Tuesday, June 28, 2011


One of the more complex pleasures of my profession is to have played some role in the education of brilliant undergraduate students who later go on to become famous scholars. If you have ever heard of William of Champeaux—which is at least possible—it is only because he was the teacher of Abelard, of whom you have certainly heard. One of several Abelardian eminences whose reflected glory combats the falling shadows of my senectitude is the provost of Georgetown, James J. O’Donnell. He has appeared once before in this blog, around which we conduct a laconic and intermittent correspondence.

O’Donnell has produced the definitive edition of the Confessions of Saint Augustine, but he is also what you would call a “general reader”. It is he, for example, who introduced me to Chic Sale’s The Specialist, the ne plus ultra in outhouse humor. Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor, the “prince of travel writers,” died on June 10. As comment on this sad event, a week or so later Jim forwarded to me one of his favorite Fermorian prose gobbets, a description of a religious liturgy in a two-man Greek Orthodox mini-monastery:

The church, which is scarcely larger than the oratory of a castle, is dedicated to All the Saints. A lowered sanctuary lamp and the tapers that lighted the breviaries of Father Christopher and Bessarion dispelled a little the surrounding shadows. But outside their narrow pools of light, all was dark. I leant in one of the miserere-stalls that lined the small semicircular bay on the right of the chancel. The corresponding apsidal concavity on the left was lost in gloom. The three of us were alone in the church. As Bessarion chanted the office, I attempted to follow the neumes and flexions and quarter-tones in the oriental-sounding monody by the dots and the rise and fall of the slender curves and pothooks in scarlet ink above the text on the taper-lit page. The hair of both the monks, usually twisted into buns and tucked under their headgear, now tumbled in long twists half-way down their backs. From below, the candle-light threw peculiar shadows on the waxen features of Bessarion and sharply defined the deep eyesockets, the fiercely bridged nose and quizzically wrinkled brow of Father Christopher, when, censer in hand, a magnificent colossus in splendid and threadbare vestments, he emerged from the altar. His deep voice groaned the responses to the higher pitch of Bessarion. At a pause in the liturgy, the deacon swung the pyramidal lectern round on its pivot, turned the pages, and began intoning the panegyric of St. Demetrios. Makry the tom cat stalked slowly into the church and up to the rood-screen; the light from the central arch cast his elongated shadow portentously across the flagstones. Nimbly he leapt on the high, mother-of-pearl-inlaid octagonal table supporting the lectern and, curling his tail neatly round his haunches, sat gazing at the page. Without a break in the chanting, Bessarion pushed the raised paw away form the margin and gently stroked the tortoiseshell head as he sang; and slowly the long liturgy unfolded.

Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor (1915-2011)

A glorious piece of writing, indeed, a  tribute alike to an author’s power and a reader’s taste. I had not read the book from which it comes (Roumeli), and one detail in it captured my special attention: the tortoiseshell cat. That is because among the four-foot shelf of Fleming’s unpublished (because unwritten) books is a study of monks and animals: The Monastic Menagerie.

In it cats would claim an important chapter. The best known is probably the industrial-sized cat who is Saint Jerome’s constant eremitic companion, just as in the secular tradition, and for nearly identical reasons, he is the companion of Androcles. But the most delightful monasticat is surely the humble mouser, Pangur Bán, who crept about the scriptorium of the famous island abbey of Reichenau, in the Bodensee, probably sometime in the eighth or ninth century. In the margins of one of his manuscripts a nameless Irish monk, far from home, wrote in his native vernacular tongue a charming poem about Pangur Bán, whose Irish name means something like “Whitey,” “Snow White”, or rather (with a scriptural allusion to Mark 9:3) “Transfiguration White”.

Bulger Bán and Pangur Bán, alias McCavity, the Mystery Cat
"For he's a fiend in feline shape, a monster of depravity.

(Irish expatriates appear to be partial to the name “Whitey”, whether for felines or felons.)

Here are its opening lines:

I and Pangur Bán, 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…

You should read the whole poem, which has been rendered into English by many eminent hands, including several well-known Irish poets. I want to recommend this translation of the English medievalist Robin Flower, because he so clearly presents the poem’s actual subject, which is that special mode of scriptural exegesis called by the monks the lectio divina. The lectio divina (“sacred reading”) was to the pleasures of the heart and mind what the Slow Food Movement is to the pleasures of the tongue and gullet. The medieval monks savored their readings in the Bible, which they sometimes compared to the extraction of honey from the comb or marrow from the bone. For they sought what they called the “spiritual sense” of a text, its veiled or allegorical meaning. That is what the old Irish poet meant by capturing a meaning with the net of his thought.

Reichenau today

Our own English poetry was born of the monastic life. Bede tells us as a notable wonder the story of the poet Caedmon, an uneducated agricultural worker in the coeducational monastery at Whitby in Yorkshire. Though illiterate, Caedmon, through divine inspiration, was able to transpose into English verse the Bible stories read to him by the brothers. Bede draws his very traditional monastic simile from the bovines rather than the felines: “And he was able to learn all that he heard, and, keeping it all in mind, just as a clean animal chewing cud, turned it into the sweetest song.”

The word hermit literally means a “desert-dweller,” and the old practitioners of the lectio divina associated themselves metaphorically with the four little critters of the wasteland (Proverbs 30:24) that are “the least upon the earth, yet exceeding wise”: the ant, the grasshopper, the rock-dwelling rabbit, and the lizard (stilio). It is this association that explains the recurrent zoology and entomology of learned medieval and Renaissance pictorial treatments of ascetic themes.

Saint Jerome with friends