Venerating the Venerable

Today is the Feast of St. Bede the Venerable (672-735 A.D.), a Doctor of the Church more commonly known as “The Venerable Bede”, who is, inter alia, the patron saint of lectors, historians, and English-language writers. Bede was a Benedictine monk living and working in Northumbria, around the same time that the Lindisfarne Gospels were being created nearby on the Northumbrian island of Lindisfarne. Although he wrote on many subjects, including theology, Biblical commentaries, and even hymns, it is as an historian that Bede is best-remembered today.

Bede was researching and writing history at a time when the study of that subject was not a particularly easy task. Doing his best to separate fact from fiction, actual events from myths and legends, Bede tried to provide as accurate an historical account of the arrival and development of Christianity in England as he could in his seminal “The Ecclesiastical History of the English People” of around 730 A.D. This is a very readable work which I highly recommend to my readers, for within its pages one can read not only accounts of miracles and lives of saints and sinners alike, but also discussions on topography, heresy, architecture, morality, and a host of other subjects.

What makes Bede “fun”, if that is the word, is that he is not opposed to digressing from his historical recounting of events to give an aside regarding his opinions on the matter being discussed. An early point of contention in England was how the date of Easter was to be determined, since there were different schools of thought as to the calculation of the Vernal Equinox. Bede clearly did not agree with the theological conclusions of St. Aidan, Bishop of Lindisfarne, who lived a generation before him:

I have written thus much concerning the person and works of the aforesaid Aidan, in no way commending or approving what he imperfectly understood in relation to the observance of Easter; nay, very much detesting the same, as I have most manifestly proved in the book I have written, “De Temporibus”; but, like an impartial historian, relating what was done by or with him, and commending such things as are praiseworthy in his actions, and preserving the memory thereof for the benefit of the readers; viz. his love of peace and charity; his continence and humility; his mind superior to anger and avarice, and despising pride and vainglory; his industry in keeping and teaching the heavenly commandments; his diligence in reading and watching; his authority becoming a priest in reproving the haughty and powerful, and at the same time his tenderness in comforting the afflicted, and relieving or defending the poor. To say all in a few words, as near as I could be informed by those that knew him, he took care to omit none of those things which he found in the apostolical or prophetical writings, but to the utmost of his power endeavored to perform them all.

These things I much love and admire in the aforesaid bishop; because I do not doubt that they were pleasing to God; but I do not praise or approve his not observing Easter at the proper time, either through ignorance of the canonical time appointed, or, if he knew it, being prevailed on by the authority of his nation, not to follow the same. Yet this I approve in him, that in the celebration of his Easter, the object which he had in view in all he said, did, or preached, was the same as ours, that is, the redemption of mankind, through the passion, resurrection and ascension into heaven of the man Jesus Christ, who is mediator betwixt God and man. And therefore he always celebrated the same, not, as some falsely imagine, on the fourteenth moon, like the Jews, whatsoever the day was, but on the Lord’s day, from the fourteenth to the twentieth moon; and this he did from his belief of the resurrection of our Lord happening on the day after the Sabbath, and for the hope of our resurrection, which also he, with the holy Church, believed would happen on the same day after the Sabbath, now called the Lord’s day.

Bede not only reports what he has been able to research, but also reproduces the texts of then-extant documents such as letters – an invaluable source of information which we would expect of a modern historian, though not from one living over a thousand years ago. For example, Bede gives us two remarkable letters from Pope Boniface IV to King Edwin and to Queen Ethelberga of England, respectively. In the first, the Pope gives pastoral direction to the King, as reports have reached Rome that King Edwin is not fully converted from paganism to Christianity. At the same time, Boniface writes to the Queen, urging her, like a personal spiritual director, to try to draw her husband to practice Christianity worthily through her own words and example, and through their sacramental marriage:

Wherefore, applying yourself continually to prayer, do not cease to beg of the Divine Mercy the benefit of his illumination; to the end, that those whom the union of carnal affection has made in a manner but one body, may, after death, continue in perpetual union, by the bond of faith. Persist, therefore, illustrious daughter, and to the utmost of your power endeavour to soften the hardness of his heart by insinuating the Divine precepts; making him sensible how noble the mystery is which you have received by believing, and how wonderful is the reward which, by the new birth, you have merited to obtain. Inflame the coldness of his heart by the knowledge of the Holy Ghost, that by the abolition of the cold and pernicious worship of paganism, the heat of Divine faith may enlighten his understanding through your frequent exhortations; that the testimony of the holy Scripture may appear the more conspicuous, fulfilled by you, ‘The unbelieving husband shall be saved by the believing wife.’ For to this effect you have obtained the mercy of our Lord’s goodness. that you may return with increase the fruit of faith, and the benefits entrusted in your hands; for through the assistance of his mercy we do not cease with frequent prayers to beg that you may be able to perform the same.

Perhaps the most touching words of Bede’s were not in fact written by him, but rather quoting him, as recounted by one of the assistants who described Bede’s death. Bede was working on his latest book, when he became ill on the Feast of the Ascension and found it increasingly difficult to breathe. He continued to struggle on through the day, recognizing what was coming but wanting to finish writing with the help of his fellow monks, including a young monk named Wilbert who was his secretary and took his dictation. Finally he recognized it was time to go:

‘It is time for me, if it be my Maker’s will, to be set free from the flesh, and come to Him Who, when as yet I was not, formed me out of nothing. I have lived long; and well has my pitiful judge disposed my life for me; the time of my release is at hand; for my soul longs to see Christ my King in His beauty.’ Having said this and much more for our profit and edification, he passed his last day in gladness till the evening; and the aforesaid boy, whose name was Wilbert, still said, ‘Dear master, there is yet one sentence not written.’ He answered, ‘It is well, write it.’ Soon after, the boy said, ‘Now it is written.’ And he said, ‘It is well, thou hast said truly, it is finished. Take my head in thy hands, for I rejoice greatly to sit facing my holy place where I was wont to pray, that I too, sitting there, may call upon my Father.’ And thus on the pavement of his little cell, chanting ‘Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost,’ and the rest, he breathed his last.

As they say: what a way to go. Bede was a man who worked at an unbelievable pace, strongly dedicated to pursuing his path in life, and yet was detached enough from the world that he was clearly prepared to let it all go when the time came. His is quite an example for us to try to emulate.

Tomb of St. Bede the Venerable
Durham Cathedral, England
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