Last year for the Feast of Saint Bartholomew, I reflected on his quite painful death – Ramsay Bolton style (see: Game of Thrones). Because the tradition around Bartholomew is that he died by being flayed alive (and then crucified upside-down), and because early Christians apparently had an interesting sense of humor, Saint Bartholomew is thought of as the patron saint of professions related to animal skins – tanners, butchers, and bookbinders. While most books today are bound using paper, either hardcover or softcover, many Medieval and Renaissance books were bound using wood covered in leather. It is no wonder then, that much of Medieval and Renaissance art, including Carlo Crivelli’s painting of Saint Bartholomew, painted in 1475, features the saint not only carrying the ignominious symbol of death, a flaying knife, but also a book, likely the Gospels.
Books have always been important to me. As a child, I remember pouring through C.B. Falls’s The First 3,000 Years as if it were a storybook, drawn into the drama of the rise and fall of ancient empires in the Near and Middle East. I was riveted when Cluny the Scourge attacked Redwall Abbey in Brian Jacques’s Redwall.
Thanks to a new podcast that I happened upon (LeVar Burton’s “LeVar Burton Reads,” essentially Reading Rainbow for adults), I have rediscovered the wonders of literature, particularly short fiction. As a priest, I regularly dive through non-fiction books on subjects that range from spirituality and theology, to leadership development, to racial history and formation. While I have always been a voracious reader, I am sad to confess that I have not been as diligent about reading fiction for the simple joy of reading. I have missed disappearing into unknown worlds of make-believe and coming out on the other side glad that I entered the amazing world of the author’s mind.
Not only do I think it is helpful for parents to regularly engage their children through reading, but I find it helpful to do so using scripture as well. Although not everything in the Bible is appropriate for every age, there is plenty in it that transcends generations. Interacting with scripture simply to enter the world of the writers can be an interesting spiritual exercise. Oftentimes we engage scripture with a primary desire to get something out of it – a piece of wisdom, a theological point to argue, or a moment of inspiration. What might it be like to simply immerse ourselves in the language of Psalm 23, or to disappear into the saga of the Exodus, or follow Paul on his missionary journeys through rioting crowds and stormy seas?
Saint Bartholomew is the patron saint of bookbinders and is often depicted holding the Gospel book. Books are central to the Christian practice, so much so that the architects of the early church sifted through countless letters, manuscripts, and stories to find those that spoke most clearly to the mind of God. Those disparate writings became the Holy Bible we now know. Through reading the Bible we hope to enter more deeply the mind of God. Through the magic of reading, we can discover the mind of our neighbor as well. To honor St. Bartholomew today, take up a book and enter into another world.
A Prayer for Today
Almighty and everlasting God, who gave to your apostle Bartholomew grace truly to believe and to preach your Word: Grant that your church may love what he believed and preach what he taught; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
What favorite books have helped you grow in love of God and neighbor?