2019 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities: Father Columba Stewart

2019 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities: Father Columba Stewart


Good evening. Welcome to the 48th annual Jefferson Lecture,
the highest honor that the NEH, on behalf of the federal government, bestows on an individual
whose career exemplifies the utmost level of achievement at American intellectual and
cultural life. I want to thank the National Council on the
Humanities for distilling the public nominations for the Jefferson Lecture, and to a short-list
for a robust discussion, and for my selection. This summer, the U.S. Senate confirmed 16
new members of the National Council, the appointed body that makes grant recommendations to me
following a peer-review process and a staff-evaluation process. Would all the current and former Council members
please stand to be recognized? Thank you. Thank you for your service. I also want to thank the National Trust for
the Humanities, an independent non-profit, and especially its devoted board chair, Bob
Perry, vice-president Yvonne Boice, for the Trustís long-term financial support of this
event. As you can see in the program, Mr. Albert
H. Small of the Trust has been a particularly generous supporter of this endeavor for decades. I also want to acknowledge Dr. Nancy Cable
of the Trust development committee and the Howard & Abby Milstein Foundation for our
ongoing discussions about how to extend the reach of the Jefferson Lecture across the
nation. I wish to personally thank two more individuals. First, Representative Betty McCollum of Minnesota,
a great champion. If we can have her stand. She is a great champion of the arts, the humanities,
of libraries, she is a long-time supporter also of the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library,
so weíre so proud that she has taken out time to be here. Also, I would like to recognize my friend,
Esther Mackintosh, president of the Federation of State Humanities Council. Esther, if you might stand. She will be retiring soon, and, and let me
say that I will miss her wise counsel and her warm laughter, but I know also a bit about
how retirements work in the humanities, and so I have no doubt that she will be supporting
our endeavor for a great deal longer. Lastly, and essentially, I want to recognize
the 140 federal servants, public servants, my colleagues at the Humanities Endowment,
for their tireless efforts. They keep the humanities front and center
on our bookcases, on our television, our radio, and movie screens, and museums, and libraries,
and history centers, and of course in our classrooms. Not least of all, here at the stage at the
Warner Theatre. Will the Humanities Endowment colleagues,
past and present, please stand and be recognized. Thank you. Whenever you have an event with a great deal
of speaking, like tonight, I think I would be remiss if I did not recognize our signers,
who are sharing the story in other ways. Now I want to turn my attention, finally,
to tonightís speaker. Father Columba Stewart, a Benedictine monk
of the St. Johnís Abbey of St. Johnís University, in Collegeville, Minnesota, but also the executive
director of the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library. I am proud to state that the NEH has awarded
nearly two million dollars to the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library and its efforts. As Father Columba will explain, since the
1960s, the monks at the Hill Museum have been photographing handwritten manuscripts collections
in Europe, and now in Africa, the Middle East, and western Asia. Today, their virtual Reading Room makes available
a truly singular collection of more than fifty million handwritten pages, dating back to
the Middle Ages. Under Father Columbaís leadership, the Hill
Museum & Manuscript Library has worked with Islamic archives, Hindu archives, and Buddhist
culture, as well as the original Christian archives. I have known Father Columba, I would say,
for only two years, but it feels so much longer. I came to know his work for a very good reason. NEH staff had recommended an award to him
in 2017, a little less than three hundred and fifty thousand dollars. So, I decided to read the application from
cover-to-cover before awarding the grant. Here is what I found there, and in the time
thereafter: Father Columba is learned. Educated at Harvard, Yale, Oxford; educated,
but accessible. Indeed, when I went to Minnesota to interview
him for HUMANITIES magazine, we had a nice walk together on the beautiful campus, and
honestly sometimes when I truly admire someone, I actually dread those private moments, because
even accomplished people, even in the absence of a public audience, even then, sometimes
they feel the need to brag. I was hoping against hope, that Columba would
resist the urge; then it happened. He said to me: ìyou know, Iím only the second
Texan to ever deliver the Jefferson Lecture.î That humble brag has to be the most Texas
thing I have ever heard. Now, naturally, I let him know that I was
only the second Mississippian to be confirmed as Chairman. Father Columba is marked by a joy of living
and a sense of humor, as much as by a thirst for preserving and illuminating and sharing
knowledge. He has a natural gift for languages, which
is what we say when a person has studied endlessly and tirelessly throughout adulthood. He is a well-respected scholar of early Christianity
and has received two NEH research fellowships. If he is an open book, then he is also one
that calls out for an attentive reader. My colleague, Meredith, noted to me today
in our walk-through that Father Columba has called us to listen, to truly listen, which
is an underlying theme of last yearís lecture, too. I do not know anyone in this city who believes
we could not benefit from more listening across a dinner table, the political aisle, across
this wonderous nation itself. For I do believe, as President Lincoln wrote,
that the United States of America is the last, best hope of Earth. Tonight, I believe those words because of
the work of our speaker, and because of the work of his colleagues and his partners internationally. Often, our nationís greatest efforts are
rooted in service beyond our shores, whether that means those who wore the uniforms in
two world wars, or whether one is speaking of generations of Benedictine monks and their
black habits, doing their part to preserve the records of a certain way of coming to
terms with the nature of our very existence. This vital work, ever ongoing, is the work
of the humanities writ large, but the humanities unveil lives, reveal cultures, explain nations
to themselves, and to the world. So, let us now turn to that long view. Please join me in welcoming the 2019 Jefferson
Lecturer in the Humanities, Father Columba Stewart. Father Columba Stewart: Cultural Heritage
Present and Future: A Benedictine Monkís Long View Introduction
Chairman Peede, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen: what a delight and honor to
be with you in this beautiful and historic place. This evening I will speak about many things:
about monks; about manuscripts; the work of our organization, the Hill Museum & Manuscript
Library, which we call ìH-i-MM-e-L,î ñ if you know German, you get it ñ and why
the protection of cultural heritage matters here and now. Monks In the year 1142, a powerful Benedictine abbot
traveled to Spain. Known as Peter the Venerable because of his
wisdom, he ruled a federation of 600 monasteries from his base at the Abbey of Cluny in Burgundy. The journey across the Pyrenees was long,
his agenda was packed with kings and bishops and abbots and complex negotiations. Abbot Peterís visit to Toledo, reconquered
a few decades earlier after four centuries of Muslim rule, led him to a most surprising
decision. He summoned scholars of ArabicóChristian
scholars of Arabicóand set them to the work of translating Islamic texts into Latin. Preeminent among those texts, of course, was
the Qurían itself, entrusted to an English cleric who had learned Arabic to gain access
to scientific literature in that language, much of it Arabic translations of otherwise
lost Greek Classical texts. So, what was this abbot thinking? He certainly was not a scholar of comparative
religion, like you might find in a modern university. He was a medieval abbot, facing a powerful
and highly literate religious tradition he considered to be fundamentally incompatible
with his own. His intention was adversarial. Nonetheless, he embraced the humanistic principle
that to understand people of another culture, with different beliefs, we must listen to
them in their own voice, learning their language, reading and understanding their texts. As a Benedictine monk, Abbot Peter himself
belonged to a community of readers engaged in the study of Christian sacred texts and
related literature. This is the truth behind the familiar trope
of a monk hunched over a copy desk, quill in hand, writing texts on reams of parchment:
a belief in the power of words. Shown here, in the famous 12th century portrait
of Eadwine, ìprince of scribes,î and a famous manuscript from Trinity College, Cambridge. Their labor of copying was for the sake of
learning, learning for the sake of understanding, understanding for the sake of worship and
thanksgiving. Abbot Peter could see that the same was true
of the followers of Islam. That shared experience made intellectual engagementóand
debateópossible. We monks put down deep roots and try to cultivate
through our communal monastic practices the grounded humility that Greek philosophers
and their Christian heirs characterized as learning ìto dwell with the self.î At its
best, this monastic ìstability,î as we call it, frees the mind to roam widely and to make
unexpected applications of what it finds. Alongside the theological tomes in a monastic
library would be texts of philosophy, grammar and mathematics, astronomy and history, medicine
and law. You may not realize that Benedictines have
always been inventors or early adopters of technology. Clocks were developed in the West in the Middle
Ages to wake monks up for early prayers. The introduction of movable type and mechanical
printing came as a great relief: the second book printed on Gutenbergís press was a Benedictine
Psalter. The humanist instinct that I am describing
threads its way through the long history of my Benedictine tradition. Tonight, you see me in the traditional monastic
garb that is our formal tribute to our heritage. The work I do of applying the Benedictine
tradition of preserving human thought for the contemporary world requires a much more
versatile wardrobe, one adapted to the desert of Timbuktu, the combat environment of Mosul,
or the secular environment of the modern academy. As the old saying goes, cucullus non facit
monachumóìthe habit doesnít make the monkîóbut commitment to the humanities surely does. Manuscripts That medieval monk in your mindís eye, or
as we just saw, is preoccupied with a manuscript. The same is true of this modern one. Even though manuscriptsóhandwritten booksóare
at least a couple of technological stages behind the way that we typically access information
today, we still rely on them for our access to the past. Consider: anything written before the invention
of printing has come down to us in the form of a manuscript. A surprising number of texts in manuscripts
have not yet been printed or put online, and we keep finding new texts in manuscripts that
have lain hidden for centuries. In many parts of the world, printing came
late or was little used, meaning that even less of the literature of those communities
is available in modern formats. To know what is most important to such people,
to understand the questions they asked and what gave them purpose and identity, we need
to read their manuscripts. Manuscripts matter even for well-known texts,
because each manuscript is unique. Each copy of a printed book will be exactly
the same as the others. Not so for manuscripts: the texts will vary
from the same writings found in another manuscript because there was no standard edition from
which every scribe would copy. Those differences might be slight or substantial,
even to the point of changing the meaning of the text. Scribes would also ìpolishî a text by smoothing
out the spelling or grammar, they might amp it up or they might tone down controversial
passages. Nor were they infallible: they always made
mistakes. The cumulative effect of all of those human
interventions is that every manuscript must be approached on its own terms, as a particular
incarnation of the writings it contains. Framing the texts are readersí notes in the
marginsóas you see on this manuscript of Islamic law from Jerusalemóthe little ruler
on the right is what we use in our digitization projects. It is also found in ownership inscriptions
on the flyleaves or the scribeís sign-off at the end. These elements reveal the hands the manuscript
passed through to reach us and they offer us clues as to how its contents were received
and understood. Together, you might say, they form the manuscriptís
cultural genome and thus allow us to place it within a cultural lineage. Now you will find thousands of manuscripts
in the great libraries of Europe and North America. They are on display, available for study,
typically cataloged, and well-known to scholars. Much of what we think we know about the global
past has been written on the basis of manuscripts in the British Library, the Vatican Library,
the French BibliothËque Nationale, and their peer institutions. Their collections of Latin and other European
manuscripts are vast and comprehensive, and those collections account for the great majority
of surviving Western manuscripts. When we consider the other cultures represented
in those great libraries, our footing is less sure. All of those manuscripts came from somewhere
elseóanother continentóthe spoils of war and colonial expansion like the artistic treasures
in our major museums. The manuscripts taken to Western libraries
provide only a partial view of their source cultures. To rely on them alone is akin to looking at
a mummy in a museum display and presuming that on that basis we understand ancient Egypt. What about the manuscripts the Europeans and
American collectors and explorers never found? Or what about the cultures they were not interested
in plundering? HMML The project I lead began in 1965 as an effort
by our monastery to microfilm Latin manuscripts in European Benedictine libraries. It was 2 decades after the devastation of
the Second World War, 3 years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, and a very chilly phase of
the Cold War. Our founder, Father Oliver Kapsner, feared
that European Benedictine heritage would be vaporized if there were a World War III. Monte Cassino in Italy, the mother abbey of
Benedictines, had been totally destroyed in 1944. A nuclear war would be far more devastating. There was not anything we monks in Minnesota
could do to protect the churches and the cloisters, but we could microfilm their manuscripts and
keep a back-up copy in the United States. The Vatican Library had done something similar
in the 1950s, depositing microfilms of many of their manuscripts at Saint Louis University
in Missouri. Our project started, then, in Benedictine
monasteries in Austria, employing local technicians, as we always do, to involve them in the preservation
of their own heritage. Austria was one of the few countries in Europe
where monasteries actually kept their manuscripts. Those monastic libraries had not been seized
at the time of the Reformation or the French Revolution or its aftermath. Very quickly, the scope of the work broadened
to other types of religious libraries, then to universities, and even to national libraries. The pace was swift as we moved across Europe,
and by the end of the twentieth century, the result was a film archive of almost 85,000
Western manuscripts; mostly Latin, some in vernacular languages. Along the way there came a serendipitous event
that changed the course of the project. An American scholar of biblical texts approached
our then-director, Dr. Julian Plante, with the idea of microfilming manuscripts in the
monasteries and churches of Ethiopia. This great African nation is the home of an
ancient Christian community that had never undergone the narrowing of the biblical canonóthat
is, the official list of writings which constitute the Christian Bibleóthat narrowing of the
canon that occurred in other parts of the early Christian world. Consequently, Ethiopian Christians had preserved
a broad array of texts later excluded from the Bible of the Byzantine and Roman traditions. Because of British and Italian military and
colonial incursions, there were already Ethiopian manuscripts in London and in Rome that provided
a tantalizing glimpse of this unique form of Eastern Christianity and its literary riches. Microfilming began in 1971, with the work
done by Ethiopians, the technical support from us, and funding from NEH, among other
sources. The situation in Ethiopia soon worsened when
a violent revolution deposed the Emperor and installed a communist government hostile to
the Church. Both Emperor and Patriarch would eventually
be imprisoned and killed. What had begun for us as a kind of archeological
expedition to discover ancient texts became a rescue project to preserve manuscripts in
a nation convulsed by political upheaval and then by civil war. The cameras kept going, working throughout
the 1970s, 1980s, and even into the 1990s. In the end, 9000 Ethiopian manuscripts were
microfilmed under often harrowing circumstances. And from those microfilms of Ethiopic literature,
the very history of that literature has been rewritten, thanks to the cataloging effort
done by distinguished scholar and Macarthur Fellow Professor Getachew Haile and his colleague,
Dr. William Macomber. This ìEthiopian Manuscript Microfilm Libraryî
also has demonstrated for us what happens to manuscripts in times of turmoil. A few years back, a professor from Howard
University approached Professor Haile for help in identifying an Ethiopian manuscript
recently donated to that university. She showed him photographs of the manuscripts,
and on the basis of the photographs, Dr. Haile recognized it as one of the many thousands
microfilmed in our project. After it was photographed in 1976 in Ethiopia,
the manuscript was taken out of the country and it found its way into a private American
collection. Unlike most stories of this kind, this one
had a happy ending: Howard University repatriated the manuscript to the monastery in Ethiopia
from which it had been taken. If not for the microfilm copy, the origin
of that manuscript might never have been known. Like the many artifacts in our libraries and
museums, the manuscript, had it remained here, would have continued to be isolated from the
place and the other manuscripts that provide a context for its interpretation. Sadly, more typical is the case of another,
even more valuable, Ethiopian manuscript, also microfilmed in the 1970s. That one is now in a well-known private collection. In the online catalog, the provenance given
for this manuscript is simply the name of the dealer from whom it was purchased. By the time these manuscripts were taken out
of Ethiopia, the colonial era was over. International protocols and national laws
regulated the export of cultural heritage. Neither of these manuscripts should have adorned
a private collection or enriched a dealer. Meanwhile, the people of Ethiopia struggled
to survive a brutal government, a civil war, famines, and epidemics. These stories illustrate 2 of the greatest
threats to cultural heritage right now: the desperation that leads people to sell off
their own heritage in order to feed their families, and the profiteering by those who
exploit that misfortune. The Ethiopian project inspired another serendipitousóor
dare I say providential?óchapter in our work. Just after the turn of this millennium, Orthodox
Christians in the country of Lebanon asked for our help in dealing with the aftermath
of the civil war that had ended about a decade earlier. Collections had been moved, valuable manuscripts
had been stolen and held for ransom, and some had simply disappeared. We therefore launched a project in northern
Lebanon in April, 2003, and by unhappy coincidence, it began at the very moment that American
ground forces were approaching Baghdad in the second Iraq War. Lebanon had settled down; Iraq was heating
up; no one could anticipate what would come next. As our work in Lebanon expanded, we extended
the project to Syria, forming partnerships with several church leaders in Aleppo, as
well as Homs and Damascus. Things were going well, and we even found
a partner in Iraq. Then in 2011, Syria itself began to unravel
as the spirit of the Arab Spring spread across the region. 3 years later came the conquest by ISIS of
much of northern Iraq, driving tens of thousands of Christians and Yazidis from Mosul and the
villages of the Nineveh Plain. The world had not seen displacement of peoples
on this scale since the end of the Second World War and the partition of India in 1947. ISIS broadcast videos of their crude but effective
demolition of ancient Assyrian and Christian monuments in Iraq, and then we watched the
destruction of so much in Syria, including historic places such as Palmyra. In Turkey, where we had worked with the Armenian
community in Istanbul, and even more extensively in the Syriac Christian libraries of the southeast,
the areas we had visited so many times became no-go zones because of rising tensions between
Kurds and Turks, exacerbated by the Syrian conflict just a few miles away. As is often the case for ethnic and religious
minorities, the Christiansóthose who had not already emigratedówere caught in the
middle. In less than fifteen years, so much of what
we knewóor thought we knewóabout the Middle East had melted away, replaced by the unpredicted
and unfathomable. Throughout it all, our local partners kept
photographing manuscripts as best they could, even as collections were moved, hidden, and
in some cases destroyed. For too many of those manuscripts, all that
remains are the digital images and perhaps a few charred pages. The human toll upon our friends and colleagues
was immense. In 2013, the Syriac Orthodox bishop of Aleppo,
Mor Gregorios Yuhanna Ibrahim, was kidnapped along with his Greek Orthodox counterpart,
Metropolitan Boulos Yazigi. They were never heard from again. Mor Gregorios had been an enthusiastic supporter
of our work with his communityís manuscripts in Aleppo. Many of those manuscripts had been carried
to Aleppo in 1923 as Christians fled the Turkish city of Sanliurfa, known in ancient times
as Edessa, the very cradle of Syriac Christianity. These refugees were forced to leave their
home during the so-called Seyfo, the Syriac word meaning ìSword,î the systematic massacre
of Syriac Christians that echoed the Armenian Genocide only a few years before. In Iraq it would be even worse. Our partner there, Father Najeeb Michael,
a Dominican friar, had established a center for digitization of Christian manuscripts
in Qaraqosh, an ancient Christian village between Mosul and Erbil. Since 1750, Father Najeebís Dominican community
had been in Mosul, the ancient city of Nineveh where the prophet Jonah preached repentance. The kidnapping and murder of the Chaldean
Catholic Archbishop Paul Rahho in 2008 made it too dangerous for clergy to remain in Mosul,
and they relocated to Qaraqosh. Father Najeeb gained access to important ecclesiastical
and private collections across Iraq, and with our help his team digitized thousands of Syriac,
Arabic, and Armenian manuscripts. When I made my first visit to Qaraqosh in
2009, things did seem to be settling down in Iraq, but the situation remained tense. Because Americans were not very popular just
at that time in the area around Qaraqosh, I was advised by Father Najeeb to present
myself as a French Benedictineóour common language was French, so there was a certain
logic. By coincidence, we were in Qaraqosh at a seminary
on the very night that President Obama announced the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq. So, there we are, gathered in the community
room of the seminary to watch the President of the United States on television, but of
course I was now French. Then a bright young man turned to me and said,
ìI donít speak French. Do you happen to speak English?î So, what
to do? I got about a sentence of Inspector Clouseau-accented
English out of my mouth, but it feltóand of course it wasóutterly ridiculous. The next day, as I said goodbye to that young
man, he leaned over to me and he said this: ìwe all have secrets: yours is safe with
me.î Over the years, things improved, attitudes
softened, and I was welcomed wherever I went. Then came the summer of 2014, the summer of
ISIS. When news broke of the fall of Mosul, I was
in Jerusalem. As soon as I could get through to Father Najeeb,
I assured him of our support and asked how things looked. It did not seem at that time that ISIS, having
taken the city of Mosul, would start to move east into the Nineveh Plain, home of these
minority communities including Christians and Yazidis, and former home of ancient Jewish
communities, which had been forced to leave Iraq in the mid-twentieth century. That village of Qaraqosh, Father Najeebís
village, was guarded by Kurdish militias as part of the outer ring of defense of their
autonomous region, with its capital, Erbil. Nonetheless, having already evacuated the
manuscripts and archives of his Dominican community from Mosul to Qaraqosh, Father Najeeb
decided to begin to move them again, quietly, to Erbil, that capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. It was a very wise move. On the morning of August 6th, 2014, the Feast
of the Transfiguration of Jesus, ISIS was advancing and the Kurdish guards in Qaraqosh
retreated. Residents of that and the many other villages
of the Nineveh Plain had hours to grab what they could and carry it to Erbil, travelling
40 miles in the heat of Iraqi summer. I visited them many times in Erbil, marveling
at how they managed to recreate a kind of village life, even in the refugee camps. Unforgettable among them was Nimshe, an elderly
Yazidi woman in traditional dress, who showed me a safety pin with a medal of the Virgin
Mary on one end and a small silk bag containing dust from the tomb of a Yazidi saint on the
other. Her daughter-in-law had trouble conceiving,
and so Nimshe went to a Christian church to pray for the help of the Virgin Mary. The prayer was heard. That kind of intercommunal contact, this occasional
blurring of boundaries, was common throughout the region until the shocks of our present
century rendered it impossible. As the refugees started over in Erbil, ISIS
was demolishing ancient Nimrud with barrel bombs, destroying the artifacts of the Mosul
museum with sledgehammers, and dynamiting churches. The manuscript collections were portable and
easy to hide, but only after the retreat of ISIS from the Nineveh Plain in 2016 and the
final reconquest of Mosul in 2017 did the picture become fully clear. Major manuscript collections in Mosul had
indeed been destroyed, leaving behind only the digital images and a few damaged volumes. Here you see a manuscript from Mosul that
did not survive. Most collections outside of Mosul, however,
had been saved: moved at the last minute, or successfully concealed. This was the case at Mar Behnam Monastery,
where some 500 manuscripts were hidden behind a false wall and never discovered during the
2-year occupation of the monastery by ISIS. When the monks returned to their now wrecked
and defaced monastery, where ISIS had blown up the shrines of the saints to whom the monastery
was dedicated, they found the manuscripts intact, safe in their hiding place, a still-beating
heart in the battered and bruised body of their cloister. HMML and Islamic Manuscripts I began this lecture with Peter the Venerable
for a reason. For a Benedictine monk to partner with a Dominican
friar or a Syriac Orthodox bishop to preserve Christian manuscripts is understandable. It may not be so readily apparent why our
project at HMML has become so involved with digital preservation of manuscripts belonging
to Muslim communities in Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. Several years ago, I was at a conference devoted
to Islamic manuscripts and I gave a presentation, an overview of the work that we do. During the Q&A, a member of the audience stood
up and declared, ìwhat we need are Muslim Benedictines!î In fact, however, I have indeed
had the privilege of working with Muslims around the world who share our passion for
preserving manuscript heritage. This new chapter in the work of HMML, like
the others I have already recounted, began serendipitouslyówith a conversation. In 2013, the Palestinian field director for
our work with Christian manuscripts in the Old City of Jerusalem told me about a recent
conversation with a friend, in which he described his job at HMML. This friend belonged to an old and distinguished
Muslim family. Fascinated by Davidís work, he said, ìwhat
about us? We have manuscripts.î Well, on my next visit
to Jerusalem, I met with members of the Budeiry family and saw their library. The house is immediately adjacent to the Haram
ash-Sharif, also known as the Temple Mount. From the window of one of the bedroomsólater
to become the digitization studioówas a million-dollar view of the Dome of the Rock. As I learned more about the familyís library
and discussed the project with our board of overseers, I became convinced that we must
work with them. The Budeiry manuscripts and the Syriac Christian
manuscripts we had been digitizing at a monastery only a few minutesí walk away, had co-existed,
belonged to a cultural eco-system that had existed since the arrival of Islam to Palestine
in the 7th century. Christians and Muslims greeted each other
in the streets, they had done business, they had engaged in religious disputes, and they
had read each otherís books. Like Peter the Venerable, their interest in
the othersí books may have been for the sake of persuasion or refutation, but it may also
have been to share scientific and historical knowledge. All of the Hebrew manuscripts of Jerusalem,
and indeed around the world, had already been photographed by an Israeli project. Our task was to do the same for the Christian
and Islamic ones. That new phase of our work soon led to an
even larger involvement with Islamic manuscript heritage from another fabled place: the desert
city of Timbuktu in northern Mali. Timbuktu was at one time a center of political
power, trade, religion, and culture. Located in the Sahel, the traditional, or
the transitional zone between the desert and the savanna, the city was the terminus of
trans-Saharan, savanna, and forest trade routes that brought salt, goods, and travelers from
North Africa, and even beyond, as well as gold, slaves, textiles, and other goods from
the south. Of course, there were manuscripts travelling
the same pathways. The recent story of Timbuktu is once again
a tale of manuscripts moved and manuscripts hidden. The story of the evacuation of tens, even
hundreds of thousands of manuscripts from Timbuktu by librarian Abdel Kader Haidara,
is likely familiar to many of you. Knowing that something was comingóas Father
Najeeb did in IraqóDr. Haidara quietly sent the manuscripts of his
own familyís library and those of more than thirty other families up the Niger River to
Bamako, the capital of Mali, just in case the threats of religious and ethnic rebel
groups to capture Timbuktu and purge its culture of supposed ìnon-Islamicî elements should
come to pass. In June, 2012, those threats were realized. Timbuktu was occupied for several months,
its shrines to Muslim saints destroyed, its superb music silenced, the tourist trade on
which it depended for economic survival extinguished. Early reports suggested that its manuscripts
had been burned, but those reports proved to be incorrect: only a few manuscripts, left
behind as kind of a false trail, had been destroyed. All of the others were safe, whether, like
this one, moved to Bamako, or hidden in Timbuktu by families who had protected their manuscripts
over the centuries from Moroccan invaders, French imperialists, and every other threat. We have been privileged to work in both Bamako
and Timbuktu, reuniting virtually what was at one time a single manuscript culture spread
across dozens of libraries in Timbuktu and nearby settlements. Despite its liberation in 2013 by French and
Malian troops, the city remains exposed to violence. It is also the only place where I have experienced
personal danger, caught up in an attack on a UN post in August, 2017. My colleagues and I were not the target of
the attack, but the target was very close by. We hid in our hotel room for safety while
shooting continued all around us for several hours. Eventually, we were rescued by Swedish troops
attached to the UN military mission in Timbuktu and taken off to their well-fortified base. The experience was understandably traumatic
for us, but its greater importance was as a reminder that the people who live in such
places are constantly exposed to such attacks: they do not just fly in and fly out, they
do not have UN forces to spirit them away to safety. They, and their cultural heritage, as it exists
in manuscripts, song, textiles, in whatever form, are always at risk. Our efforts to help them, and the occasional
inconveniences we might experience, are the completely inadequate least we can do. Why it Matters, Here and Now The intellectual pathways we trace in our
preservation efforts reveal the original ìinternet of things,î the manuscripts that travelled
in a merchantís chest, in a monkís pocket or a pilgrimís pouch across the known world. The ideas written in them were translated
into new languages, they challenged conventional assumptions, they summoned forth creative
replies. Their power was in their words, words usually
read aloud, in the way of traditional reading. As they read, they heard another personís
voice, in real time, at the pace I am speaking to you now. It is often said that Jews, Christians, and
Muslims are ìPeople of the Book,î even if not of the same book. In fact, we were and are, all three traditions,
people of many books, as are also those who follow ancient philosophies or other great
religious traditions. In those books are stories, reflections on
stories, ideas spun from human observation and experience, attempts to trace how our
universe exists and functions in space and time. These books changed the world because their
words were heard. They were taken seriously enough at times
to prompt rebuttal or controversy, admiration or adoption. But they were heard. We are at great risk today of losing the capacity
to listen, and therefore losing our ability to understand. The opening word of Saint Benedictís Rule
is, appropriately, obsculta: ìlisten.î Illustrated by this painting by Fra Filippo Lippi in the
National Gallery. The discipline of listening is now an endangered
art. Equally endangered are the stores of wisdom
contained in the manuscripts of the world, targeted by those fearful of difference or
threatened by imaginations broader than their own. Those old books become caught in the indiscriminate
destruction of war and left behind by the displacement of their owners. The wisdom contained in them is eroded by
the forgetting that besets a diaspora community that has been severed from its roots, resettled
in a strange place and often undergoing the slow but inexorable loss of its language and
distinctive ways. It has been my privilege over these years
to meet these communities on their own ground, even if they subsequently lost it. Our team at HMML have worked with them to
ensure that their deposits of wisdom, their libraries of handwritten texts, the voices
of their past, can join the global conversations of the digital era. We do it side-by-side, as equals, as I do
here with the Grand Imam of the Djinguereber Mosque in Timbuktu. What happens when we fail to listen, or forget
the wisdom of the ancestors? I have said that the opening word of the monastic
rule I follow is ìlistenî: to the words of Scripture, to the events around you, to
the stirrings of your own heart. When we fail to listen, when we miss or misread
the ìsigns of the times,î the result can be catastrophic. Peter the Venerable was abbot of Cluny at
its zenith; 6 centuries later, the monastery and its great church were plundered, and its
library burned. At one time Cluny had represented a grand
reform of Benedictine monastic life. At its end, it represented everything that
the poor had come to hate about the concentration of wealth and power in church and aristocracy. No institution, however venerable, is immune
to the consequences of forgetting its ideals or ignoring the voices of its critics, and
we Catholics know this only too well. Yet, Benedictines are still here! As the motto of the bombed and rebuilt abbey
of Monte Cassino proclaims, Succisa virescit: ìcut it back, and it flourishes!î Humbled
by the Reformation, the French Revolution and its aftermath, we had to rethink what
it means to be monks in the modern world. We are still working on that. What is true of my own small part of the human
community is also true of nations when they forget to listen, or simply give up trying. Our fragile planet has never been so threatened
nor the human beings who inhabit it so divided. The terrain for rational discourse has shrunk
to a narrow strip between camps defined and limited by their political views, religious
beliefs, racial or ethnic identity, beset by anxiety that too easily becomes fear and
then violence. In such times as these, we must dig deeply
into our respective stores of wisdom and offer whatever we find there for the sake of mutual
understanding, the only possible basis for reconciliation and for the resolve to move
forward together for the common good. Frankly, we need all the help we can get. Of course, that wisdom is found not only in
manuscripts, but in the other records of our past. The power of words has illuminated our own
nationís darkest and most troubled times, from the Civil War through Jim Crow and the
Civil Rights movement. Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, Martin
Luther King Jr., the late Toni Morrison, my luminous predecessor at this podium: they
called us to wrestle with our nationís original sin of chattel slavery and its woeful legacy. In my own lifetime I have seen the death of
Jim Crow, the unmasking of the myth that separate can be equal, the abolition of the poll tax
in my native Texas, the desegregation of the schools I attended. Yet we still tolerate so many, less obvious,
versions of those odious practices. We are not done, not nearly. Now we are facing a new temptation to ostracize
and demean, this time because of the sincerely held religious beliefs of our Muslim brothers
and sisters. This is not simply a divisive geopolitical
issue, but an urgent local problem, even in my adopted state of Minnesota with its immigrant
Somali and other Muslim communities. As medieval Christians of Arabic came to understand,
Christian scholars of Arabic came to understand, the enemy was not really Islam, however deep
our theological differences. The common enemy wasóand it remainsóthe
fanaticism and ignorance that make understanding impossible. My roots in an ancient monastic tradition
give me a certain perspective, and dare I say, a confidence and hope when considering
the work that lies before us. I recall the story told long ago by a young
African man, confused and emotionally tormented, who heard the voice of a child chanting, Tolle,
lege. Tolle, lege. ìPick it up and read it. Pick it up and read it.î He picked up the
book at his side, and he read it, as if for the first time. His name was Augustine, and in time he would
become the finest writer of Western Christianity. First, he had to pick up the bookóof course
it was a manuscriptóand read. May we do the same. Thank you. NEH Chairman Jon Parrish Peede Closing Remarks:
Father Columba. So extraordinary. In 1965, the founding legislation of the Humanities
Endowment said, in part, ìDemocracy demands wisdom and vision in its citizens.î We are
so fortunate to have had Father Columba share his wisdom, and I think you have a sense of
the vision at the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library; not just with Father Columba, but
with his colleagues as well. I think now you understand why, at the Humanities
Endowment, we value not only his scholarship but his leadership. We value not only Father Columbaís mind,
but his heart. Now in terms of tonight, we have a lot to
take in and, maybe you will share some of that with each other in the lobby. There will be a bar open for purchasing drinks,
there will be some food, and we will give Father Columba a moment to collect his wits,
to decompress a little bit, and then he will be out in the lobby as well, and my colleagues
and I will. So, we hope we might share together. There will be copies of the magazine, and
if they run out tonightówe only set aside one thousand, and I can tell you one thousand
is not going to serve this audienceówe have done the mathóbut you can get that, and not
only talk about the work this agency has done at the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library, but
indeed across the world in many language groups, including indigenous languages in our own
land through oral histories. So, thank you, good night, and be well.

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