Speaking to the Soul: Gifts from Alcuin

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by Linda Ryan

 

I’m pretty much a child of the modern age. Although I dearly love the 17th and 18th centuries, I’m much too fond of electrical lights, indoor bathrooms, shopping malls, and books – lots of books. I’m even more grateful for electronic gizmos such as my Kindle. I have over 200 books on my Kindle, and it’s lovely to know that I can put it in my purse, and no matter where I go, I’ve got a whole library to choose from so that I can read anywhere and on just about any subject represented in my Kindle library. Whoever invented the Kindle certainly did me a great favor, as well as the world.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, books were more common among the upper class who could afford them. Until Gutenberg invented movable type, books had to be hand copied, which was time-consuming and meticulous task. If I think back even further I find the example of a scholar from York who lived in the eighth century. His name was Alcuin and he was educated, it is said, by a student of the venerable Bede, famed author of the Ecclesiastical History of the English People and many other writings.

Alcuin was made a deacon of the church and was named Minister of Education by the Emperor Charlemagne. This job involved establishing and maintaining schools centered in cathedrals and monasteries, basically the only places, other than the homes of very wealthy people who could afford private tutors for their children, where education could be had. Alcuin also established a number of scriptoria where books, ancient works both Christian and pagan, were copied and thus preserved. That we have writings from this period are due in great part to Alcuin of York. He had other talents and notable achievements, but to me, his dedication to education, scholarship, and also promoting cursive writing which speeded up the copy process, make him a star in my firmament.

Today, scholarship doesn’t seem to have the cachet that it had at one time. Scholars are seldom treasured now the way they were way back when. Scholars studied, and frequently they studied until they understood the minutiae of a topic or subject that to other people would find totally unimportant. But the scholars kept going, kept investigating, theorizing, revising their theories and writing their theses, dissertations, essays, and letters in order to promote conversations with other scholars interested in the same topic. These discussions would be part of the curriculum a master would teach his students, and they in turn would pass them on to their own students. A lot of it was oral, but thanks to Alcuin and his scriptorium, there were more copies of ancient writings then there had been before.

It seems to me that the world thinks very little of scholarship these days. It isn’t practical. It’s all well to have a theory, but if it doesn’t make you any money then what good is it? It doesn’t make you famous, then what good is it? You can be the smartest person in the world, but if it doesn’t bring you fame and wealth and respect, what good is it? Looking at our school systems now, football players are more highly rated than the kids in the Honor Society. The captain of the basketball team is a star but the local spelling or math  champion is just a master of the game. Even the kids that are whizzes with video games are given more respect than kids who study, come out with straight A’s.

As Christians were told that we need to read and study the Bible. Of course, that’s something we should do, but we should also read it with more than just an eye that reads a word and a mind that says “That means precisely this.” It’s like Alcuin reading the texts from a much earlier time. He could report it exactly as it was passed down, but it was also understood that it represented another time and another culture, and so it needed to be read with care so that it wasn’t taken to mean what it really didn’t say.

We run across this now with reading the Bible. We want to be able to use it in our daily lives as a guide and a direction, maybe even a rulebook, but that’s not what it’s all about. One doesn’t have to be a scholar to read the stories and then try to place them into a modern context. We find a number of things in the Bible that seem to tell us this is so and this is the way it is. The problem is, that many of these writings were geared for a specific time, place, and culture. As time went by some things changed. Even God changed God’s mind on several occasions, which should be an indicator that maybe what we think it says is not really what it meant to the people who first heard the words and passed them on.

To be a scholar would be a wonderful thing. To be an expert who could expound at length on a topic to which they’ve given their lives to understand, that would be a great thing. At least I think so. But I look today and wonder where scholars come from if they are taught that the rules are what we say they are, and they may or may not apply to us. We don’t teach our children to think critically. We teach them instead to recite facts and pass tests that measure their state of being able to regurgitate facts and figures to specific questions and specific subjects and achieve a passing grade and enable to school to keep its certification. Like when reading the Bible, we need to teach our children to think, to reason, understand, most of all to be to ask questions and to consider alternative points of view, even ones that are centuries old.

I appreciate Alcuin. I think I appreciate him  more every time I think about him, because to him learning was a passion and others benefited from his passion. I think this week I may try to see where my passion for books can lead me into maybe a slightly more scholarly way of thinking. Most of all, I need to take what I learn and use it wisely and well.  I think Alcuin would approve.

God bless.

 


 

Linda Ryan co-mentors 2 EfM Online groups and keeps the blog Jericho’s Daughter.  She lives in the Diocese of Arizona and is proud to be part of the Church of the Nativity in North Scottsdale.

 

Image: By Fulda – Manuscript: Wien, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, cod.652, fol. 2v (Fulda, 2nd quarter of the 9th century), Public Domain, Link  Alcuin in middle.

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