Today, 25 May 2012, is the feast day of at least four major saints …. Pope St Gregory VII, St Mary Magdalene de Pazzi, St Madeline Sophie Barat and St Bede the Venerable. Of these I owe the greatest debt of gratitude to St Bede the Venerable, Benedictine monk of the 8th century and Doctor of the Church. So we will honour him today in first place, and in the years to come honour the others in turn.
St Bede the Venerable was born in Britain around the year 673, near the Benedictine monasteries of Wearmouth and Jarrow. When he was old enough to begin his education, young Bede was entrusted to the monks of the monastery at Wearmouth. What he learned of the love of God, of the holy Scriptures and of monastic life awoke in him a Benedictine vocation. Given the prodigious output of writing during his lifetime, young Bede must have been a very gifted student with a hunger for learning and living in a monastery with a well stocked library of holy texts must have been like living in a treasure trove.
Bede used his God given scholarly talents to the full. When I think of him labouring away reading, translating, researching, interviewing, fact checking, writing, dictating and praying I am always moved to gratitude. To produce even a page of written history requires hours upon hours of effort, and Bede wrote an astonishing number of books for someone who died at the age of 62 in 735. His most well known and best loved written work is his ‘A History of the English Church and People’, written in 5 parts. An online copy can be read at www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/bede-book1.asp .
In the preface of this book Bede tells us of his purpose in gathering and recording this History. ‘If history records good things of good men, the thoughtful hearer is encouraged to imitate what is good: or if it records evil of wicked men, the devout listener or reader is encouraged to avoid all that is sinful and perverse and to follow what he knows to be good and pleasing to God.’ His whole aim was to record the marvelous deeds of God in human history so that each reader might be inspired to love God better and to serve Him more generously.
Of Bede’s works I have been able to read ‘A History of the English Church and People’, ‘The Life of Cuthbert’ and ‘Lives of the Abbots of Wearmouth and Jarrow’ thus far. What I gleaned from the last book in that list is written about in the blogpost of 19 Feb 2012. ‘A History of the English Church and People’ was a joy to read. Within its pages are recorded the lives of holy kings, valiant martyrs, wise bishops, saintly abbesses and intrepid evangelists together with accounts of miracles, healings and God’s good providence. In particular I value the letters of Pope St Gregory the Great which Bede included in the History and the details of the great debates which raged during his lifetime.
The big debate was about which tradition to follow regarding the calculation of the date of Easter Sunday and the related debate about the relative merits of the Irish-Iona tradition or the Roman tradition. Both sides had scores of holy and saintly predecessors to refer to for the authenticity of their traditions. In the end the primacy of the tradition linked to St Peter was upheld. It often strikes me that our Protestant and Orthodox brothers and sisters who have trouble accepting the authority of the Pope would greatly benefit from reading through this whole debate as recorded by Bede.
Apart from the wonderful stories of the heroes and heroines of faith, I also deeply appreciate the personal witness of faith which Bede gives every so often in his works. They are the pearls amid the brilliant gems. Here are some of those pearls:
From the preface to the History, evidence of Bede’s humility and desire for God’ s mercy : ‘I earnestly request all who may hear or read this history of our nation to ask God’s mercy on my many failings of mind and body. And in return for the diligent toil that I have bestowed on the recording of memorable events in the various provinces and places of greater note, I beg that their inhabitants may grant me the favour of frequent mention in their devout prayers.’
From the end of his autobiographical note in the History: ‘I pray 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.’
We owe a great debt to holy scholars such as Bede because through their writings the memory of holy lives is preserved and countless souls who read of them are converted to faith in God. Their scholarly works teach us about God’s ways, inspire us to live more faithfully and preserve the wisdom of the Saints for future generations.
During the Australian Year of Grace (27 May 2012- 24 Nov 2013) or the Year of Faith (11 Oct 2012 -24 Nov 2013) if you have yet to read Bede’s ‘A History of the English Church and People’ it would be a really worthwhile thing to do as part of your personal keeping of these two Years.
St Bede the Venerable, pray for us.