By Emily Sylvester
A few years ago John and I visited Ireland. I’d read some history beforehand, so I knew how the Irish had saved civilization. For the two centuries between the fall of the Roman Empire and the beginning of the medieval ages the Irish monks had single-handedly preserved literacy in Western Europe. They lived in small stone huts shaped like beehives on the tiny islands off the west coast of Ireland. They studied, copied, and preserved sometimes the only surviving manuscripts we have of Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, Arabian medical texts and Greek thought.
The Irish monks loved their books so much they decorated each page with elaborate designs made gold leaf and semiprecious jewels ground to a fine powder. We call these decorations illuminations, which means to add brightness and light. Four of the monks copied and illuminated the priceless Book of Kells.
But the monks were human too. The Irish coast is fiercely wet and windy. Their small stone huts must have been bitterly cold. No fire, no curtains, no carpets on the dirt floor, no overstuffed chairs, and certainly no overstuffed women friends. Wasn’t there anything to add a touch of humanity to their indescribable bleakness? ___? (The answer is not “whiskey”.) They had pets. At least, we know one of their students had a cat. He and his cat lived 1100 years ago; he called him Pangur Bán. He loved his cat so much he wrote a poem and drew him in among his illuminations.
I and Pangur Bán, my cat
Tis a like task we are at;
Hunting mice is his delight,
Hunting words I sit all night.
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!
Practice every day has made
Pangur perfect in his trade;
I get wisdom day and night
Turning darkness into light.
Imagine a long ago monkish student, huddled over a plain wooden desk in a stone cold hut, working at his manuscript by the light of a single candle guttering in the draft, but warm because Pangur Ban purrs at his feet. Between them they add a touch of humanity to a holy illumination.
900 years before them another man had added a touch of humanity to a different holy illumination. He was no scholar like Pangur’s student. He probably couldn’t even read or write. He was just a fisherman from Galilee who one day experienced a transfiguring light and left us his story in his own human words.
Now the Jews loved a good festival. They had festivals for planting and harvest. History and legend. Atonement and liberation. One of their favourites was the fall harvest of figs, quinces, pomegranates, and grapes. Everybody packed into Jerusalem for a weeklong celebration. It took days getting there, for some of them, weeks. They’d camp along the way in tents and temporary booths made from woven branches and grape vines. “Just like your forefathers,” they’d tell their children. “Great-great-grandfather Simon and great-great-grandmother Sarah camped in booths just like these when they stomped their grapes.”
One day something indescribable happened that Christian writers would, ever after, fumble to describe. Some pilgrims from Galilee had camped a few miles east of Nazareth. It was very early in the morning. The sun had not yet crested Mt. Tabor. The men and young children were still asleep in their family tents. The women and children old enough to help were preparing a simple meal to break their families’ fasts. A few glanced over to the fishermen’s tents. They were already empty. A child had watched them leave an hour earlier in the direction of the mountain.
Four of them climbed Mt. Tabor that morning. They were young and lean and the climb did not leave them breathless. One walked ahead in silent meditation; the others followed in silent respect. After two hours they reached the summit and sat in more silence. But after a while the three fishermen began to fidget. They were used to hard work. They weren’t used to quiet contemplation. Peter noted the wind; a good day to be out on the water. In his mind he counted the sails he would need to replace before the storm season. He would talk to Boanarges about more canvas. He swatted a fly that had landed on his arm. He thought of his neighbours who would by now be setting back to shore from the Sea of Galilee to the east. He wished them well in their night catch.
Suddenly a bright light engulphed them. The three fishermen leaped to their feet. Their rabbi was ablaze with light. And where had those other two come from? They seemed robed in heaven’s light too. One called the other Moses; the other called the first, Elijah. Peter flung himself to the ground and blurted, “Thank God we’re here! Let’s stay on this mountain and forget about Jerusalem. I’ll go back to camp and bring up our tents, one for each of you.” Peter’s people had always believed God preferred the stillness of the desert and the height of a mountain over the noise of a city temple. Still, Peter didn’t think this through before he blurted out what he said. It was the just first thing he thought of.
Suddenly a cloud of greater light descended over them all. Peter couldn’t see anyone anymore. From the centre of the cloud a voice said, “This is my son, in whom I am well pleased.” Peter trembled where he’d fallen. These were the very words his rabbi said he’d heard at his baptism. “Listen to my son. Listen now and always.” Peter gasped and pressed deeper into the earth. At that very moment the voice stilled, the cloud dissolved, and the light disappeared.
Peter looked up. Their rabbi was alone. His coat no longer shone with an unearthly light. It looked like the grubby coat of a pilgrim camping on his way to Jerusalem. “What do I do now, Lord?” Peter gasped. “Nothing,” answered his rabbi. “Peter, sometimes the best thing to do is nothing. Today you just listen.”
They stayed all day on the mountain. Their rabbi told them how Moses’ prophecy had once been a beautiful gift now distorted into an excuse for condemnation. How Elijah’s prophecy had once been a gift of God’s voice now drowned out by shouts of self-righteousness. He taught them how to still their thoughts and listen for God’s word. At first it was hard work, much harder than throwing the nets and hauling in the catch. “Peter, you’re trying too hard,” their rabbi smiled more than once. “You don’t have to wrestle and fight and use your muscle to earn this. God’s already given it to you for free. Peter, try softer.”
The valley was speckled with campfire light by the time they made their way down the mountain. Peter rushed to the others sitting around their own fire. He couldn’t wait to tell them what he’d seen and heard. He started. He stopped. He started again. He fumbled for the right words. He fell silent. He looked across the campfire to where his rabbi’s eyes sparkled in the light, “Peter, there are some things words don’t express very well,” his eyes seemed to be saying. “Peter, try softer.” Peter leaned back from the firelight. He chuckled. No rush. He suspected he’d be trying to describe the indescribable for years.
And of course he was years in the telling. Papias, a writer in the second century, wrote that Mark talked with Peter before he wrote the first gospel. Even decades after the Transfiguration Peter was still admitting the clumsy words he’d blurted out on the mountaintop and his fumbling inability to ever after describe the indescribable. Luke captured it again in his gospel. And that’s what makes it so appealing to us now.
Here’s my point. You and I, we try so hard to understand. We try to throw our nets over God and haul him in to our understanding. We try to contain God within our human ability to use language. But we’re only human. We can’t take in all of the holy light God’s given us. It’s too bright. It overwhelms us. We need the little cat scampering after mice among the Irish monk’s illuminations. We need Peter blurting out the first thought that comes to mind on the mountaintop. We need God present in human form, smiling at our sorry attempts to describe the indescribable. God understands. “You’re trying too hard,” he whispers. “You don’t have to wrestle and fight and use your muscle to deserve this. God’s given it to you already. Try softer.”
Copyright 2007 Emily Sylvester. Used by permission.