24 February 2009

'He Sang the Creation of the World'—St Cædmon of Whitby

St Cædmon of Whitby (7th c.) is probably a good deal better known than today’s other Saint, Benedict of Aniane. The sole source for information about St Cædmon is the Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People IV.24, where a tale is told that is remarkably similar to the account of the inspiration of St Romanus the Melodist’s Kontakion on the Nativity (see Archim. Ephrem [Lash], ‘St Romanos and the Kontakion’, Kontakia on the Life of Christ, by St Romanos the Melodist, trans. Archim. Ephrem [Lash] [San Francisco: HarperCollins, n.d.], p. xxvii). Here is St Bede’s full account of St Cædmon’s ‘call’ (taken from L.C. Jane’s translation, posted on Benjamin Slade’s wonderful ‘Bede’s Story of Cædmon’ page):

There was in this abbess's monastery [i.e., St Hilda’s double monastery at Whitby] a certain brother, particularly remarkable for the grace of God, who was wont to make pious and religious verses, so that whatever was interpreted to him out of Scripture, he soon after put the same into poetical expressions of much sweetness and humility, in English, which was his native language. By his verses the minds of many were often excited to despise the world, and to aspire to heaven. Others after him attempted, in the English nation, to compose religious poems, but none could ever compare with him, for he did not learn the art of poetry from men, but from God [cf. Gal. 1:1]; for which reason he never could compose any trivial or vain poem, but only those which relate to religion suited his religious tongue; for having lived in a secular habit till he was well advanced in years, he had never learned anything of versifying; for which reason being sometimes at entertainments, when it was agreed for the sake of mirth that all present should sing in their turns, when he saw the instrument come towards him, he rose up from table and returned home.

Having done so at a certain time, and gone out of the house where the entertainment was, to the stable, where he had to take care of the horses that night, he there composed himself to rest at the proper time; a person appeared to him in his sleep, and saluting him by his name, said, ‘Caedmon, sing some song to me.’ He answered, ‘I cannot sing; for that was the reason why I left the entertainment, and retired to this place because I could not sing.’ The other who talked to him, replied, ‘However, you shall sing.’ ­‘What shall I sing?’ rejoined he. ‘Sing the beginning of created beings,’ said the other. Hereupon he presently began to sing verses to the praise of God, which he had never heard, the purport whereof was thus:

Now we ought to praise the maker of the heavenly kingdom
the power of the Creator, and his intention
the deeds of the Father of glory: how he,
since he is the eternal Lord of all miracles has been the author;
who first for the sons of men
heaven for a roof above
next, the earth, the keeper of the human-race
the all-powerful created.

This is the sense, but not the words in order as he sang them in his sleep; for verses, though never so well composed, cannot be literally translated out of one language into another, without losing much of their beauty and loftiness. Awaking from his sleep, he remembered all that he had sung in his dream, and soon added much more to the same effect in verse worthy of the Deity.

In the morning he came to the steward, his superior, and having acquainted him with the gift he had received, was conducted to the abbess [i.e., St Hilda], by whom he was ordered, in the presence of many learned men, to tell his dream, and repeat the verses, that they might all give their judgment what it was, and whence his verse proceeded. They all concluded, that heavenly grace had been conferred on him by our Lord. They expounded to him a passage in holy writ, either historical, or doctrinal, ordering him, if he could, to put the same into verse. Having undertaken it, he went away, and returning the next morning, gave it to them composed in most excellent verse; whereupon the abbess, embracing the grace of God in the man, instructed him to quit the secular habit, and take upon him the monastic life; which being accordingly done, she associated him to the rest of the brethren in her monastery, and ordered that he should be taught the whole series of sacred history. Thus Caedmon—keeping in mind all he heard, and as it were chewing the cud [it is interesting to note that this phrase is very nearly a technical monastic term—at least in the West—for a kind of inner prayer involving the words of Scripture], converted the same into most harmonious verse; and sweetly repeating the same, made his masters in their turn his hearers. He sang the creation of the world, the origin of man, and all the history of Genesis: and made many verses on the departure of the children of Israel out of Egypt, and their entering into the land of promise, with many other histories from holy writ; the incarnation, passion, resurrection of our Lord, and his ascension into heaven; the coming of the Holy Ghost, and the preaching of the apostles; also the terror of future judgment, the horror of the pains of hell, and the delights of heaven; besides many more about the Divine benefits and judgments, by which he endeavoured to turn away all men from the love of vice, and to excite in them the love of, and application to, good actions; for he was a very religious man, humbly submissive to regular discipline [Slade points out that this refers to ‘the discipline of the monastic rule’, i.e., the Rule of St Benedict], but full of zeal against those who behaved themselves otherwise; for which reason he ended his life happily.

For when the time of his departure drew near, he laboured for the space of fourteen days under a bodily infirmity which seemed to prepare the way, yet so moderate that he could talk and walk the whole time. In his neighbourhood was the house to which those that were sick, and like shortly to die, were carried. He desired the person that attended him, in the evening, as the night came on in which he was to depart this life, to make ready a place there for him to take his rest. This person, wondering why he should desire it, because there was as yet no sign of his dying soon, did what he had ordered. He accordingly went there, and conversing pleasantly in a joyful manner with the rest that were in the house before, when it was past midnight, he asked them, whether they had the Eucharist there? They answered, ‘What need of the Eucharist? for you are not likely to die, since you talk so merrily with us, as if you were in perfect health.’ ­‘ However,’ said he, ‘bring me the Eucharist.’ Having received the same into his hand, he asked, whether they were all in charity with him, and without any enmity or rancour? They answered, that they were all in perfect charity, and free from anger; and in their turn asked him, whether he was in the same mind towards them? He answered, ‘I am in charity, my children, with all the servants of God.’ Then strengthening himself with the heavenly viaticum, he prepared for the entrance into another life, and asked, how near the time was when the brothers were to be awakened to sing the nocturnal praises of our Lord? They answered, ‘It is not far off.’ Then he said, ‘Well, let us wait that hour; ‘ and signing himself with the sign of the cross, he laid his head on the pillow, and falling into a slumber, ended his life so in silence.

Thus it came to pass, that as he had served God with a simple and pure mind, and undisturbed devotion, so he now departed to his presence, leaving the world by a quiet death; and that tongue, which had composed so many holy words in praise of the Creator, uttered its last words whilst he was in the act of signing himself with the cross, and recommending himself into his hands, and by what has been here said, he seems to have had foreknowledge of his death.

In his study of the spirituality and literature of the Anglo-Saxon Christians, Anglo-Saxon Christianity: Exploring the Earliest Roots of Christian Spirituality in England (London: Fount, 1999), Paul Cavill points out the three conversions of St Cædmon: to a singer, to a monk, and to a Saint (p. 93):

Cædmon himself is converted progressively. From someone who left parties in case he had to sing, he becomes someone whose verses convert many. He is converted first to be able to sing. Then he is converted to monasticism. And finally he is converted into a saint. We ought to note that Bede quotes Galatians 1:1, in relation to Cædmon’s gift. St Paul writes of his apostolic vocation, given to him by God, ‘not from man, nor by human means’, and Bede makes a similar claim for Cædmon’s gift. It means upheaval in his life, just as it did for St Paul, a complete break with what went before. This gift of poetry was a serious gift and vocation that Cædmon received from God. Cædmon did not just retreat into a monastic cell and start writing romantic poems about his feelings. We need to remember that Cædmon was illiterate, and the poet of Anglo-Saxon society exercised a public role. So the gift involved him in public teaching. The Old English translation of Bede’s History . . . specifically notes that Cædmon’s instructors learned from what he spoke and wrote it down. Through Cædmon’s gift, he became a kind of apostle to the English.

If we understand St Cædmon’s habit of ‘keeping in mind all he heard, and as it were chewing the cud’ in the context of monastic ruminatio or meditatio on Scripture, that is, as a kind of inner prayer, it is interesting how this apostolic character of his call seems quite reminiscent of the interpretation of I Cor. 14 of St Nicetas Stethatos in his treatise, ‘O On Spiritual Knowledge, Love and the Perfection of Living: One Hundred Texts’ (The Philokalia: The Complete Text, Vol. IV, trans. G.E.H. Palmer, et al. [London: Faber, 1998], pp. 169-70):

By merely praying and psalmodizing inwardly with your tongue—that is, by praying in the soul—you edify yourself, but your intellect is unproductive (cf. I Cor. 14:14), for you do not prophesy with the language of sacred teaching or edify God’s Church. If Paul, who of all men was the most closely united with God through prayer, would have rather spoken from his fertile intellect five words in church for the instruction of others than ten thousand words of psalmody in private (cf. I Cor. 14:19), surely those who have responsibility for others have strayed from the path of love if they limit the shepherd’s ministry solely to psalmody and reading.

In this way, we can begin to see that St Cædmon’s Hymn is not simply a lovely poem, but an inspired fruit of hesychasm.


Ochlophobist said...

One of the saints we especially venerate in my family is St. Hilda of Whitby, and hence I am drawn to St. Cædmon by way of his connection to her. I love northern England, Yorkshire and above, and the vitae and traditions surrounding St. Hilda and friends I find endlessly fascinating.

Thanks, again, for your good work.

Aaron Taylor said...

One of my remaining dream trips is to Whitby. I've wanted to go there ever since I read Dracula in the 6th grade, but my discovery of the Saints who lived there have made it all the more appealing. One day!