The other day I found myself standing in front of perhaps the most precious and numinous book in Europe. Not simply because it is the oldest bound book to survive intact, but because of the Saint whose book it was, the centuries through which it has journeyed to reach us, and the glorious Gospel it contains. I had entered the exhibition innocently enough, ‘Bound to Last’, it was called ‘Bookbinding from the Middle Ages to the Present Day, and I was expecting little more than the beautiful leather tooling, the gold-hilighting, and luxury embossing of prestige binders. And then I came face to face with Cuthbert’s Gospel; the very book they placed upon his breast, the gospel that he loved the most and lived so fruitfully, a little pocket-book, red-leather-bound and all intact that sailed through centuries to meet me here on Palace Green. And in that presence it seemed that every care for bindings and for covers fell away, and I seemed to hear the saint himself, chanting the words that Saint Augustine heard, that brought him also to the Gospel, Tolle, Lege, Tolle Lege, take it and read it! I wrote this sonnet before opening my own copy of St. John.
As always you can hear me read the sonnet by clicking on the title or the play button. I will be reading this and other sonnets in Durham Cathedral Quire on the 10th of November at 7:30pm. this event is free and all are welcome. Details Here
I stand in awe before this little book,
The gospel that lay close on Cuthbert’s breast,
It’s Coptic binding and red leather-work
As sound and beautiful as when they placed
This treasure with the treasure they loved best
And set them sailing through the centuries
Until these coffined riches came to rest
In front of me as open mysteries.
But as I look I seem to hear him speak
‘This book is precious but don’t waste your breath
On bindings and half uncials and the like,
Breathe in the promise of a better birth
Tolle et Lege, try and find it true,
The bound Word waits to be made flesh in you.