The Feast of St. Bede the Venerable
Today is the feast day of St. Bede the Venerable, an Anglo-Saxon monk of the 7th century. He did lots of stuff. He was a monk, a historian, a theologian, and a preacher, to name a few. I won’t recount here everything about him. What I’d like to talk about is why his work, his life, has affected me, even to the point of my standing here today.
About two years ago, now, I was a novice brother in this community, in the midst of two weeks of retreat preceding my initial vows, at a rural monastery in another part of Massachusetts.
It was slightly bizarre to see this other monastic community. At once, it was easy to recognize much of their life. Certain features, from architecture to liturgy to dress, though not exactly the same as ours, were instantly familiar. But something very much stuck out to me about one difference in particular: the setting. The abbey is out in a quite rural area, and there’s not much in the immediate vicinity.
This bothered me. One man’s peaceful seclusion is another man’s lonely isolation, and for me, it was difficult not to see all our other similarities and immediately imagine myself in that community. And I wasn’t happy in those imaginings. The relative isolation felt claustrophobic. I was reminded of being a college student in a small town, where everything that exists seems dependent on a single institution, and the thought of my life happening in that context felt smothering.
And this led to dismay on my part, because in my head, this seemed in some ways to be more “real.” More “pure” in its monasticism, if that makes sense. The distance from the outside world the stricter enclosure and reduced interaction with surrounding people and communities, was what it was supposed to be about, in my mind, and the fact that I reacted so negatively to imagining myself in that sort of life made it seem like my own life and community were basically watered down or compromised, a bit less “real.” Our Society’s Rule mentions this sort of challenge, saying, “…some of our ideals and dreams will need to be surrendered; the way God actually calls us to live may seem less appealing or less heroic than other forms of the religious life.” That’s what I was going through.
But I had also brought some reading with me, and some of that reading was about Bede.
Bede was a rather good example for a monk, I thought. And what I found in reading about him on that retreat was an equal emphasis for the inner, enclosed life of the monk and the monastery, as for the outward, pastoral concern for the people of the surrounding communities. He made regular use of the examples of angels, as was common in his time and place, as a way to exhort others to lives of virtue. To his fellow-monks (and, one assumes, himself), he focused on particularly monastic endeavors, like celibacy, appealing to Jesus’s description that angels are unmarried and chaste. But to the general population of the communities outside his monastery, he used the same angelic figures as examples for a generally holy life: peace, love, and a devotion to prayer.
This view of a monastic vocation from Bede was one that was not isolated for its own sake. Any solitude was to protect the sanctity and regularity of prayer, but always in relationship to the surrounding people and communities. There was a general social expectation that monasteries would tend to the pastoral needs of those around them. The book I was reading used the term “contemplative preachers” to describe this vision of monasticism as exemplified by Bede. And I needed that, because I had built up in my head an idolatrous vision of the monastic life that was only as pure as it was isolated.
Many of us brothers will remember the community’s trip to the UK several years ago. In Durham Cathedral, where Bede is buried, we received a tour from a devoted guide, who told us that she would come into work each morning and say “Good morning, Bede!” I suspect Bede approves of this, because the example of his life and his theology, the example that helped me so much in my own prayer, was one of connection and community, a fitting monastic example of the two greatest commandments, the love of God and the love of neighbor. This example is a fitting one for our days of imposed isolation; both an encouragement that, in words and in prayer, connection and community are possible, and an assurance that we’re not crazy, that greeting others, welcoming and being welcomed, offering and receiving, is how humans are supposed to be, and having that wrested from us is hard. The example of Bede, one of lifelong devotion, and prayer, and concern for the other, is an encouraging image for me. And after several years of waiting to do so, I’m grateful for the opportunity to thank this contemplative preacher in my own preaching. So, good evening Bede! And thank you.
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