The prior lifted the ancient psalter from its jeweled reliquary.
“Hear, O Lord, and have mercy upon me: Lord, be Thou my helper,” he murmured, and the monks’ response echoed in the candlelit chapel.
“Be Thou my helper,” Brother Phelim repeated, averting his eyes from the sacred psalter, for every time he looked upon the exquisite book, his heart burned with jealousy.
Do the other monks struggle with such fleshly thoughts? Do they wish their copy-work to be as flawless as the psalter?
A monk coughed, startling Brother Phelim from his reverie. Mass was over, and he hadn’t heard a single word. “Please, God, I beseech you...” But he didn’t know what to ask, or how, and his prayer fell empty.
The monks filed to the kitchen and ate in silence. Barely chewing his coarse barley bread, Brother Phelim washed it down quickly with water, his mind still galloping. Writing, copying Scripture is for the love of God’s Church, for the comfort and enlightenment of Her sons, that they might share God’s blessings with the world. Is it not good that I desire perfection?
Brother Phelim washed his hands at the well and crossed the courtyard to the scriptorium, imagining holding the quill in his hand and beautiful text flowing from his fingers.
“Greetings,” he whispered to the other monks seated at their copy tables. They nodded, already sharpening quills and mixing ink.
Brother Phelim caressed his sheet of vellum and began to trace the initial letter of his assigned passage. He outlined a dove, capturing each detail, then drew a winged serpent. He surrounded the animals with spirals and trumpets, weaving together flowers and knots until the introductory character was entirely imbedded in fine illustrations. He began the text, methodically shaping each letter.
That night, lying on his stone bed, he dreamed of lions and lambs, angels and dragons with details so perfect, so real, the creatures could have flown and leaped from the page. He awoke in a trembling sweat, and creeping from his cell, he tiptoed through silvery moonlight to the scriptorium.
He lit the lamp. His tools were as he’d left them: the tiny knife, the quill, the ink horns, and the stone for smoothing rough spots on the vellum.
The vivid images of his dream came to life beneath his fingers. Perhaps it was the intensity with which he drew the beasts and the wreathing vines, but he was moved to wonder, What if...I devise my own words? What if...I write my own hymn of praise?
His heart pounded. His fingers tingled.
O mighty oak, thou dost inspirit.
Thy breadth and strength gives
A humble haven for the smallest wren.
And thy majesty does not wane.
When the bell rang for Lauds, Brother Phelim was astonished; the eastern sky was already brightening. He uncurled his back, and his bones protested, but he didn’t make any complaint as he hurried to the chapel.
The prior read from the psalter, and for once, Brother Phelim’s heart was not tormented by envy; his soul was untroubled by sinful thoughts. Several brothers observed him warily, for his usual look of distress had been replaced by one of serenity. Had he been overtaken by a spirit? they wondered. Such peace was unnatural, even for a devoted monk.
Brother Phelim continued to dream on his stone pillow each night, awakening to slip soundlessly to his table where he wrote until dawn. As the years passed, his eyes clouded, his wispy fringe whitened, and his body grew thin and frail, as if he had poured his own vitality into the rich colours of his illustrations, bleeding his essence into the heart of his stories,
Truly, God created me for this, he thought.
He was unaware that he no longer needed the lamp, or that he’d even stopped lighting it, for each night, a mystifying light illuminated the scriptorium.
One morning, when ice rimmed the puddles in the courtyard, Brother Phelim did not answer the call for Lauds. The prior placed the unopened psalter on the altar.
“Find our Brother Phelim.”
They found Brother Phelim in the scriptorium, his cheek resting on his stained and scarred table, and the quill clasped in his gnarled fingers. The ink was not yet dry on his last words:
Every flower glorifies its Creator,
with fragrance rising like incense,
petals unfurling in praise,
and roots reaching for divine nourishment.
Likewise, I write...
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