With the Bible as our record of the long history of God’s purpose for his people over many centuries, we Christians are aware that every decision, every action, every turning point, can have far-reaching consequences beyond what is immediately apparent. Such was the legacy of St. Benedict Biscop, Abbot of Wearmouth Monastery in northern England in the 7th century. This saint’s decision to become a monk and the actions which followed had a great and long-lasting effect on the Christian Church in England.
Born Biscop Baducing in 628, the young nobleman served at the court of King Oswiu of Northumbira until the age of 25. Some inner longing caused Biscop to turn his back on the usual reward for military service, the granting of land. Instead, he began to consider the monastic life and tested this possible vocation by first traveling to Rome with St. Wilfrid to pray at the tombs of the apostles. Back in England, he did not immediately begin the monastic life, but traveled again to Rome, this time accompanied by the king’s son, Alcfrith. From Rome, Biscop then went to the monastery of St. Honorat on the isaldn of Lérins, and here he made the vow to lead a life of poverty, chastity, and obedience. The new monk took the name Benedict and, remaining in Lérins for two years, began a study of that great monastic’s Rule.
Returning to Rome in 667, Benedict met Wighard, the man chosen to be the new Archbishop of Canterbury. Wighard was to be consecrated in Rome and return to England to unify and strengthen the church following the decisions of the Council of Whitby (663-4) and a recent plague which had brought about the deaths of many clergyman. Ironically, Wighard himself died in Rome before his scheduled consecration. In his place, Pope Vitalian appointed the Greek monk Theodore, to be assisted by the African monk Hadrian. Benedict accompanied Theodore and Hadrian as they traveled to Canterbury, and upon arrival he became the abbot of the monastery of Ss. Peter and Paul, which had been founded by St. Augustine.
What an important time to be the abbot of a monastery in this northern land! Abbot Benedict had received his early Christian education in this land, had been enriched by visits to Rome where he had walked in the footsteps of Ss. Peter and Paul; he had lived his first years as a monk in one of the great Benedictine establishments. Now, back in England, he was gaining insights from Greek and African perspectives as he helped to build up the Church of Christ in this land.
After two years, Abbot Benedict received permission to found a monastery in Northumbria, the land of his birth, near the mouth of the river Wear. Benedict brought all of his experiences and knowledge, as well as his dedication to the monastic life to the establishment of the Monastery of St. Peter at Wearmouth. He believed that the physical setting should be appropriate for nurturing the life of prayer and study, so Frankish stonemasons were brought in to build sturdy and beautiful buildings. When this was accomplished, another trip to Rome (in 679) provided numerous icons, relics of the saints, and books for the monastery. While the Benedictine requirement for manual work along with prayer and study was observed, a special emphasis was placed on study. The monastery at Wearmouth would become a great center of learning for this part of God’s earthly kingdom, and the church here would not become isolated and insular, putting the purity of the Catholic faith in danger.
Perhaps the most important result of this trip to Rome was the visit of Abbot John of the Monastery of St. Martin in Rome, who was also the Archcantor for St. Peter’s Church in Rome. The purpose of his visit was two-fold: to ensure the orthodoxy of the English monks (his assignment from Pope Agotho) and to teach them how to chant and conduct the services properly (as requested by Abbot Benedict). Abbot John found the English monks to be thoroughly orthodox in their faith, free from the heretical belief that Christ had only one will, a heresy which had recently been condemned in Constantinople and Rome. His musical and liturgical work was described by St. Bede:
Abbot John taught the cantors of the monastery the theory and practice of singing and reading aloud, and he put into writing all that was necessary for the proper observance of festivals throughout the year. This document is still preserved in this monastery, and many copies have been made for other places. John’s instruction was not limited to the brethren of this monastery alone; for men who were proficient singers came from nearly all the monasteries of the province to hear him, and he received many invitations to teach elsewhere.
John may also have taught the monks the art of uncial script which allowed the scriptorium to produce many beautiful, as well as useful, liturgical books.
In 682, Abbot benedict founded a companion monastery at Jarrow, dedicated to St. Paul, and it was to this monastry that the young child, Bede, was sent for his education and where he spent the remainder of his life and produced all of his influential work.
After suffering paralysis during his last days, Abbot Benedict reposed in the Lord on January 12, 689. He had established his monasteries and endowed them with books for the education of the monks, ensuring sound teaching; he had beautified them with relics and icons and vestments for proper worship; and he had exhorted his monks to lead prayerful and faithful monastic lives. His care for worship and study and for maintaining the Orthodox faith even in such a remote area helped to preserve Christianity in this land through many centuries and the trials of invasion, heresy, and plague. May we, in our day, follow his example and may St. Benedict Biscop intercede for us at the heavenly throne.
[Sources: The Age of Bede, ed. D. H. Farmer; History of the English Church and People, Bede, tr. Leo Sherley-Price; Homilies on the Gospels, Bede, tr. Lawrence Martin & David Hurst; Oxford Dictionary of Saints, David Hugh Farmer]