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Long hand

New York Presbyterian works on handwritten King James Bible

September 2, 2010

A pair of hands scribbling on a blank page in a book.

Phillip Patterson double-checks the pen and ink he uses before starting work on a new page. —Photos by Laura Glazer

SPENCERTOWN, N.Y.

Letter by letter and word by word, Phillip Patterson is on a mission of understanding.

With hands that sometimes tremble from an assortment of medications, the 60-year-old Patterson set out three years ago to write by hand the entire King James Version of the Bible. Each day is a practice in patience, determination and desire as he meticulously swirls and curls through each word, dotting each i and crossing each t with the precision of a surgeon. 

From the dramatic, image-filled passages of Genesis and the epic tale of the Israelites' transformation from slavery to powerful kingdom, to the personal triumphs of Ruth and Esther and the operatic flow of the melodious Psalms, Patterson lives out story after story as they travel from pen to paper.

For as many as 12 to 14 hours a day, Patterson works with an unbridled passion at a project which he may very well never see completed. Ideally, he would like to have the project, entitled "The Serenity of Knowing," finished by next year, which happens to be the 400th anniversary of the King James Version of the Bible.

That scenario seems unlikely, since he is only nearing the midpoint of the project after three years of pouring every ounce of passion in his soul into the undertaking.

The long-time member of St. Peters Presbyterian Church tries very hard not to place too much emphasis on reaching specific time deadlines. Completing each day is a triumph in and of itself.

The mortality of human life and the fact that the glow of another sunrise is not guaranteed is a fact of which he is all too painfully aware.

For the last 24 years, Phillip Patterson has lived with AIDS.

The purpose of "The Serenity of Knowing," according to Patterson, is to "honor the Bible" and to "make people aware that there is a message in the Bible for everyone. Sinners — and we all are sinners — need to know the have a place."

"I see it as a part of my responsibility" Patterson insists, "to make people understand that the Bible and religion are for everybody."

The former interior decorator says it was not religion that drove him to take on the project, but "a desire to understand what was really in the Bible."

"Most of us have been spoon-fed the Bible," said Patterson. "A verse here and a story there is how we learned the Bible. We know it in pieces, but not as a whole. I wanted to see the big picture and at the same time encourage others to do the same."

Patterson says the inspiration for the project came in 2007 during a conversation with his life partner of 20 years about the similarities between the Bible and the Koran. His partner, who is Muslim, pointed out that in Islamic tradition it is not uncommon for ordinary Muslims to write the Koran word for word.

Phillip Patterson, standing and speaking while holding a microphone with his right hand.

Phillip Patterson frequently reads sections of the Bible aloud before setting the words to paper.

Patterson responded that Christians probably didn't write out the Bible because it was too long. Patterson says that when his partner told him he should do it, "that was when the thunderbolt struck."

Unable to work, he had been searching for something to do with his time that was within his physical limitations. He was also intrigued by a desire to better understand a book that has had such an impact on the world.

"It was like diving into a deep pool headfirst, but not knowing just how deep it really is," Patterson said.

He set out on the project by studying various types of paper, pens and inks. In his mind, this was far more than scribbling words in a notebook. If it was to be meaningful and inspirational, he would have to take on the project with the perspective of an artist. He chose a moderately heavy 8.5-by-13 watercolor paper and an archival ink that he says will not fade.

Before any wiring is done, Patterson rules each page by hand so that each line of text is perfectly straight. He wants each page to look just right. If an error is made and it cannot be corrected, even if it is near the end of a page, the entire sheet is tossed in the waste basket.

Not only does Patterson spend his days copying the word of God, but as each section of the project is completed he also trims pages and binds them into volumes.

Three years and several hundred pages later, Patterson has completed four bound volumes and is nearing the end of the Psalms.

He has gained some form of notoriety through the project. His story has been told in several regional newspapers and magazines.

Patterson is quick to point out that he considers himself more spiritual than religious. He does not shun his lifestyle or his Christian faith.

"I am what I am," he says.

Accompanying Patterson on his sojourn through the scriptures is Laura Glazer. A photographer, artist and local radio show host, Glazer is an unlikely partner for such a journey. She is Jewish. Between her Torah, Patterson’s Bible and his partner’s Koran, the three make for a rather unorthodox trinity.

"I am continually amazed by Phillip and his passion for this project," Glazer said.

The two met during a visit to an area HIV clinic, he as a patient and she as a volunteer. She was so intrigued by the project that she asked Patterson if she could photograph him at work. Hesitant at first, he agreed. It was not long before the two became good friends.

Her photographs of Patterson and his project have been on display at local galleries and art shows. She has created a blog on the internet dedicated to the project and its photographs. At the site, you can purchase a bound copy of The Book of Ruth handwritten by Patterson.

When asked if "The Serenity of Knowing" has been has rewarding as he had hoped, he is quick to respond with an emphatic yes.

"For me personally, it has been an incredible journey and my faith has grown tremendously through this process," Patterson said. "I have seen how this project has touched others as well, which was the primary reason for beginning it in the first place. I want others to see the Bible for what it really is and allow it to touch their hearts the way it has touched mine."

Bob Sloan is a freelance writer in South Carolina and a frequent contributor to Presbyterian News Service.

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