We remember today a monk, a scholar, an historian named Bede, the Venerable Bede, born around the year 670. He is best remembered for his monumental tome, the “Ecclesiastical History of the English People.” His own method of dating events from the time of the birth of Christ – the designation A.D., anno domini – came into general use because of the vast influence of his Historia ecclesiastica. He is also remembered for his scriptural commentaries, copies of which found their way to many of the monastic libraries of western Europe. Little is known of his parentage, other than at age seven – seven years old! – his family gave him to the monastery of Saint Peter and Saint Paul near present-day Durham . He was either a very bad boy, or they were very bad parents… or something else. Probably something else. I suspect for our modern-day sensibilities, this could seem like a practice of rather exploitative child labor… and I’d be willing to bet he washed more than a few dishes and scrubbed more than a few floors. However being given over to a monastery at a young age, in a time when poverty was endemic and opportunities for the education of commoners virtually non-existent, a young child’s being entrusted to a monastery was more likely a great advancement and opportunity, particularly if the child were precocious… which Bede clearly was. In an age when monks were distinguished simply because they were literate and had the ability to copy manuscripts, for someone such as Bede to actually pursue serious scholarship, not just to copy but to research and write an historic account was a superlative event, for which he was greatly venerated even in his own lifetime. He died in year 735, around age 65, remembered at his death sitting on the floor of his monastic cell singing the Gloria.
In this gospel lesson appointed for today, we hear Jesus speaking about the formation of a scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven. Jesus says this scribe is “like the master of the household who brings out his treasure what is new and what is old.” We as Christian believers, we as Christian leaders, belong somewhere in the crossroads between what is new and what is old. If we’ve given ourselves only to what is new, if we pride ourselves on being “open” or “progressive” without being rooted, we can fall prey to every change of doctrine, followers of theological fads or emotional whims, and our witness will not be credible nor have lasting influence. We have to be in conversation with our past – our individual and corporate past – which is where we will find our depth. But a quality of depth which is not alive is the difference between a tomb buried in the ground, and the root of a living plant. Depth, if it is alive, gives witness to that new thing that is alive and growing and engaged with its environment and soars to the light.
We brothers say in our own Rule of Life: “Faithfulness to tradition does not mean mere perpetuation or copying of ways from the past but a creative recovery of the past as a source of inspiration and guidance in our faithfulness to God’s future, the coming reign of God.” We need both. We need our past, all that has formed us and deformed us and reformed us. We need to appropriate our past – which is the experience of redemption and the makings for wisdom – and we need a vision of our place in God’s future – which is the seedbed for hope. We live, we need to live, where those two realities cross in our present time, a witness for which we continue to venerate a monk named Bede who died 1,100 years ago. His remains were eventually moved to Durham and are now entombed in the Galilee Chapel of Durham Cathedral. Late in his life he offered this prayer:
I pray you, merciful Jesu,
That as you have graciously granted me
Joyfully to imbibe the words of your knowledge,
So you will also, of your goodness,
Grant that I may come at length to you,
The fount of all wisdom,
And stand before your face for ever.
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