Wednesday, May 25, 2011
Feast of the Venerable Bede, Priest and Monk of Jarrow
Heavenly Father, you called your servant Bede, while still a child, to devote his life to your service in the disciplines of religion and scholarship: Grant that as he labored in the Spirit to bring the riches of your truth to his generation, so we, in our various vocations, may strive to make you known in all the world; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Bede, or Baeda, was probably born in the year 673, the year of the Council of Hertford, the council in which the Bishops of England agreed to respect each others' diocesan boundaries and the date for Easter was settled. He was born on lands which were given to Benedict Biscop's new monastery, St. Peter's of Wearmouth. At the age of seven years, his parents placed him in the care of Abbot Benedict for his education and upbringing. The next year he was tranferred to the monastery in Jarrow, under the care of Abbot Ceolfrid, and he remained there for the rest of his life. Abbot Ceolfrid was a holy man and a a scholar, and young Bede was greatly influenced by his love of learning. Years later, Bede wrote a biography of Ceolfrid, which contains an incident which probably refers to Bede's boyhood. It tells of how, in the year 686, the plague attacked Ceolfrid's monastery, killinig all the choir monks capable of maintaining the regular services of the Church, with the exception Bede writes, of the Abbot himself and one boy reared and educated by him, who is now a priest of the same monastery and commends the Abbot's admirable doings both verbally and in writing to all who desire to learn them. Greatly distressed by this catastrophe, the Abbot decided to discontinue their usual practice, and to recite and sing all the psalms without antiphons except at Vespers and Matins. But when they had done this for a week with great sorrow and regret, he could bear it no longer and directed that the psalms and their antiphons were to be restored in their appointed course. So with the help of all survivors, he and the aforesaid boy carried his decision with no little trouble until such time as he could either train or procure from elsewhere sufficient numbers to assist at the Divine Office.
Ceolfrid's training and encouragement of the young Bede filled him with a love for the Divine Hours and the Church's services, and it was said that he believed that the angels attended all the Daily Offices and would not miss a service because "the angels would ask 'Were is Bede? Why does he not attend the appointed devotions with his brethren?'" Bede was ordained a deacon at the age of nineteen, which is really something since canon law set the normal age for ordination to the deaconate at age twenty-five. His scholarship and devotion must have been recognized as exceptional for him to be ordained so young. He was ordained a priest eleven years later, and he spent the next fifty-nine years writing commentaries on the scriptures and writing histories. He is called the Father of English History because of his classic work A History of the English Church and People which covers the years from 597 to 731, the period in which Anglo-Saxon culture developed and Christianity became the religion of the British Isles. His History is considered a prime source for historians studying early English history because of the care he took collecting information from those most likely to know, his meticulous listing of his authorities and his separation of historical fact from hearsay and tradition. His descriptions are very vivid and bring the story alive to the reader, which is another element of good historical writing in our own era, too. His biblical commentaries were highly appreciated by his contemporaries, because he would use the Vulgate Bible, old Latin texts, and the Greek texts in his studies, and would use the writings of St. Augustine of Hippo, St. Jerome, St. Ambrose, and St. Gregory combined with his own insights. He wrote some twenty-four commentaries, several histories, a book of Hymns, a book of Epigrams, a Martyrology, a book on the Art of Poetry, a book on Tropes and Figures, and a book entitled On the Nature of Things. There was no printing press, so these books were all handwritten and then copied by others, so the production of so many books is really quite amazing!
What made Bede so prolific? Why did he write so much? He was a monk, a very dedicated monk, and a scholar. Bede experienced God through the use of his mind, through study and research and contemplation and writing. He ended his History of the English Church and People with this little prayer: I prayer you, noble Jesu, that as You have graciously granted me joyfully to imbibe the words of Your knowledge, so You will also of Your bounty grant me to come at length to Yourself, the Fount of all wisdom, and to dwell in Your presence for ever.
Bede was a scholar right up to the end, dying after dictating an English-language translation of the Gospel of John. He died on May 25, the Eve of the Ascension, in the year 735. One of his scholars, Cuthbert, who later became the Abbot of Jarrow, wrote an account of Bede's death, telling how he continued to work for several days even though he was short of breath. On Tuesday before the Feast of the Ascension, he was dictating and teaching but was having a difficult time breathing. He said to his students, "Learn quickly! I do knot know how ling I can continue, for my Lord may call me in a short while." That night, instead of sleeping, he spent the night giving thanks to God. That morning he continued to dictate the last chapter of his work on John's gospel. At three o'clock that afternoon, he said to Cuthbert "I have a few valuables in my chest, some pepper, and napkins, and some incense. Run quickly and fetch the priests of our monastery, so that I may share among them these little presents God has given me." Cuthbert fetched the priests, and Bede spoke with each one and gave him a present. They were all crying, and Bede said, "If it so pleases my Maker, the time has come for me to be released from this body, and to return to the One who formed me out of nothing. I have lived a long time, and the righteous Judge has provided for me well throughout my life. The time for my departure is near, and I long to be dissolved and be with Christ. My soul longs to see Christ my King in all his beauty." Cuthbert says that Bede spent the rest of the day in gladness until the evening. Wilberht, the boy who was taking dictation, said, "Dear master, there is still one sentence that we have not yet written down." Bede said, "Then write it down quickly. " When the boy was finished, he said, "There! It is written!" Bede said, "Good! It is finished; you have spoken the truth. Hold my head in your hands. I would please me much if I could sit opposite the holy place where I used to pray, so that I may call upon my Father sitting up." Bede sat on the floor of his cell, his head held by Wilberht. He said the Gloria Patri and breathed his last. He was buried in the chapel of the monastery of Jarrow, but his remains were moved to Durham and placed in the nave of the Lady Chapel of the Galilee Cathedral, in the year 1020. He received the title "Venerable" about a hundred years after his death. There is a legend which says that the monk carving the inscription on Bede's tomb was at a loss for a word to fill out the couplet Hac sunt in fossa Bedae -blank- ossa (This grave contains the -blank- Bede's remains). That night an angel came and filled in the blank with the word Venerabilis.
I See You!
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