Reveling in the Book of Kells

Miniature of Aisling helping Brendan find and pick oak berries which Aidan needs to illuminate The Book of KellsA couple of months ago, on the recommendation of a catechumen with whom I am blessed to work, I watched The Secret of Kells, an animated Irish film.  As one involved in evangelization and especially as a one who draws inspiration from (or is infatuated with) the monastic tradition I was impressed with the amazing Paschal themes of the main character, the young Brother Brendan, going down into the underworld, chaining the forces of darkness and death, bringing light into the world even through using what some might have considered evil, choosing the spiritual over the pragmatic, and so forth—all without saying anything about Gospel or Christ or therein except Brendan’s working on the Chi Ro page. And even without a word about sacraments and only shadows of a church depicted the whole enchanted existence brought to life a world truly permeated with grace.

Of course, as everyone who has seen the film has noted, the visuals were phenomenal. The last three minutes, when the Book of Kells come alive, was incredibly striking and capped off the whole thing in a way I think anyone would enjoy—not just those of us who relish monk movies (such as Into Great Silence). It felt like we were joining Abbot Cellach in seeing a foretaste of heaven as he recognized in the Book of Kells the true patrimony of Celtic Christianity and then passed into his own beatific vision of a new creation.

My experience of watching the film was made all the richer by having seen The Book of Kells at Trinity College in Dublin when visiting my then fiancee in Ireland ten years ago as well as memories of gazing at the perfect facsimile housed where I studied in the Medieval Institute at Notre Dame.

Watching the lavishness of such a film around a book (a book of the Word nonetheless), I made connections to the importance of the physicality of the book from which mere text had not yet been separated and lifted, a point articulated in the first section of Studzinski’s Reading to Live about which I wrote briefly following my Lenten retreat. And there are, of course, tie-ins to the beautiful Saint John’s Bible which we use as our Gospel book on solemnities at our parish of Saint Thomas More.

Finally, as one trained in anthropology, I found the ecstatic vision quest elements, the syncretism of Celtic or pagan ideas with Christianity, and the explicit use of nature and revelation as complimentary and reinforcing sources of knowledge (the Book of Creation and the Book of Scripture) bouncing through my head as the scenes unfolded.

But my heart, as Blase Pascal might have said, had reasons for delighting in The Secret of Kells of which reason knows nothing. And I suspect you will too.

This post first appeared on Andrew Casad’s personal website, iCasad, on May 6, 2010.

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