Saturday, 13 April 2013


For this week's extract from 'Traveling Companions,' I have chosen one of the saints of the British Isles from before the Great Schism. He is something of a favourite of mine since not only was he a gentle and kind man but his Ecclesiastical History of England was of tremendous help to me in writing this book. What is more, Bede comes from the northeast of England, my wife's birthplace.

Other British saints of the undivided Church included in the book are: Aidan of Lindisfarne; Alban, Protomartyr of England; Augustine of Canterbury; Brendan the Voyager; Brigid of Kildare; Caedmon, Hymn Writer; Columba of Iona; Cuthman of Steyning; David of Wales; Hilda of Whitby; Patrick, Enlightener of Ireland.  

Bede, Venerable (May 27)

Renowned as a historian, Bede, the “Father of English History,” is also venerated as a saint for his piety, scholarship, and influence on the early English Church. Born in about 672,  near Jarrow in the northeast of England, he probably came from a noble family. He was placed in the monastery at Wearmouth at the age of seven, ordained a deacon at nineteen and a priest at thirty. Apart from occasional trips to York and Lindisfarne, he spent his whole life in the monastery, and, in his own words, “I wholly applied myself to the study of Scripture; and amidst the observance of monastic rule, and the daily charge of singing in the church, I always took delight in learning, or teaching, or writing.”

A sort of renaissance man about nine hundred years before the renaissance, Bede had interests ranging from theology and scriptural commentary to music, history, grammar, and science. Among the many achievements attributed to him were a recalculation of the age of the earth, the popularization of the division of history into BC and AD, and the invention of the footnote. Though he was not a particularly original thinker, his commentaries on the Scriptures were of great value in synthesizing the writings of the early Church Fathers and, through his skill as a linguist and translator, making them accessible to Anglo-Saxon readers. It is mainly for this work and his considerable influence on early English church history that he is venerated as a Doctor of the Church and as a  saint. He is the only Englishman to be mentioned in Dante’s Paradiso, appearing among the doctors of the Church.

Although we know little of Bede’s life, we can piece together from his writing a picture of a devout and kindly man with a deep love of the truth, coupled with great common sense. Despite his erudition and probable noble birth, he seems to have had an essentially humble view of his talents when compared with spirituality: “Better a stupid and unlettered  brother who, working the good things he knows, merits life in Heaven than one who  though being distinguished for his learning in the Scriptures, or even holding the place of a doctor, lacks the bread of love.” He saw all his work, including the study of science and  history, as devoted to the glory of God, and always put his church duties before other things. He once made the point that, since the angels were present with the monks during worship, he must not skip the services: “What if they [the angels] do not find me among  the brethren when they assemble? Will they not say, ‘Where is Bede?’”

The final days of his life, described in a letter from his disciple Cuthbert, create a moving picture of a man ready to meet his Maker. About two weeks before Pascha 735, he fell ill with frequent attacks of breathlessness, but continued to teach, sing psalms, and dictate his last work, a translation of St. John’s Gospel into Anglo-Saxon. Shortly before Ascension Day, his breathing deteriorated and his feet swelled, and he warned his pupils, “Learn  quickly, for I do not know how long I can continue. The Lord may call me in a short while.”
After a sleepless night, he continued dictating, but at three o’clock paused to distribute “a few treasures” among the priests of the monastery, “some pepper, and napkins, and some incense.” He asked for their prayers and said, “The time of my departure is at hand, and  my soul longs to see Christ my King in His beauty.” That evening, his scribe Wilbert,  writing down the last sentence of his work, said, “It is finished now.” “You have spoken truly,” said Bede, “it is well finished.” He asked Wilbert to lift his head so that he could see the church he loved, sang the Doxology, and passed away.

The poem called Bede’s Death Song, although not definitely written by Bede, certainly  relates to a theme often dealt with in his other writing:

Before the unavoidable journey there, no one becomes
wiser in thought than him who, by need,
ponders, before his going hence,
what good and evil within his soul,
after his day of death, will be judged.17

Bede was buried at Jarrow but, in 1020, his remains were transferred to
Durham Cathedral, where they still lie alongside those of St. Cuthbert of

© Conciliar Press 2013

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