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.