Monday, May 25, 2009

The Venerable Bede, Priest, and Monk of Jarrow, 735

A reading for May 25.


Roderick Strange - Credo: More than a brief flight through warmth and light

Bede once compared human life without faith to a sparrow flying through a banqueting hall in winter

An old monk lay dying but still he had work to complete. He dictated to a scribe the last lines of a book he had been writing on St John’s Gospel and distributed what few small treasures he possessed to his fellow monks. He gave glory to God, singing, “Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit”, and then he died. It was the morning of Ascension Day.

These events are not recent. Far from it. They took place in 735. The monk was Bede, known as the Venerable. He is the only English Doctor of the Church and his feast is celebrated in the coming week.

We may respect him, but we may also wonder what to make of him. He lived so long ago.

Bede was born in Sunderland in 673 and brought up in a monastery at Wearmouth from the age of 7, before becoming a monk himself at Jarrow and living there for the rest of his life. It seems probable he never left northeast England. How could so isolated a life be significant for us? Yet that very isolation may itself be the clue.

Most of us too have times when we feel fairly isolated and we wonder what difference our lives make or what value they have. However long we may live, in fact our time is short. Bede once compared human life without faith to a sparrow flying through a banqueting hall in winter, where, as he wrote, “the fire is burning on the hearth in the middle of the hall and all inside is warm, while outside the wintry storms of rain and snow are raging”. Then “a sparrow flies swiftly though the hall. It enters in at one door and quickly flies out through the other . . . So this life of man appears but for a moment; what follows or indeed what went before, we know not at all.”

The image may chill us. It may seem all too likely. However, Bede was using the image to suggest that there is more to life than that brief flight through warmth and light from darkness to darkness. And his own life was devoted to exploring that deeper possibility.

In his monastery he gave himself up to scholarship. He has declared that he loved to learn, to teach, and to write. And he was fortunate that at that very time great monastic libraries were being assembled, placing at his disposal the resources he needed. So among his many writings there were commentaries on Scripture, lives of the saints, and in particular that Ecclesiastical History of the English People, which many regard as his greatest work because of the new standards it set: its sense of time, its instinct for a good story, its mastery of readable Latin, and the start it even made in using sources critically. And those three strands of writing can be seen as linked. What is brought out by contemplating and studying Scripture is made real in the lives of holy men and women, the people who come to be recognised as saints. And the saints themselves are not to be viewed simply as individuals; their lives are a part of the Church’s life, its complex, sometimes blemished, history.

Contemplation can shape who we are, and who we are has its influence on others. Prayer and study, identity and action are not separate. They need to be integrated and made coherent.

Although he lived a hidden, scholarly life long ago, Bede is not forgotten. He is, for example, patron of this college where I am rector, where men are prepared for ordained ministry in the English-speaking world, and where the integration of prayer and study, identity and action, is fundamental. It gives meaning to a sparrow’s flight beyond the banqueting hall.

Next month men from here who later will be ordained as priests, will become deacons, for Malaysia, Zimbabwe and America, for Australia and for England. All five continents will be represented. Bede’s imagination, if he could ever have imagined it, would have reeled at the prospect of his influence spreading in such a way. And how can we calculate the impact of our own lives and actions?

Monsignor Roderick Strange is Rector of the Pontifical Beda College, Rome

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