Bede, Priest, Monastic and Historian, 735
It is hard for us to imagine Eighth Century Britain. We think of it as dark, cold, and remote. The reality is otherwise. We think of it as dark, only because so few documents exist to shed light on events that took place in what we call The Dark Ages. It probably was cold, but it was certainly not remote. Britain, including the monastic community of Wearmouth and Jarrow where Bede lived, was situated on trade routes that stretched from northern Britain to India, Afghanistan, and China. Archeological studies of glass, parchments, and pigments found, or known to have originated in Jarrow, demonstrate the complex web of Eighth Century trade. It is also well known that Bede’s monastery possessed one of the greatest libraries in all Europe, with manuscripts devoted to scripture, as well as classical and secular texts. It is estimated that the library contained over 250 separate works, which was an enormous number for the time.
Far from being a backwater, the monastery where Bede spent almost his entire life, was a centre of culture and learning, and Bede himself, was probably its greatest member. In fact, it is said that Bede was the greatest scholar of his day, in all Europe, writing scriptural commentaries based on patristic interpretations, poems, hymns, and essays on orthography. He treatise on chronology, while not original, popularized the counting of time before and after the birth of Christ. The BC – AD system county years is still used throughout most of the world today. His most significant works were his Life of St. Cuthbert, and his Ecclesiastical History of the English People. All of these works demonstrated the breadth of his learning, and his care as a scholar who consulted a wide range of documents, evaluated his sources, and most importantly cited them. If it can be said that there was one person who invented the study of history, that person has to be Bede.
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.