It is in the wonderful providence of God that a humble monk – who had lived his entire life from the age of seven in the confines of a monastery in a remote northern region in the seventh century – should have given a testimony of faith and devotion to Christ and his holy Church that has shone in the world for 1300 years.
Born around 673, Bede (or Baeda) was placed by his parents when he was seven years of age in the monastery at Wearmouth, England, under the care and tutelage of its abbot, St. Benedict Biscop. When another monastery was founded nine years later at Jarrow with Coelfrith as abbot, the adolescent monk was transferred there, where he remained for the rest of his life. Eventually ordained a deacon and later a priest of the monastery, Bede died on the Eve of Ascension Day in the year 735, singing Psalms and dictating a scripture translation, surrounded by his beloved fellow monks.
The monasteries at Wearmouth and Jarrow were geographically isolated, but in terms of visitors from all over the world and scholarly books and religious art, they were very cosmopolitan places. The education of the monks was on a high level and the orderly life of prayer, study, and work very disciplined. A story is told of a plague which so devastated the Jarrow monastery that none of the choir monks survived. After a sorrowful week of simply saying the daily offices, the abbot resumed the regular singing of all the psalms, antiphons, and office hymns with only the young Bede joining him in singing and making the responses.
The light of Bede’s life and thought shine through his writings: his veneration of the saints is expressed in his many lives of the saints and the abbots of his monastery; his 25 commentaries on various books of scripture show his love for the holy word of God; and his various writings on poetry, epigrams, orthography, show the intensity of his interest in writing. But it was his History of the English Church and People, relating the drama of the spread of Orthodox Christianity throughout the British Isles up until his time, that has spoken most clearly to later ages. In this chronicle, we are told of the winning over of many from pagan beliefs to Christianity, we hear of miracles and signs as well as the ordinary things of life in often violent times, and we meet the characters who played important roles in the Church’s story in this land. Through it all, St. Bede persuades us that God is moving among his people, bringing about his ultimate goal – man’s sanctification. Bede expressed his reason for writing this history in this way: “…if history records good things of good men, the thoughtful hearer is encouraged to imitate what is good; or if it records evil of wicked men, the devout, religious listener or reader is encouraged to avoid all that is sinful and perverse and to follow what he knows to be good and pleasing to God.”
In his own words, Bede tells us, “I have spent all…my life in this monastery and devoted myself entirely to the study of the Scripture. And while I have observed the regular discipline and sung the choir offices daily in church, my chief delight has always been in study, teaching, and writing.” Prolific writing does not make a saint, but faithfully dedicating that activity to the furtherance of God’s kingdom, and striving for holiness of living in humility and love have made Bede a saintly example for all of us to follow.
With St. Bede the Venerable, may we devote our study to the ways of God and the stories of his people; may we offer God our worship daily; and with him, may we say:
I pray Thee, noble Jesu, that as Thou hast graciously granted me joyfully to imbibe the words of Thy knowledge, so thou wilt also of Thy bounty grant me to come at length to Thyself, the Fount of all wisdom, and to dwell in Thy presence for ever.