Knowing What You Know

Editorial note:  So very many prayers for the families rebuilding after Sandy; me and mine are fine, thank God, but many aren’t as lucky.

I hate the days when I know darn well that I won’t get weather like this again for a while and I should go for a run, but I just don’t feel like going through the trouble of changing out of work clothes and driving out to the trail and doing so.  Alas, my laziness that will make my upcoming 5k a very bad decision.

I had an interesting morning, though; today was the day to take my students to Special Collections at the library, where they house all of the beautiful manuscripts and odds and ends that need extra protection from human carelessness.  It’s one of my favorite parts of the semester—if you’ve never seen an illuminated medieval manuscript in person, Reader, you are missing some of humanity’s great creations.  The pyramids are awesome, but the San Luis Bible is a wonder to behold.

So it was cool to see these beauties again, many of which are facsimiles in our library but some of which are the originals.  It’s a heady thing, handling something that’s a thousand years old.  I’ve been working with manuscripts in some capacity for about six years, and every time I really realize what that collection of sheepskin has seen, I flip out a little bit.  Sort of on the level of when I realize that the Earth’s core is made of molten iron.  It’s an intense piece of knowledge.

So it was a good day, even better with the fact that my students, for the most part, asked good questions and seemed interested in what was going on.  That’s more of a blessing than non-teachers can ever realize, I think.  It was also good because Interpreter was able to tag along—he shares an interest in manuscripts, so I invited him a while back to sit in on this intro session, and wonder of wonders, he did.

It was a bit nerve-wracking, actually, because the spheres of my life don’t mix much.  My work people are my work people and everyone else is everyone else, so I was kind of worried about Interpreter coming to see me on my turf, doing my thing, interacting with my students.  I am Ms. Pilgrim there, where no first names are allowed to break the incredibly fragile veneer of authority I hold so loosely.  It’s odd to me to have friends see me in professorial mode; it’s different from when I teach Sunday school, not least because this is what I’m being trained to do, this is what pays me.  This is the life I used to want.

But it went well, and Interpreter stayed after a bit to take a closer look at the manuscripts (MSS) with me.  It was kind of funny; he had me do any and all handling of them, as he was “just along for the ride” and didn’t want to risk harming them in some way because he didn’t know what he was doing.  And he was right, to a certain extent; I did know far more about how to treat a MS than he did, and I was off on a merry expedition of answering his questions, explaining the MSS we were looking at, generally getting my academic geek on.  And he was letting me, which not a whole lot of people do—to his credit (?), he was sincerely interested, so he wasn’t just humoring the medievalist.  And I realized at one point that I had a lot to say, because I knew a lot of what to say.  I’ve taken classes on paleography and codicology, I’ve worked with medieval primary sources, I’ve written papers on this and read papers (and books and more papers) on this.  I’m no expert, to be sure, but I do have a handle on what’s what in a manuscript collection.

I could go off on a well-documented tangent of modern anti-intellectualism, but I’ll say instead that there is such a bizarre backlash against being knowledgeable about things that, when I realize I know something, it surprises me.  I’m somehow unsure of using this gift of a mind God has given me, worried that I’ll appear aloof, arrogant, unconnected in my strange medieval ways.  I get the patronizing brush-off a lot, actually, when I start talking about medieval stuff; it’s irrelevant, old, useless.  Surely I only need to know about modern politics and whether or not the Jersey Shore house survived the storm.

That’s harsh.  I realize that’s not how things are, really, but I do think that it’s so interesting how we don’t allow ourselves to know what we know.  There’s definitely room to guard against intellectual arrogance, and I will be first in line to tell you that I don’t always guard myself well enough.  But there’s also the idea of embracing the mind  and its functions we’ve been given, and the utterly astounding world given to us by a Creator with the craziest imagination possible—why would we not want to know all that we can about it?  Why would we not want to explore who we have been, what we have been able to create, what we could be?  If we’re delighted that we can freefall from space, why not revel in being able to master the element of gold?


It was just a really neat experience to be permitted to know what I know, both by Interpreter and by myself.  Many people have taught me a lot of things, and I am very grateful for their time and energy in doing so.  If all of that has been just so that I can see Interpreter’s face light up when he sees the Hebrew  notations in the Morgan Crusader Bible and connects to this 800-year-old pastiche of scholarship—well, that is a good day’s work.


A wise heart shall acquire knowledge: and the ear of the wise seeketh instruction.  (Proverbs 18:15, DRA)


2 thoughts on “Knowing What You Know

  1. I do want to emphasize what I’ve told you before about our congregation: that you can share your knowledge with us and people will gratefully soak it up. One of the first courses I taught this group was an Advent study I called, “To Such a World As This.” I told them about the ancient Greek, Roman, and Jewish cultures into which Christ was born. Some people brought notebooks and took it all down. From time to time they still make reference to things I said in that course.

    My point is this. As you try to figure out your identity, both at church and elsewhere, please trust us enough to share the full blaze of your scholarly brilliance with us. If it’s too bright, we’ll pass out sunglasses.


    • Thanks for the encouragement, Magister. I did hear (secondhand) about there being too much Latin of late, but for the most part I do tend to get pretty decent feedback.
      Ah, the trust. Am working on it. Keep reminding me.


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