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St. Bede the Venerable: Scholarly Saint

Sometimes people who have had an enormous impact on the lives of others are people for whom we do not have that much historical information. This sometimes applies to the saints, as well. Last week's postcard featured one such saint in St. Helena of Constantinople who was the mother of the Emperor Constantine. It also true of another influential saint who lived around three centuries after St. Helena.

His name is St. Bede, and he is often referred to as St. Bede the Venerable. That name might appear to be confusing because in more recent centuries, the word venerable is a title assigned to someone whom the Church is reviewing in the process for canonization. It is the stage between being called a "Servant of God" and being called "Blessed". However, in the case of Bede, he is given the title of "Venerable" because, even in his own time, he was considered a holy man and gained widespread admiration for the scholarly works which he produced that edified their readers.

Early Life and Raised in a Monastery

Bede was born in the year 673 in the town of Monkton which is located on the River Tyne in the northeast part of modern day England. There is very little information about his parents. The one certain piece of information about them is that when the young Bede was only seven years of age, his parents entrusted him to St. Benedict Biscop who was the founder and abbot of Wearmouth Abbey in Durham. The abbey, which was dedicated to St. Peter, was only about six years old when his parents would have made the journey from their home to Wearmouth. They would have given their son to the monks with the understanding that Bede would receive a fine education in preparation for a life as a monk.

In the year 685, when Bede would have been 12 years of age, he was transferred to another monastery dedicated to St. Paul that had also been established by Benedict Biscop. The monastery in Jarrow, which was about seven miles away from the Wearmouth Abbey, was headed by a man named Ceolfrith.

Benedict Biscop

A word should be said about Benedict Biscop who it has been noted was himself canonized. He was of noble birth and spent most of his youth and early adult years serving in the court of the king of Northumberland. At the age of 25, Benedict left the world of court life to pursue a life as a monk. However, he first joined St. Wilfrid on a pilgrimage to Rome. It would be the first of six pilgrimages that he would make to Rome in his lifetime. On the second pilgrimage, he became a monk and received two years of training as a monk and took the name Benedict.

Later, he would be appointed abbot of the monastery of St. Augustine's in Canterbury. In order to help found another monastery, Benedict went on another pilgrimage to the continent where he visited seventeen monasteries in order to learn the best practices of the monks he observed. Then he returned to England to found St. Peter's at Wearmouth. Later pilgrimages to Rome would result in Benedict returning with precious books, relics, paintings, and instruction on chant. These treasures helped form English worship for many years. He was a man of learning and able to instruct his students in Latin, Greek, theology, astronomy, music, and art. There is no doubt that the education which Bede received under the influence of the founder of both monasteries provided him with a first-rate education.

At the Monastery of St. Paul's

Under Abbot Ceolfrith, Bede continued his education. However, in the year 686 just a year after his transfer to the new monastery, the plague decimated the region including taking the lives of most of the monks. The account is described in the Life of Abbot Ceolfrith which Bede later wrote as a part of his larger work the Lives of the Abbots.

Without naming himself, Bede certainly provides a biographical note about his own life. Because the plague killed all of the choir monks who were able to perform the regular worship services, only the abbot and a young boy (undoubtedly Bede) remained to recite the offices. Abbot Ceolfrith made the decision to stop the regular practice and only recite and sing all of the psalms with antiphons except at Vespers and Matins.

After attempting to maintain this alteration for a week, the abbot could not bear it any longer and restored the previous practice of reciting the psalms with their antiphons. So the abbot and the young man maintained that practice until other monks were able to join or be trained to assist at the Divine Office. This story shows that the thirteen-year-old Bede was certainly precocious and able to perform the duties of a choir-monk despite his young age.

There is further evidence that Bede was advanced for his age when he was ordained a deacon at the age of nineteen. The canon law at the time set the norm for a man to be at least twenty-five years of age. Abbot Coelfrith must have thought that his formation, devotion, and understanding were of a sufficient level to have Bede ordained a deacon six years ahead of the norm.
It would be another eleven years before Bede would be ordained a priest. Later Bede would write, "from the time of my receiving the priesthood until my fifty-ninth year, I have worked both for my own profit and that of my brethren, to compile extracts from the works of the venerable Fathers on Holy Scripture, and to make commentaries on their meaning and interpretation." Indeed, it is all of the written works which Bede produced that had such an impact upon his fellow monks at St. Paul's and well beyond the walls of the monastery at Jarrow.

His Written Works and Influence

Over the course of his life, Bede would write books that fell into three categories. First, he wrote grammatical and scientific works, and Bede wrote most of these early in his life. Second, he wrote commentaries on Scripture. All told, Bede penned twenty-five works on different books of the Bible. The third category of his writing, were biographies and history. This last category includes the aforementioned Lives of the Abbots, and, the favorite of historians, Bede's History of the English Church and People which covered the history of England from the raids of Julius Caesar to Bede's time. The purpose of the work was to show the triumph of Christianity over the pagan religions which had left people mired in superstition and darkness. It has proved to be an invaluable source of information for Anglo-Saxon history.
Of note regarding the scientific works was Bede's treatise entitled On Time which dealt with the calculation of the date for Easter. This has always been an important topic for the Church and the real reason that the Church got into the business of astronomy. (There is a Vatican Observatory, if you did not know.) The main interest of note is that it is thanks to Bede that we refer to years after the birth of Christ as A.D. or Anno Domini or the "in the year of the Lord" because in his treatise he promoted the use of that terminology.
In his own lifetime, the commentaries on Scripture proved to enhance Bede's reputation in England and beyond. His first commentary was on the book of Revelation, and his last commentary was on the Gospel of John. Bede used the method of interpretation that understands that Scripture can be understood as historical, allegorically, morally, or anagogically. In all cases, the meaning is grounded in the literal meaning of Scripture. (For more information on this understanding of Biblical interpretation, see paragraphs 115 - 119 in the Catechism)
The influence of Bede went beyond merely scholarly interest. Instead, his works provided valuable educational material that helped train monks and sisters who would be missionaries to the people of England and Germany. In addition, as his reputation for wisdom and holiness became more widely known, he would be visited by both church and secular officials. Bede never let any of this go to his head. Instead, he followed the Benedictine practice of providing hospitality to all that visited him and remaining focused on supporting the community life of his monastery. In fact, he declined an invitation from Pope Sergius to come to Rome and never traveled much beyond the two monasteries of St. Peter's and St. Paul's.

Death

In the year 735, when he was 62 years of age, shortly before Easter, Bede fell ill. He was not able to participate in the Divine Office, but he was able to continue to teach and to write from his bed. Although ill, he would gather the other brothers around him and share from his vast store of knowledge and wisdom. He remained cheerful and happy, although he was rather ill. With the help of the young man who took his dictation, he was able to finish the last chapter of his work on the Gospel of John. Then he requested to be able to sit on the floor of his cell as used to when he would pray. Bede recited the "Glory Be", and then died.

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