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Catholic Heroes… The Venerable Bede

June 29, 2021 saints No Comments


Among the 36 ranking doctors of the Church, she names only one Englishman — the Venerable Bede (673-735). His feast day is May 25.
We have little personal history of this great Northumbrian scholar and saint, other than what he wrote himself. Among the approximately forty works he wrote, covering a wide array of subjects, the one acknowledged universally as his masterpiece is the Ecclesiastical History of the English People, completed just four years before he died. The work, written in flowing Latin, is the first historical work to chronicle history in terms of “AD” years.
Moreover, he was the greatest Anglo-Saxon scholar of his day and, some say, perhaps of all time. In it, he documents his country’s Christianization, and makes reference to his other sources and historians, as well as referencing England as an entity or people.
Bede was born to a northern family and, at age seven, given to Bishop Biscop at the monastery he founded in Monkwearmouth for educating. At the age of 19 he became a deacon (Wikipedia asserts that 25 was the norm) and later, at age 30, a priest. At age 11, he would move to Monkwearmouth’s twin monastery at Jarrow. The latter town is known today as Tyneside, and both towns lie along the upper northeastern English coast.
At one point most of the monks there died of the plague, leaving only two to chant the divine office, and the younger is believed to have been Bede, who was said to have a pleasant voice. Gregorian chant was in its infancy, a sort of plainchant that developed over centuries.
So often we have been fed the lie that the Middle Ages were the “Dark Ages,” and yet Jarrow was a center of learning and the library of over 200 works in its holdings was considered monumental. Moreover, Bede obtained still other documents through correspondents and his brothers in the faith.
Clearly, he had an aptitude for scholarship, but having been surrounded with an environment of learning from a young age accounts for his flowing Latin. He also knew Greek and taught himself some Hebrew. Naturally, much of what he wrote concerned Holy Writ, but he also examined numerous other subjects, from science to poetry. He wrote about the calendar and the first century of Gregorian Chant.
He had such a breadth of knowledge that his writings were used in teaching schoolboys as much as read as homilies from the pulpit on a Sunday. And when he wrote biblical commentary, he referred to the Vulgate as his source — St. Jerome’s exacting, literal translation was affirmed as the officially sanctioned Catholic Bible at the Council of Trent — the oldest extant copy of which then happened to also be in the monastery’s library.
One question that might naturally arise is, why the name, “Venerable” Bede? Numerous stories of questionable though thoughtful origins exist on this front. One tells of words failing the man carving his tombstone after his death. He returned the next day to add an adjective, only to find that someone — an angel? — had added the word, “venerable.”
While this could be, Butler’s Lives has a more learned response, namely that those held in high repute ecclesiastically were often termed venerable. At the Council of Aachen in 836 this was solidified in the case of Bede, with the title officially bestowed on him after his death. For whatever reason, the title stuck, and forever after he was referred to as the “Venerable Bede.” This was also the year of his beatification, his canonization coming centuries later, in 1899.
Bede celebrated the Mass daily, chanted the office with his brother monks, and never traveled far from the monastery. It is said he probably went to Lindisfarne, Holy Island, which is also off the eastern coast of England. One might think that no one traveled much during these days, but a story exists that he was invited to meet the Pope and this didn’t happen. It is thought the Holy Father likely died and so he did not go. At one stage his order wished to elect him abbot, only he declined as these duties would have interfered with his scholarly endeavors.
We know that he was well-known during his lifetime, was generally considered to be holy, and, at the time of his death, was greatly mourned by his brothers in Christ. Miracles occurred at his tomb and he was already considered by many to be a saint.
His bones, the relics, were later translated from Jarrow to Durham Cathedral sometime. They were placed together in a reliquary, along with those of St. Cuthbert of Lindisfarne, another of the most well-known saints of the Middle Ages. This was called a lovely “shrine” made of gold, silver, and covered in rich jewels, which naturally disappeared during the dissolution of the monasteries under King Henry VIII. The Durham website and others allege the bones were moved and reburied in the Galilee Chapel at the west end of the cathedral, where they lie to this day.
Relics of St. Cuthbert and St. Oswald remain, as well, but the church is now of the Church of England or Anglican domination. Interestingly enough, though, Venerable Bede has been historically quite popular among the Anglicans. Now also a UNESCO Heritage site, Durham Cathedral was first designed and built over a thousand years ago and is designated the most perfect example of Norman architecture in England.
St. Bede recognized that his health was failing as he finished his last work, a translation of the Gospel of St. John into English. Though his final work has not survived, Bede made a great many works available to the audience of his day and ours.
While much of his writing is in Latin, a brief poetic fragment in Old English entitled Bede’s Death Song is among the oldest of any that remain to us today: “No man is wiser than is requisite, before the necessary departure; that is, to consider before the soul departs hence, what good or evil it hath done, and how it is to be judged after its departure.”
After giving away his few worldly goods to his brother monks, and finishing his translation, he was heard chanting his favorite prayer, the “Glory Be,” as he departed this Earth on the Feast of the Ascension.
Ashes to ashes. As Bede did, so will we, and so did his abbey. Approximately a century later the Jarrow monastery was one of many along the eastern coast attacked and destroyed by Vikings. They pillaged and destroyed areas like this, Lindisfarne, Whitby, and others for the next seven hundred years. The Norman Conquest followed and also left destruction in its wake.
When such monasteries as St. Bede’s were rebuilt in a more modest fashion, then came the dissolution of the shrines under Henry VIII. But somewhere under the trees, one can still walk on the site, almost hearing the monks plain chant the Psalms as in days gone by:

O God, you are my God, for you I long;
for you my soul is thirsting.
My body pines for you
like a dry, weary land without water.
So I gaze on you in the sanctuary
to see your strength and your glory.


For your love is better than life,
my lips will speak your praise.
So I will bless you all my life,
in your name I will lift up my hands.
My soul shall be filled as with a banquet,
my mouth shall praise you with joy
(Psalm 63:2-9, Solemnity of the Ascension).

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