09 June 2009

'Thou Didst Water the English Lands With Grace'—Venerable Bede of Jarrow

Today, 27 May on the Church’s calendar, we celebrate the memory of the Venerable Bede (c. 673-735). St Bede, apart from being a holy man, a true monastic, and a profound interpreter of the Holy Scriptures, was also a poet and one of the greatest scholars the Latin world produced, and he made lasting contributions to historiography and chronography (he promulgated the Dionysian dating system), to name only two of the most important fields. Kevin Crossley-Holland calls him ‘a just, generous and decided man’ and ‘the greatest figure of this great age’, for, ‘Out of a tangled time he speaks to us in a calm, reasonable, commonsensical voice: “I have determined,” he says, “to express statements tersely, since plain brevity rather than prolix disputations is wont to stick in the memory’ (The Anglo-Saxon World: An Anthology, trans. and ed. Kevin Crossley-Holland [Oxford: Oxford U, 1984], p. 157). Paul Cavill writes (Anglo-Saxon Christianity: Exploring the Earliest Roots of Christian Spirituality in England [London: Fount, 1999], pp. 84-5):

Yet Bede was a polymath, who, in what might seem an obscure corner of the north east of England, wrote books that changed his world. These books were in massive demand in the years after his death, they were still being copied in the fifteenth century in places as far afield as Italy, they are still used today, and they still enthrall and entertain. . . . [Apart from his biblical commentaries] he composed works on Latin grammar and metre for the boys in the monastery, he wrote letters, poetry, biography and hagiography. He wrote at length on the topical controversy in the church, the means of dating Easter, and produced works of geography, history, astronomy and natural science.

Enough has been said of Bede to give a true picture of his genius. He was immensely gifted in the arts and in science. A great story-teller, with a light and imaginative touch. A careful historian, concerned to gather information from as wide a range of sources as possible, and (almost unique for this time in doing so) to acknowledge them. A thoughtful biblical scholar, applying his exposition to his audience with a pastor’s sensitivity. Charles Plummer confided to his readers at the end of his Editor’s Preface to Baedae Opera Historica, his superb edition of Bede’s historical works, that he found it ‘no light privilege to have been for so long a time in constant communion with one of the saintliest characters ever produced by the church of Christ in this island’ during his work on Bede’s Ecclesiastical History.

St Bede himself tells us nearly all that is known of his life in The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Book V, Chapter 24 (I quote from The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, trans. Bertram Colgrave, ed. Judith McClure and Roger Collins [Oxford: Oxford U, 1994], p. 293):

I, Bede, servant of Christ and priest of the monastery of St Peter and St Paul which is at Wearmouth and Jarrow, have, with the help of God and to the best of my ability, put together this account of the history of the Church of Britain and of the English people in particular, gleaned either from ancient documents or from tradition or from my own knowledge. I was born in the territory of this monastery. When I was seven years of age I was, by the care of my kinsmen, put into the charge of the reverend Abbot Benedict and then of Ceolfrith, to be educated. From then on I have spent all my life in this monastery, applying myself entirely to the study of the Scriptures; and, amid the observance of the discipline of the Rule [of St Benedict] and the daily task of singing in the church, it has always been my delight to learn or to teach or to write. At the age of nineteen I was ordained deacon and at the age of thirty, priest, both times through the ministration of the reverend Bishop John on the direction of Abbot Ceolfrith. From the time I became a priest until the fifty-ninth year of my life I have made it my business, for my own benefit and that of my brothers, to make brief extracts from the works of the venerable fathers on the holy Scriptures, or to add notes of my own to clarify their sense and interpretation. [He then lists his works of biblical study and scholarship, followed by his other works—Colgrave, pp. 294-5.]

There is a moving account of the blessed repose of St Bede in a letter from his disciple, Cuthbert the deacon (not the famous Saint of Lindisfarne), to a certain Cuthwin. I shall give part of it here (Colgrave, pp. 300-2):

He was taken ill, in particular with frequent attacks of breathlessness but almost without pain, before Easter, for about a fortnight; and after it he continued in the same way cheerful and rejoicing, giving thanks to almighty God day and night, and indeed almost hour by hour, until Ascension Day, which was the twenty-sixth of May. Daily he gave us lessons, who were his pupils, and spent the rest of his day in chanting the Psalter, as best he could. The whole of every night he passed cheerfully in prayer and giving God thanks, except only when brief slumber intervened; and in the same way, when he woke up, he would at once take up again the familiar melodies of Scripture, not ceasing to spread out his hands in thanksgiving to God. Surely a blessing was upon him! And he used to repeat that sentence from St Paul ‘It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God’ (Heb. 10:31), and many other verses of Scripture, urging us thereby to awake from the slumber of the soul by thinking in good time of our last hour. And in our own language,—for he was familiar with English poetry,—speaking of the soul’s dread departure from the body, he would repeat:

Facing that enforced journey, no man can be
More prudent than he has good call to be,
If he consider, before his going hence,
What for his spirit of good hap or of evil
After his day of death shall be determined.

. . .

In this exaltation we passed the days between Easter and Pentecost as far as the date I have named; and he was filled with joy, and gave God thanks that he had been found worthy to suffer this sickness. . . .

When it came to the Tuesday before Ascension Day, his breathing became very much worse, and a slight swelling had appeared in his feet; but all the same he taught us the whole of that day, and dictated cheerfully, and among other things said several times: ‘Learn your lesson quickly now; for I know not how long I may be with you, nor whether after a short time my Maker may not take me from you.’ But it seemed to us that he knew very well when his end should be. So he spent all that night in thanksgiving, without sleep; and when day broke, which was the Wednesday, he gave instructions for the writing, which we had begun, to be finished without delay.

Cuthbert then tells us that St Bede sent for the priests of the monastery, so he could give them gifts and ask for them to commemorate his soul, and the disciple adds that the clergy were sad:

Yet they rejoiced at one thing that he said: ‘It is time, if it so please my Maker, that I should be released from the body, and return to Him who formed me out of nothing, when as yet I was not. I have lived a long time, and the righteous Judge has well provided for me all my life long. The time of my departure is at hand, and my soul longs to see Christ my King in all His beauty.’ (Colgrave, p. 302)

That Wednesday evening, St Bede asked that he might lay on the floor in his prayer corner, saying to a boy named Wilberht, ‘Hold my head in your hands for it is a great delight to me to sit over against my holy place in which I used to pray, that as I sit there I may call upon my Father’ (Colgrave, p. 302). Then, Cuthbert concludes:

And so upon the floor of his cell, singing ‘Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit’ and the rest, he breathed his last. And well may we believe without hesitation that, inasmuch as he had laboured here always in the praise of God, so his soul was carried by angels to the joys of Heaven which he longed for. So all who heard or saw the death of our saintly father Bede declared that they had never seen a man end his days in such great holiness and peace; for, as I have said, as long as his soul remained in the body, he chanted the ‘Gloria Patri’ and other songs to the glory of God, and spreading out his hands ceased not to give God thanks.

And of this I assure you, that many more stories could be told or written about him; but tongue untaught cuts my words short. (Colgrave, pp. 302-3)

Concerning ‘Bede’s Death Song’, which Cuthbert gives in this letter, Judith McClure and Roger Collins tell us (pp. 421-2, n. on 300):

Facing that enforced journey: in the original letter Cuthbert gave only a Latin paraphrase; the earliest manuscript to contain the Old English text dates to the ninth century, and it is impossible to be sure that Bede himself composed this poem. Of the twenty-nine that contain it, the manuscripts of purely English provenance normally have the poem in the West Saxon dialect, whilst the original Northumbrian form is preserved in manuscripts that circulated on the Continent. These will have derived from a copy sent, perhaps by Cuthbert himself, to one or other of the Anglo-Saxon missionaries working in Germany in the mid-eighth century.

Kevin Crossley-Holland comments (pp. 194-5):

Bede himself wrote poetry in Latin, but one epigrammatic poem in the vernacular, ‘Bede’s Death Song’, is also attributed to him. In his account of Bede’s death, Cuthbert tells us that, ‘being well-versed in our native songs, he described to us the dread departure of the soul from the body by a verse in our own tongue’, words which could mean that Bede composed these five tight and wise lines and could mean that he just happened to know them. In either case it is ironical that, after a lifetime devoted to scholarship, Bede chose to speak last words intimating that it is good deeds, not profound thoughts, that count in the end. (pp. 194-5)

Finally, I have referred extensively to St Bede’s Ecclesiastical History on this blog (here, here, here, here, and here, for example), but very little to his other works. I recall quoting his Homilies on the Gospels here, but I would like to give another sample from these brilliant works to remember him on his feast—Homily II.17, Pentecost, on John 14:15-21 (Homilies on the Gospels, Book Two: Lent to The Dedication of the Church, trans. Lawrence T. Martin and David Hurst, OSB [Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian, 1991], p. 164):

Since we are celebrating today, dearly beloved brothers, the coming of the Holy Spirit, we ought ourselves to live in accord with the solemnity that we are honoring. Indeed we only worthily celebrate the joys of this festival if, with God’s assistance, we render ourselves conformable to those to whom the Holy Spirit deigned to come and in whom he deigned to dwell. We ourselves are only suited to the coming and illumination of the Holy Spirit for this reason, that our hearts are filled with divine love, and our bodies are dedicated to the Lord’s commands. Hence Truth says to his disciples at the commencement of this gospel reading, ‘If you love me, keep my commandments, and I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Paraclete’. Paraclete means ‘consoler’ (Aug. Tract. in Ioh. 94, 2). The Holy Spirit is correctly called a Paraclete because, by producing a desire for the heavenly life, he raises up and restores the hearts of believers lest they falter amidst the adversities of this age. Hence, as holy Church increased, it was said in the Acts of the Apostles, And it was being built up, walking in the fear of the Lord, and was filled with the consolation of the Holy Spirit (Acts 9:31).

One can read St Bede’s Life of St Cuthbert of Lindisfarne here, and his Lives of the Abbots of Wearmouth and Jarrow here. Here is the Troparion (in Tone 8) from Reader Isaac Lambertson’s Akolouthia to Our Venerable Father Bede of Jarrow:

Throughout the dark years of thy times, O Bede, thou didst water the English lands and all the West with outpourings of grace; and like a skilled sower thou didst cast the seed of divine knowledge far and wide over the fields of thy Master, where, springing forth, it hath borne fruit for Him an hundredfold. Wherefore, having thus acquired boldness before Him, O venerable one, pray thou unceasingly that our souls be saved.


Anonymous said...


May I ask have you read The Ecclesiastical History of the English People? It is, with 999 other books, on my to-read list. Sounds fascinating. And I would love to read his homilies too -- thanks for the sample [and nice to read in 'modern' English for my simple brain too :)].

Aaron Taylor said...

Yes, I did read it through (my marginal notes have greatly facilitated my easy reference to the text on this blog, although I'm actually wishing I'd made more of them). It is readable and fascinating. Most importantly it is so deeply pious. This is something I feel is sorely lacking in modern Church histories. Even when one learns that the author has some sort of private piety, it seems not to effect their work. In John Fennell's A History of the Russian Church to 1448 for instance, there is little indication of the miraculous, of the relative sanctity of the figures under discussion (it is difficult to sort out holy persons from simple worldly opportunists), or generally of the activity of the Spirit in the life of the Russian Church. Yet Fennell himself was Orthodox, and in his editorial introduction, Michał Giedroyć refers to the book as 'a natural, indeed inevitable outcome of the indivisibility of that search and of his personal spiritual journey' (p. xii). You can just imagine where this leaves liberal, skeptical, or even atheist historians' work!

Anonymous said...

Thanks Aaron for the reply and the informative information.