On the Book of Kells and What Endures


St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, Ireland, 
30 April 2014, 2.15 pm

I’m hanging out at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin. There’s a slight drizzle falling from the grey Irish clouds outside and this little stone bench in the Lady’s Chapel in the cathedral is, for want of any better word, cozy. I’m resisting the urge to curl up here, where the world seems far away and unimportant, and take a nap. But I’m not entirely sure God approves of naps.

This morning I went to see the Book of Kells at Trinity College. As I stared and stared at the book — they only let you see two volumes of it, opened at certain pages which they only flip every few months — I thought about how incredibly old it was, its vellum leaves worn shiny with age, like the sheen of ancient cobble stones. 

I remembered again what I once heard a character in a film say, explaining her choice of archaeology as a career: “I’m just fascinated by what remains, what endures.”

It’s why reproductions and restorations have never had the same effect on me. They are useful and informative, telling us about how the world used to be, but they are not what has remained. They are not what has endured.

This whole idea of continuity and eternity seems tied up with my chronic inability to let the things and people of my own past go. Old feelings, old sentiments, old memories, old friends. I seem to be the sort of person who keeps her past close to her. The past means a lot to me.

As I looked at the pages under the dim lighting of the exhibition room, I was struck by the simple thought that someone had made this. A thousand years ago, someone wrote these words, drew these drawings, sewed these bindings. Someone whose skillful fingers have long since crumbled to dust. Someone whose face no one remembers or knows.

Like that film character, I’m fascinated by what endures because nothing seems to endure in my world. People who love you stop loving you. Parents die. Friends leave. Siblings get married and change. Monuments fall. Planets get demoted. 

I don’t even know what my great-grandmother’s name was, let alone what she looked like or what kind of woman she was. In a generation, no one will know my name. No one will know that I was here, and that I loved people, some who loved me back and some who didn’t. No one will know that my heart ached for those who didn’t. No one will know the shape of my face or the texture of the coarse hair that earned me several unflattering nicknames in school. No one will care.

In a few short generations, everyone you know will be dead and forgotten. When everything in this world disappears almost as soon as it comes into being, is it any wonder that I am haunted by the things that remain, that endure. Is it any wonder that we build libraries to house ancient texts, guarding thousand year old pages under glass and dim lights, with a reverence borne of the awe that these things have survived the ages, the way we of mere flesh and bone and bruised hearts can never hope to survive. 

They are the closest to eternity that we will ever get.

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