Alcuin, Man of Letters

Sermon for Wednesday, May 20, 2015
Alcuin of York, d. 804

Historians tell us that Alcuin was one of the most learned men of his time, a leading scholar in the court of Charlemagne and then Abbot of a monastery in Tours.  He was a “man of letters” not merely because he was a great scholar, but also because he was literally a man of letters, the scriptoriums under his charge developing the so-called “Carolingian miniscule.”  Carolingian miniscule was an elegant and easy-to-write hand that not only sped up the writing of manuscripts, but also made them more legible through things we take for granted, such as the insertion of spaces between words and the use of capital letters to begin sentences.   Carolingian minuscule was so elegant and so efficient that it became the dominant script of Charlemagne’s empire, helping to standardize and unify not only the administration of Charlemagne’s government, but also the liturgy.

If we were to compare samples of Carolingian miniscule with the “Gothic blackletter” that superseded it, we would notice how much white space there is on the page.  This “negative” space – between the lines, between the words – made reading easy on the eye, gave a sense of proportion to the page, invited the reader into the text, and allowed – no beckoned! – a much more pleasurable “read.”

Sample of Carolingian miniscule

When I consider the lives that many of us lead in the early 21st century, it seems to me that we tend to live lives akin to “Gothic blackletter.”  The “letters” of our lives fill the page, with no white space in between.  But…  it is the white spaces that give our lives a sense of proportion and elegance, that invite others into our “text,” that beckon a more much pleasurable “read.”  Including by God.

I commend us all for being here this evening.  Each of us leads busy lives, and there are plenty of other things we might be doing this evening other than coming to Eucharist.  I commend us for taking some Sabbath time, for making space for God to more easily enter our “pages.”  For it seems to me that the more space we have between our “words,” the more elegant is the “script” of our lives; and the more elegant the “script” of our lives, the more inviting our lives are for God to “read” – for God to enter in, to linger, and to spend time with us.

I am grateful to Alcuin, the “man of letters,” who helped bring beauty and elegance to words by leaving white space on the page.   I hope that we might take Alcuin’s accomplishment to heart and leave white space on the pages of our lives.  For God wants nothing more than to enter in, to linger, and to be with us.


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