The account of St Bede’s death is very moving, as his whole life is moving. It is the little details that are so telling: the finishing of his dictation, the singing of Rex Gloriae, the praying in his mother tongue. But there is one detail that has sometimes attracted a good deal of, not criticism exactly, but a raising of eyebrows among historians who ought to know better. That is the sharing out of his little personal treasures, including that tiny box of pepper.
Pepper was a luxury in the Northumbria of Bede’s time, an expensive luxury. How he came by it, we do not know. I suspect it came as a gift from a rich benefactor, and that Bede was allowed to keep it by his abbot as, even today, elderly monks and nuns are allowed to have the use of one or two ‘luxury’ items that would be deemed inappropriate for others. Ageing taste-buds often appreciate the stronger flavours extra seasoning can provide, but some of the clucking over Bede’s pepper tells us more about the cluckers than it does about Bede. For what we touch here is people’s expectations of what Bede should be, rather than what he actually was. Many a historian has fallen into the trap of expecting monks and nuns to conform to their idea of monasticism, or have failed to take into account the reality of life lived in community.
Bede was not less of a monk because he liked a little pepper. His life was not a particularly easy one, though some have thought it so. The long hours of prayer and work, study and teaching are largely hidden from us. We see only what has been left behind and forget the rest. Most do not know what it is like to steal into the cold monastery church, night after night, and sing Matins (Vigils) to the accompaniment of X singing flat or Y hacking and coughing; the depressing sameness of the monastic diet; the sheer ineluctability of the monastic time-table; the abbot’s moods(!). But Bede did, and, little by little, it made him a saint.
I think there is something we can all take from this. Whatever our circumstances in life, they are not a barrier to holiness. We do not need a perfect situation to become perfect in love and service, nor do we need to worry and fret over occasional indulgences. We cannot be saints without first being human, and there is no way we can side-step that!