St Bede, Monk of Jarrow

St Bede, dictating his commentary on St John's Gospel

St Bede, dictating his commentary on St John's Gospel

ST BEDE (c. 672 – May 25, 735) is a fully-recognised saint of the Orthodox Church, whose festal day is celebrated on the 27th of May.

Click here to see posts on this blog tagged “St Bede”.

According to his own account, he was pledged to the monastic life at the age of seven, joining the new monastery of St Peter in Monkwearmouth (near what is now Sunderland) under the guidance of Abbot Benedict Biscop.

A few years later, in 682, he accompanied Coelfrid to the daughter house of St Paul at Jarrow, today a suburb of Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

He was ordained deacon in his nineteenth year, and raised to the priesthood at the age of thirty, a privilege for which he retained the most profound wonder.

WHENEVER we enter the church and draw near to the heavenly mysteries, we ought to approach with all humility and fear, both because of the presence of the angelic powers and out of the reverence due to the sacred oblation;

for as the Angels are said to have stood by the Lord’s body when it lay in the tomb, so we must believe that they are present in the celebration of the Mysteries of His most sacred Body at the time of consecration.

There at Jarrow Bede remained, all his life. Blessed with a vast library collected by Abbot Benedict, and the tales of a constant stream of priests, monks and visitors to Jarrow, spider-like he was able to feel every twitch on the thread of events in England. He died shortly after completing his Commentary on the Gospel of St John.

A MAN past the middle of life lay on his deathbed, surrounded by his disciples. They were sorrowing, says a bystander who relates the incident, at the thought that they should see his face no more in this life. A youth was taking down some words from the master’s lips. “One chapter still remains” said the lad, “of the book which thou hast dictated; and yet it seems troublesome to thee to ask more of thee.”

“It is not troublesome” said the dying man, “get out thy pen and prepare, and write quickly”. So the hours went on. At intervals he conversed with his scholars; then again he dictated. At length his amanuensis turned to him; “Beloved master, one sentence only remains to be written.”

“Good” he replied, “write it”. After a short pause the boy told him that it was written. “Good” said he, “it is finished; thou hast said truly”. And in a few moments more he gave up his soul to God, with his last breath chanting the doxology, familiar to him, as to us.

You have recognised the story. The dying man was Bede; the book, which he dictated, was the translation of S. John’s Gospel into the English tongue.

Bishop Joseph Barber Lightfoot, “The Death Of Bede”, A Sermon preached at the consecration of the St Peter’s Church, Jarrow, in 1881.

The saint was humble and generous to the last. Among his parting commands, he said: “I have a few treasures in my box, some pepper and napking and incense. Run quickly and fetch the priests of our monastery, and I will share among them such little presents as God has given me.”

Ecclesiastical History

St Bede’s fame today rests upon his Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (The Ecclesiastical History of the English People), for which he has been called The Father of English History.

This is not simply because his history was of itself an impressive study. It is more importantly because Bede helped to create a sense of Englishness, as a national identity, and as a Christian identity. It was not until the 9th century that kings began to style themselves by such titles as “King of the Anglo-Saxons” (Alfred the Great) or Rex Anglorum (Athelstan). Bede’s perception that the nation needed an identity based on a common Christian faith was prophetic.

Lunar Mathematics

St Bede was also indirectly involved in the controversy over the date of Easter, which had arisen in the middle of the 7th century. The calculation for the date of Easter which we use today (dependent on understanding phases of the moon) was developed in the 4th century at Alexandria, in an attempt to unify various different practices employed across the Roman world at the time. Some parts of the Empire were slow to follow suit, and by the 7th century Britain was still to come into line with common Alexandrian, Byzantine and Roman practice.

Northern England came into line with the Byzantine world at the Synod of Whitby in AD 664. This created considerable controversy, but the Orthodox method was championed by such bright lights of the Christian Church in England as St Wilfrid, St Hilda, and St Cuthbert. To this date and its calculation Bede was heir, and he engrossed himself in the mathematics of it, together with scientific calculations concerning the phases and appearance of the moon, its seasonal effects on tides, and the spherical earth (the idea that early medieval writers thought the earth was flat is Enlightenment propaganda).

Commentaries And Other Writings

Less well known are Bede’s contributions to music and musical metrics. Benedict Biscop brought music books and even a chanter from St Peter’s in Rome to his monastic foundation.

HE brought back [from Rome] a large quantity of books of all kinds; secondly, a great number of relics of Christ’s Apostles and martyrs, all likely to bring a blessing on many an English church; thirdly, he introduced the Roman mode of chanting, singing, and ministering in the church, by obtaining permission from Pope Agatho to take back with him John, the archchanter of the church of St. Peter, and abbot of the monastery of St. Martin, to teach the English.

This John, when he arrived in England, not only communicated instruction by teaching personally, but left behind him numerous writings, which are still preserved in the library of the same monastery.

Strangely, perhaps least well-known of all are Bede’s Scriptural commentaries, Homilies, and poetry, though there is a certain public interest in them growing at last.

Yet Scripture was at the very heart of everything St Bede did.In his Ecclesiastical History, he besought our dear Christ,

AND I pray thee, merciful Jesus, that as Thou hast graciously granted me sweet draughts from the Word which tells of Thee, so wilt Thou, of Thy goodness, grant that I may come at length to Thee, the fount of all wisdom, and stand before Thy face for ever.

He knew the value of the Old Testament too, echoing the words of Nehemiah in a prayer he added to his commentary on Ezra-Nehemiah:

HIGHEST father of lights, by whom every excellent thing is given and from whom every perfect gift descends, you have given me, the humblest of your servants, both the love and the aid to consider the wonders of your law, and have manifested to me, unworthy though I am, the grace to not only grasp the ancient offerings in the treasury of this prophetic book but also to discover new ones beneath the veil of the old and to bring them forth for the use of my fellow servants – Remember me with favour, oh my God.

The shrine of St Bede, Durham Cathedral

The shrine of St Bede, Durham Cathedral

St Bede’s Homilies on the Gospels for the Church Year are replete with monastic wisdom which might just as easily have poured from the pen of the great Athonite Elders.

When we recall that St Bede read both Greek and Hebrew, as well as Latin (and was acquainted with secular Roman writers such as Pliny the Younger, Virgil, Lucretius, Ovid, and Horace) and had a library of some 300-500 books upon which to draw, we will not be surprised that his own studies are firmly founded on the Church Fathers and their spiritual as well as dogmatic traditions.

St Bede compiled an abbreviated Psalter, taking a handful of lines from each Psalm so that a Christian could easily refresh himself with the spirit of the whole Psalter in a single day. He composed a number of hymns, and a Life of St Cuthbert of Lindisfarne, one version in prose, another in verse.

He also chronicled the lives of five influential Abbots of Wearmouth and Jarrow, during which he refers to an intriguingly Eastern-style remodelling of the monastery chapel.

Fifthly, he [Abbot Benedict] brought with him pictures of sacred representations, to adorn the church of St. Peter, which he had built; namely, a likeness of the Virgin Mary and of the twelve Apostles, with which he intended to adorn the central nave, on boarding placed from one wall to the other; also some figures from ecclesiastical history for the south wall, and others from the Revelation of St. John for the north wall; so that every one who entered the church, even if they could not read, wherever they turned their eyes, might have before them the amiable countenance of Christ and his saints, though it were but in a picture, and with watchful minds might revolve on the benefits of our Lord’s incarnation, and having before their eyes the perils of the last judgment, might examine their hearts the more strictly on that account.

St Bede’s edition of the Bible lay at the heart of the version used across the Roman Church until 1966. He also championed the use of the BC and AD convention for giving dates. St Bede’s influence reaches into every corner of our Christian and secular lives even today.

A Prayer

It would be fitting to leave the last word to St Bede, and his commentary on the Apocalypse of St John the Divine, which affords one of the most beautiful of all his prayers.

CHRIST is the morning star, who when the night of this world has passed, brings to his saints the promised light of life, and opens to them everlasting day. Amen.

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