Faith of our Fathers

The Venerable Bede (May 27)

Bishop Lightfoot of Durham said that for Bede the words 'It is finished', had three meanings and three endings. First, the work of translation and dictation on St John’s Gospel was complete. Secondly, these words signified the completion of another volume, the writing of his earthly career, a life at once holy, brave, zealous, patient, scholarly, loving. The volume of Time was closed, the volume of eternity was about to be written. Thirdly, Bede is conscious of repeating the words of Christ, when he announced the completion of man's redemption, words which not long before he must have dictated. For this redemption was the inspiration of his life, the clue in which his own death found significance and point, the glory that irradiated his death-bed, on the Eve of the Ascension.

The epithet ‘Venerable’ suits him but it can be misleading. He is often depicted as the aged saint and in representations of his deathbed looking like a man of eighty or ninety, when he was only sixty-two when he died. Born in 672, he tells us of his life in the Ecclesiastical History, that from the age of seven the whole of his life was lived in the monastery at Jarrow and Wearmouth: ‘ … devoting all my pains to the study of the Scriptures; and amid the observance of monastic discipline, and the daily charge of singing in the Church, it has ever been my delight to learn, or to teach, or to write.’

We remember Bede, in his birth and education, in his work and in his death, as pre-eminently a man of peace. Not only did he work for peace, but God's peace was finding a home in the English nation and in the English Church. With Oswald's defeat of Cadwalla peace had come to the English nation, and with Theodore as Archbishop of Canterbury order was emerging from chaos in the English Church. English Literature was beginning to evolve with the great poet Caedmon, an organized culture and learning emerged with Theodore and Hadrian and their school at Canterbury, with trained scholars that travelled to Northumbria and won Bede's admiration.

First, he witnesses to the primacy of worship and prayer in a life spent in quietude, in intelligent self-culture, in a veneration for the past but sympathetic to the present, and in his desire to be useful to people. Its foundation was his profound devotion to God. Life was not easy especially when the plague of yellow pest had affected all the monks, leaving Bede the young boy, and the Abbot Ceolfrith to sing all the services.

Alcuin wrote to the monks of Wearmouth, ‘It is told that our master and your patron the blessed Bede said: "I know that angels visit the canonical hours, and the congregations of the brethren. What if they do not find me among them? Will they not say, Where is Bede? Why comes he not to the prescribed devotions with the brethren?"’

On St Luke's Gospel, Bede wrote, ‘Whenever we enter the Church and draw near to the Holy Mysteries, we ought to approach with all humility and fear, as well because of the presence of the angelic powers, as of the reverence due to the sacred oblation.’

Secondly, he teaches us the spirit of Christian scholarship. He tells us, ‘Amidst the observance of monastic discipline and the daily charge of singing in the Church it has been ever my delight to learn, or to teach, or to write.’ This is the consecrated scholar, the discipline of learning, not for the discovery of novelty, or the mere accumulation of knowledge for its own sake or for oneself. Rather must scholarship be for the imparting of knowledge and making the world wiser and brighter than the scholar found it. We study in order to help those who will continue beyond our lifetime, and leave our deposits in the bank of the world's learning but hopefully in the minds of others. Here in Bede is the love of learning and the desire for God, being dedicated to him and being blessed by him. Here is the essence and discipline of Christian scholarship.

Thirdly, we can learn from Bede's success as a teacher. The secret of his success is not difficult to discover. Gradually he accumulated as much of the knowledge of his time as he could. All that was worth knowing he was at pains to acquire. His works number sixty distinct treatises, which might be termed an eighth-century encyclopaedia or internet. His main works are on the Bible but there are treatises on astronomy, chronology, arithmetic, medicine, philosophy, grammar, rhetoric, poetry and music, biographies, hymns and a book of epigrams. His chief work is the Ecclesiastical History.

Behind the scholar, the teacher and the writer, was an enthusiastic love of his work and his power of kindling enthusiasm in others. Like some of us who dread the thought of being asked to be Rural Dean, he refused to be abbot, because that office demanded household care, and that brings distraction of mind which hinders the pursuit of learning. Where there is enthusiasm for learning great industry follows.

Above all, it was the spirit in which his learning, teaching and writing was done that held the key to unlock so many doors. His work was penetrated with prayer. Prayer was not for him time lost from the work of life. His reading, teaching, and writing were done within the observance of monastic discipline and the daily worship. He studied in the same mind with which he prayed, so that his reading, teaching, and writing were a religious devotion.

Michael Ramsey hoped the clergy would encourage the reading of Bede's Ecclesiastical History in the parishes. ‘It will fascinate, hearten, and instruct. For all the differences between the age of Bede and our own … we find that Bede is writing about our Church of England, our divine calling, and not a few of our ethical problems. The continuity of the Holy Catholic Church in England is brought home to us afresh.’

Arthur Middleton is tutor at St Chad's, Durham, a writer and a retreat conductor

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