Somewhere Between “Life Before” and “When It’s Over”

Jennifer Speed, Office of the Dean for Research

Honorable Mention

2020-2021 Staff Essay Contest

About six weeks into the pandemic, I began to look forward to putting out the trash can on Wednesday nights because it marked time. One more weekly trash pickup meant that we’d made it through another week of the pandemic. My family was still alive and one step closer to…something. A vaccine? A cure? Warm weather to magically kill the virus? Maybe even getting sick, and then getting over it, and then we can stop worrying so much. I needed something more meaningful than garbage day to mark time. Something that would take a while but had some boundaries and gave me a sense of accomplishment. In the midst of a pandemic that seemed to loop time back on itself, trapping all of creation between life before and some future when it’s over, then, I picked a task with a clear beginning and end, with no doubling back: reading the entire Bible, in Latin. I would read myself straight through to the other side of the pandemic, a few chapters at a time. I’m not a great Latinist, but the modern edition of the Latin Bible has a special appeal. The language is elegant and regular, often lyrical, and sometimes spare. Even the typeface is pleasing, and the pages rustle in a very satisfying way as they are turned. My version has a thin silk ribbon attached to the spine. The ribbon serves as a bookmark, and its place in the volume tells me I’m actually going somewhere. Pages on the left of the bookmark come to belong to “life before,” and pages on the right lead to “when it’s over.”

The creation of the Vulgate Bible, as the Latin version is widely known, must have seemed like a thankless task to its fourth-century editor and translator, Saint Jerome. His work started as a small project to produce new translations of the Gospels, but then there were always more texts to translate and interpret. This I could understand, for even as I kept working and writing and parenting and gardening and cooking, my “when it’s over” was nowhere in sight. Like everyone else in the world, I was stranded. First, we were waiting for the basic science to be done on the novel coronavirus, and then waiting on the first stage of the clinical trials for the vaccine, and then the next stage, and then this approval and then that approval. And then and then but never really any closer to “when it’s over.”

This work of creating the first Latin translation of the Bible, an effort that led him back to the Hebrew texts, was begun but not finished by Jerome, incidentally one of Latin Christianity’s most unlikeable leading men. He was a linguist and a scholar and an administrator. Like me, he had deadlines to meet. Like me, Jerome loved history, and he read works by people he didn’t agree with. Hopefully not like me at all, he was a first-class jerk. Jerome was imperious and full of himself, and patriarchal in the extreme. But he saw profound value in his sacred task, and he did his best with what he had in front of him: perhaps hundreds of flawed texts and manuscripts in multiple languages. There were plenty of important voices telling him that what he was doing was impossible and that his translations were all wrong. And who was he to think he could do this work, anyway? Yet Jerome somehow came to embrace that space and time between life before he began to translate the Gospels and the “when it’s over”—when the entire Bible might be finished, certainly sometime beyond his lifetime.

My hair started falling out around month four. My teenage daughter’s mental health became precarious by month six. The house was never really clean, the yard was never quite tamed, and despite much more time at home than in life before, real cooking happened less and less. We mourned the slow death of our dog. I worked longer hours and took on more projects. And I kept reading the Vulgate. We moved houses, and then were almost completely isolated. In mid-July, we were deprived of the closure that should have come with a funeral for a beloved aunt, my father’s oldest sibling and only sister. Similarly, in September, we didn’t get to say goodbye to a longtime friend who was dying of COVID. The house was unbearably hot and invaded by bees and mosquitos. Plague-like. My insomnia got worse. I kept reading the Vulgate.

Christians usually read the Bible to try and understand what God wants of them, to understand how God is working in their own lives and the world around them. I wasn’t unmindful of that, but in my cover-to-cover read of the Vulgate, I was trying so hard to act like a kindly tourist in a foreign country. I wanted to see these inhabitants and their scenery within their context, without making their story about me. I needed to be someone who observes but doesn’t intervene. I would wait to reflect on the journey until the very end, when I would arrive back in my own land and the thin silk ribbon could be tucked against the back cover, no more pages to mark. When it’s over. But here were these characters, demanding much more than I had planned to give them. Parents who failed their children and children who failed their parents. Wives who annoyed their husbands, and vice versa, sometimes in really extreme ways. Families who found moving houses to be traumatic and subjects who found government bureaucracy maddening. People who suffered through no fault of their own and even more who suffered precisely because of what they had done. Neighbors who were indescribably kind and decent. But they soldiered on through love and hardship and loss and, yes, plagues. I had to keep reading the Vulgate.

Nearly a year into the pandemic, I’m still not finished reading the Bible, but my bookmark tells me I’m getting somewhere. On a good day, I can better tolerate this holding pattern. It really won’t be forever. I have derived more than a little solace and comfort from my one-way trip through the Vulgate. It has helped me to mark time, and even not to hurry my way through. So many important things are still unfolding in my life, and I need to be present for them. I want to observe and intervene because this particular story is about me and the people I love. I can’t just wait until the thin silk ribbon is tucked against the back cover to tell me I’ve reached the end. I have even slowed the pace of my reading because, in a way, I will regret when it’s over.