just sit quietly with someone, or in a larger group, and actually pay attention to what they’re saying, it’s very hard not to retreat into our own thoughts.

And so this ability that counselors and psychotherapists have had to cultivate – spiritual directors more in my kind of wheelhouse – to be able to really listen, not just to the person’s words but also to the things that aren’t said but which are nevertheless communicated in the encounter, I think it is extremely important. Whether it’s a spiritual conversation, working on some sort of emotional or psychological issue, or operating in a political context.

Pope Francis and Fr. Columba in his private library in the Apostolic Palace for Eastern Roman Catholic-Orthodox dialogue in 2018. (Hill Museum and Manuscript Library (HMML))

In your lecture, you mentioned that familiar trope of a monk, hunched over a desk as you put it, quill in hand, writing texts on reams of parchment. I wonder, as someone who is part of this religious tradition, what motivates this deep connection with the written word? Where does it come from?

One of the main monastic spiritual practices and it is certainly Christian monastic spiritual practice, but you can find analogues in different religious traditions, is the idea of ​​slow and prayerful rereading. It is not reading for us because we have read it so many times but re-reading the Bible. We do this together in our religious services where we sing psalms and listen to readings. We do this daily in our own rereading of these texts, which are so familiar to us in certain respects, and which have nevertheless retained an extraordinary capacity to tell us new things.

And I think the reality of a monastic life, like, again, you can compare that with these other religious traditions, is that when you read it again, you’re not the same person you were when you read it. have read the previous time. And therefore, there really is a voice coming to you that you couldn’t even hear earlier.

You have helped digitally preserve some of the world’s most valuable religious antiquities, many of which are threatened with destruction. Could you take us to the time when you decided this was something that you individually wanted to learn, that you wanted to pursue?

Life is often full of accidents. You know, in a religious context, we talk about providence. But providence is one of those things that says it looks forward — but from a human perspective, it looks back. I had no intention of doing this job. It was an existing project started by our monastery at the university in the 1960s. But there was a critical point in the evolution of the organization, and they thought that maybe I had skills to update contribution.

Manuscript of Islamic law from the Omari Grand Mosque, Gaza. (Hill Museum and Manuscript Library (HMML))

I had some experience in the Middle East. We were going to work in Lebanon. We were doing a digital transition and there was a bit of turmoil in the organization. And then suddenly they said, “We’d like you to lead this short term, so go ahead, you know, calm people down, make sure everything’s going to be okay, and then we’ll figure it out. From there .’ That was almost 20 years ago. So the wonder is that I hadn’t planned on doing this. But the longer I was in there, the more I realized all these weird little skills and knowledge and tidbits of languages ​​that I had acquired over the years.

Basically, I’m really a dilettante. I’m interested in all kinds of things. It’s probably the only job in the world where all of this could come together. So my life as a scholar, my life as someone who has traveled, who is interested in history, who is interested in languages, and suddenly I use all of that all the time.

What specifically can manuscripts offer us that other, more recent means of accessing historical, historical, or cultural information cannot?

I think there are two reasons why it is important for us to preserve the manuscripts.

The first is that there are many texts that have not been made available in modern formats. They have not been edited and printed. They have not been posted. You cannot google them. They only exist in handwritten form because for some reason people haven’t come across them and transferred them to these modern media. So we kind of do that by sharing the digital images online.

The second thing that is important about manuscripts and why the study of manuscripts greatly enriches the work of scholars is that too few people, I think, understand that when you read a manuscript you are not just reading a vehicle for the text. A printed book conveys the text, and you have many, many copies of the same text. If you download something to your tablet or Kindle or whatever, that’s the same as delivering the text to you.

Father Columba at SAVAMA in Bamako, Mali – a field site digitizing hundreds of thousands of West African Islamic manuscripts from Timbuktu. (Hill Museum and Manuscript Library (HMML))

A manuscript has the text, but first it has it in a single form, because no two manuscripts have exactly the same version of the text. And it can be simple errors, but it can also be some kind of elegant variations that a particular scribe or editor has added or changed when they remove something, which then becomes the interesting question of why did they omit it?

But the manuscripts also have marks of the hands through which they pass. And sometimes there is actually a fingerprint. It is therefore a mark of the hand. A little wax got in there or, you know, somebody played with something a little dirty and they lost their fingerprint. The modern age, of course, was not obsessed with hygiene and sanitation like we are. So the manuscripts often reflect that. But people also wrote their notes, the scribe – himself – wrote their name and where and when they wrote it. Owners put their names on the flyleaf because manuscripts were passed down, but they weren’t disposable like even printed books can be. And they often add important things to their notes and manuscripts.

Watch Father Columba Stewart’s 2019 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities

*Questions and answers have been edited for clarity and length. This episode was produced by Tayo Bero.

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