During my junior (3rd) year of college, I began taking Latin for the first time. By the end of the second semester, we were up to the point where we “knew the whole language” and had begun to translate actual texts. If you don’t know how this works, there are a limited selection of well-known Latin authors, both Roman and Church Latin, and until you really start to dig into the language, that’s what you read.
Anyway, towards the end of the semester, all that was left to do was individual translation projects. Class time was entirely spent working on these. One day, the professor told us that, as a treat, we would be going to the college archives instead during the next class period to see some original manuscripts.
To set this up, Oberlin College has one of the best libraries of any undergraduate college in America. It’s huge. I’m pretty sure that most of the money at Oberlin is tied up in the libraries and art museum, but that’s neither here nor there. One of the things that this great library got us was fantastic archives. Stuffed to the brim with historical information. I’ve been told it’s the sort of thing that makes researchers get one little tear in the corner of their eye, like the sad Indian watching you throw away that wrapper.
When we got the the Archives, one of the archivists had laid out a number of texts. One or two actual Roman texts, and a lot of liturgical Latin texts. I’m fairly sure one of them was an original Gutenberg bible. But one text really caught my eye.
It was a Bible from, well, I’m not sure when. Certainly the Middle Ages. It had been illuminated by monks, and had come down the generations and into the college’s possession.
What really caught my eye about this text wasn’t the illumination, beautiful as it was. It was a simple picture inside the front cover.
Scratched into the inside cover was a picture of a monastery.
As I pictured it, the monk who had been illuminating the text had taken a break one day while working, and sketched a little picture of his home. At that moment, I had more faith in humanity than I have had for a long time. More than anything else I saw that day, more than any other great work of writing or translation, inspired illumination, or miracle of human discovery, I was touched by that little drawing. A single, crude, beautiful little drawing, made by a man hundreds of years ago, passing his life in a monastery. I can't say whether he anticipated that someday, people would open that book and see not Monastery, strictures and vows and servitude to God, but a home. It was like a child’s drawing of Home, with the square façade, four windows, and smokestack: because it is so stylized, emotion comes across instead of representation. There is great beauty in great simplicity. This is home. This is something that matters.
Remember this. You cannot guess what the legacy of your work will be. Someday, people may not have heard of you, or your work. But if the things you create do survive, you cannot guess what people will get from it. Put your heart and soul into the things you care about, and someday, somebody will be touched, and for one brief moment, understand you.