Verbum Caro Factum Est

You would not know his name.  You would not have known who he was or what he did for a living, but every one of you has seen his work and uses his work constantly throughout the day.  It would not be a stretch to say that every person on the planet uses what he had given to the world.  And he did it all in silence.

By trade he was a calligrapher, a word that comes from the Classical Greek meaning “to write beautifully.”  By vocation he was a priest.  In fact his business card read “Priest and Calligrapher” in the Renaissance Italian font.   A calligrapher is someone who handwrites those beautiful scrawling words and letters on documents like your diploma.

I stumbled across an obit in a recent New York Times Art section for Father Robert Palladino.  It immediately caught my eye.  As I read about his life I was amazed to read of the impact this solitary Trappist monk would have upon the world.  Father Palladino began his vocation in the monastic order of the Trappists, alone in the solitary scriptorium handwriting documents as they had been done for centuries.  It was as if he had walked off the pages of the late Umberto Eco’s “The Name of the Rose.”  He even hand-scripted the baptismal certificates of the babies he had baptized.

I have visited many monasteries in different parts of the world.  I remember sneaking into the enclosure at the 6th century Italian Monte Cassino, the first monastery of Saint Benedict. Many years later I was able to go into the strict enclosure to see the inner workings of the monastery in Spencer, Massachusetts.   I remember learning that all Trappist monasteries are laid out identically wherever they are in the world so that, if a monk were transferred from one monastery to another, he would not need to re-acclimate himself.  He would feel immediately at home.  And when he grew old and blind he could still find his way around.

As the authority on ancient history and scripts Father Palladino was eventually asked to teach calligraphy at Reed College in Portland, Oregon.  It was considered the best program on calligraphy in the United States.  While teaching there a young man found himself seated in Father Palladino’s class on typography.  His name was Steve Jobs.

Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple, credits the fonts (lettering) used, and the design of his computers, tablets, I-Pads, and I-Phones to what he learned while in Father Palladino’s class.  Jobs is quoted in the Times article as saying that he had designed into the Mac computer what he had learned from Father Palladino’s classes.  “If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would never have had multiple typefaces and proportionally spaced fonts.  And since Windows just copied the Mac, it is likely that no personal computer would have them.”

So next time you use one of your many Apple devices remember that the greatest method of mass communication the world has ever seen started with a priest …who had taken a vow of silence.  Or as the article says, it is an exquisite coincidence that “Silicon Valley’s most important sensation studied with a monk who spent years taking a vow of silence.”

An ironic twist ends the article:  “Though Father Palladino demonstrably influenced Mr. Jobs, the converse cannot be said.  To the end of his life, Father Palladino never owned, or even once used a computer.”