Chi Rho Iota Page, The Book of Kells, 800

Chi Rho Page

I am one of three who toils on this page. We are brothers in the scriptorium of Iona. Our abbey is on a windy and wet promontory. Isolated. An ideal place to contemplate our Heavenly Father, the Trinity, the Gospel.

This morning, after tending the kitchen fires, I came to the scriptorium as I do most days, and (as usual) it felt as if I had entered some special, secret world. The stone walls of our abbey are dark and slippery with wet, due to the pervasive mist that shrouds the world. And yet I felt as if I were inhaling the freshest, sunniest spring air! My mind was untroubled, as I turned my attention to the intricate decoration of this page, which tells of the nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ. There is an expansive world hiding within the details on the page, and the text is waiting for me to create this secret world. A world of sunshine and opulence, populated by our creator’s most fantastical beings.

I feel more alive—more connected to God—as my fingers gently hold the calfskin in place. I have prepared my pigments, and as I allow them to glide over the calfskin, a beautiful alchemy takes place. The bright-yellow pigment is transformed into woven golden chains and precious metalwork. It becomes a dazzling puzzle whose solution leads its solver to spiritual enlightenment.

I am not the solver of that puzzle, of course. I am only God’s tool. Servus Dei. Still, though it is a sin, I sometimes think that I am special. That God has touched my hand and given me the plan to his vast maze that is our universe. I feel such a joy in this thought that the weight of my woolen robes and the hard wood of the bench on which I sit—indeed everything solid and earthly—evaporates. There is no cold or damp. No hunger. No fear of the barbarians. Each day, as I turn to my work, time slips away. I enter a new place that I cannot even access through the most fervent prayer.

But after a while, my brother clears his throat, interrupting me from my reverie. My time is up, and I leave the scriptorium, returning to the reality of my body. I am once again aware of the damp moss on the stone walls, the gray everywhere, the cold in my fingers and toes. But tomorrow awaits. And I will sin again, thinking myself special. Thinking myself to be the holder of the keys. Alchemist. Chosen by God.



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