St Bede the Venerable

There are times when I wish I could discover St Bede for the first time, but I grew up knowing his story, as it were, while my Special Subject for the History Tripos meant I spent long hours in the West Room of the University Library at Cambridge poring over all manner of books relating to Anglo-Saxon and Celtic Christianity, a copy of Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica by my side. Only when I became a nun did I begin to read any of his non-historical works and realise that there was another side to Bede, a more purely monastic side, that I could relate to in a way no amount of historical scholarship could have enabled me to do. De Templo is probably his most important book, but I suspect it only really makes sense to those who share the cloistered life, and perhaps not always to them.

I would not want you to think I am making any special claims to understanding Bede. There are whole areas of his life you and I will never understand for the simple reason that we were born too late to enter into his world completely, no matter how great our sympathy or liking for the man. Part of the trouble is that our imaginative innerscape is not quite so full of the miraculous as Bede’s was. Recently I read a fine article by Pauline Matarasso on the difficulty modern historians often experience when faced with the miraculous element in saints’ lives. What she says of hagiography is true also of contemporary history or scripture commentary. There is an underlying problem of perception. We want to know how things happened; earlier readers wanted to know why they happened. Marvelling at the wonderful way in which God brought things to pass is not as natural to us as it was to them. Where they saw miracles, we see superstition and credulity or, at best, something we admit to being vaguely ‘spiritual’ without being able to define it further.

I think Bede wanted us to marvel. The little glimpses we get of his love of Christ, the King for whom he longed, are eloquent of a deep friendship with God which sustained him throughout his life. The young Bede, singing the responses across the choir to Abbot Ceolfrith, was one with the old Bede, who laid aside his dictation and died shortly after singing the Ascension antiphon, O Rex gloriae. It is to Bede that we owe our use of the phrase anno Domini to mark our years and ‘the Lord of hosts’ as a substitute for the holy name of God in the reading of scripture. They are not trifling things. They have helped shape the discourse of history and our approach to liturgy and worship. Bede himself was so learned and so holy that Notker the Stammerer wrote of him, ‘God, the orderer of natures, who raised the Sun from the East on the fourth day of Creation, in the sixth day of the world has made Bede rise from the West as a new Sun to illuminate the whole Earth.’

May we monks and nuns of the twenty-first century be as truly learned and radiate God’s love as surely as St Bede, the only English Doctor of the Church but one to whom we all owe an incalculable debt.

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8 thoughts on “St Bede the Venerable”

  1. What a delightful post! Dr. Mary Berry often introduced her students to Bede, offering him as a model for those studying the Chant, as his life was “framed by the singing of God’s praises in the Divine Office”, how incredibly touching this was, especially when he lay dying, how the chronicler notes that he asked to be helped to bow from his bed at the “Gloria Patri” one last time. In a sense, it was no surprise to those of us who knew Dr. Berry and her love for Bede, “the perfect monk” as she always called him, that she died on the same liturgical feast as he. This introduction to Bede served as well to enkindle a love for the Anglo-Saxon and Celtic saints and a spirituality which made sense to me, after a childhood in Catholic schools where the emphasis was solidly on the saints and spirituality of the saints of the “continent”. What a discovery it was for me and how it has enriched my life and Bede and his writings were the door for me as I am sure he was for many. I am delighted to think that in my quest for knowledge regarding Bede and his time, in the Cambridge Library, that we may have perused the same books!

    • (What a happy memory this is of Mary Berry. Gratitude for her chant courses ! And a prayer for her on this anniversary of her death. I hadn’t previously registered the apt coincidence.)

      • At the risk of making this a very Cantab post, I had forgotten today is the anniversary of her death. I was at Girton when she made the transition from Sr Thomas More to Dr Berry. I realise now how hard that must have been for her, but she was always kind and gracious.

        • I realise I was unclear- Dr. Berry died on the feast of the Ascension as did Bede, not on his actual feast day. I was fascinated to read you knew her during this “transition”, which I know was difficult, and certainly only something sought out of necessity due to the difficulties in religious life following the Council. Her house in Barton was called St. Benedict’s and she gave her students a love and thorough knowledge of the Antiphonale Monasticum and Benedictine ways and traditions and guided many of her students and friends in becoming oblates- All of this from a Canoness of St. Augustine!

  2. What a helpful remark this is : ‘We want to know how things happened; earlier readers wanted to know why they happened. ‘
    I’d be glad of the reference for Pauline Matarasso’s article, if you have it to hand (when you’re safely down from the ladder !)

  3. This is very interesting. Again you have given me a new subject (person) to learn about.
    I am now going to find books and look up online information about Saint Bede the Venerable.

    Thank you Sister.

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