FIGURE OF SPEECH

Dr. Gerry Turcotte

January 20, 2014

'All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.'

2 Timothy 3.16

Recently a senior member of the university's legal firm sent an email to us. It began, "Hi Fools"! This is not an inspiring salutation first thing in the morning, and especially so from a lawyer working on a sensitive matter.

Needless to say I was relieved to see a retraction immediately following, apologizing and blaming auto-correct for changing "folks" to "fools." But who knows? I didn't want to ask given how much attorneys charge in billable hours.

Either way it got me to thinking about how easily we can be led astray by a missing comma, a mistyped letter or an overly aggressive auto-correction.

I thought immediately about the embarrassing emails I have sent. At a previous institution I joyfully posted an encouraging note to my "Dead Colleagues." Proving how little attention is paid to salutations, it took a full two days before someone noticed that I hadn't written "Dear Colleagues."

This is a page from the Book of Psalms of The Saint John's Bible.

CNS PHOTO | PAUL HARING

This is a page from the Book of Psalms of The Saint John's Bible.

As typos go this is far from the worst. In 2010, Penguin Australia had to reprint 7,000 copies of its best-selling The Pasta Bible because of a recipe that called for "salt and freshly ground black people." It should have read: "ground black pepper."

The opportunity to reprint was more difficult for publishers in 1631. For example, in what has come to be called "The Wicked Bible," a typesetter's error rendered the sixth commandment as: "Thou shall commit adultery." Not!

I was thinking about this recently in relation to the Saint John's Bible project, and the unveiling of the complete seven-volume set of the illuminated works at St. Mary's to mark the end of the Year of Faith.

In the more than 1,140 pages there are nine errors – usually an entire line of text accidentally left out by a scribe. Although it is the magnificent art of the hand-written, fully illuminated works that stands out, I am always struck by the fascination people have with these transcription errors.

Given the mammoth task of illuminating large, interconnected vellum pages, on which hundreds of hours of work might already have been performed, discarding a flawed page was simply not an option. So the scribes used a technique perfected by mediaeval monks of old, to add the missing line at the bottom of the manuscript and to connect it to its rightful place on the page through a series of charming marginalia.

BUMBLEBEE AND PULLEYS

In one case a bumblebee raises the omission through a series of pulleys; elsewhere a lemur lifts it gently along a rope. In the Pentateuch, several errors are indicated by delicate birds that lift the missing lines to their rightful place.

Rather than detracting from the works, the errors remind us of the human side of worship. The Divine Word may be sacred, but its reproduction is the effort of well-intentioned, human hands, and the mistakes mirror the distance between our intentions and our actions.

It is hope, belief and faith that help us to narrow that divide into a prayerful congruence. Or in the words of Jesus himself: "Make every effort to enter through the narrow door, because many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to" (Luke 13.24).

(Dr. Gerry Turcotte is president, St. Mary's University College in Calgary.)