ST. BEDE THE VENERABLE
Father of English History and Doctor of the Church
672 – 735
Did you know that our current way of dating time from the birth of Christ as B. C. and A. D. or anno domini which means “in the year of the Lord” is attributed to St. Bede, probably the most learned man of his time and the only English Doctor of the Church? Although Bede himself tells us that it was a system actually devised by Dionysius (Denis), an aged Roman abbot. It had laid unused for 200 years until Bede popularized it by adopting it in his works on time and histories.
It is interesting to note that what little we know of St. Bede’s life comes from a short account written by Bede himself and from a description of his last hours written by Cuthbert, a monk who was one of his disciples.
He was born at Monkton, in the county Durham within the territory of Wearmouth, Northumbria, England in 673. Nothing is known about his parents or family except that at age seven his relatives or parents, who lived in the lands of that monastery, gave to-be- educated Bede to Benedict Biscop, abbot of Wearmouth and one of the leading scholars of his time. He and later Abbot Ceolfrid took charge of Bede’s education. (This happy combination of Bede’s inquiring intellect and willing able teachers made him undoubtedly one of the most learned men of his time.)
Like the other fellow oblates he would help in the kitchen or barn gathering eggs. However his chief interest would be prayer and study.
When St. Benedict Biscop built a second monastery dedicated to St. Paul at Jarrow on the River Tyne Bede went there while still a young boy.
An extra ordinary scholar he soon became well-versed not only in the sciences, natural philosophy and astronomy but in arithmetic, grammar, the philosophy of Aristotle, the lives of saints and history as well. He attributes his great learning to the good men like Ceolfrid who guided him in his younger days.
Little did Bede realize that except for a few visits to other places he would in the sixty or so years he lived, except for the first few years of his life, never leave the monastery, spending the rest of his life behind the cloistered walls in peaceful isolation. This meant that whatever education he had he got while at the monastery. But then at that time the only place where the great intellectual traditions were preserved were the monasteries.
While it seemed that Bede grew up in extreme isolation he surprisingly became “one of the most influential man of his day.”
He was first an oblate in the Benedictine order and later ordained a deacon when he was 19 and finally a priest at the age of 30 “always writing, always praying, always reading and always teaching.” Besides saying the mass he was also a great preacher (about 50 of his authentic homilies that he gave in the last part of his life are still preserved to this day). As our Lady’s homilist he wrote all the lessons for the Common of her feasts.
However he declined the office of abbot because he felt it would interfere with his chosen path of “learning, teaching and writing.” Because of his dedication he never held positions of great dignity devoting all his efforts to the study of Scriptures and in charge of the daily singing in the Church. His title of “venerable” by which he is most popularly known is a traditional term of respect for his scholarship and also on account of his holiness. Imagine being honored as a saint even in your own lifetime!
It’s no wonder that because he had the mind, aptitude, interest and dedication to his vocation he became one of the most learned men and influential people of his day. His writings covered almost all fields of human knowledge at that time. Because he had a universal interest he “collected the treasures of knowledge”. Thus his books covered almost all fields of human knowledge at that time including history, meteorology, physics, mathematics, grammar, astronomy, medicine, music, natural science, poetry, philosophy, rhetoric and prosody. His works on mathematics were regularly used and copied for five centuries after his death!
But it was the Bible that remained the chief study not only of Bede but of his fellow monks. It is no wonder that four-fifths of his writing were commentaries on the Scriptures. Thus Bede wrote in his short autobiography: “I spent the whole of my life within that monastery devoting all my pains to the study of the Scriptures.” Because of this the most correct manuscript of the Vulgate came from this monastery.
Besides learning and writing Bede’s other delight was teaching. He himself taught all the subjects necessary for the service of the church such as music, rhetoric and languages. It is said that he was greatly loved by his pupils because he taught with vivacity and charm. Hundreds of scholars were drawn to him because of his piety, learning and gentle character. Because of his fame as a teacher his monastery and the whole of Northumbria became a great center of learning in Europe.
Bede did not actually begin writing until he was ordained a priest and his writing originated from his teaching. The manuals that he wrote and compiled for his pupils were so good that his beloved mentors Ceolfrid and Bishop Acca urged him to write that he might be able to teach a wider group of people.
So he abridged larger works to make acquiring knowledge of them easier for his countrymen. In this way did the Englishmen learn in simplified form the teachings of the four great western Doctors: Sts. Jerome, Ambrose, Augustine and Gregory.
He passed on to countless generations the “sum of the day’s knowledge” as he was especially clever at working out what had actually happened in the past and what was only legend or gossip. His writings are even said to be major influences on English literature.
His writing style was meant for teaching not for show. Thus his words were not ornate but simple with a passion for truth and exactness. His aim was “to lead people to moral goodness, to help them praise and thank their creator better.” His whole effort was to teach history and doctrine exactly.
Besides this, Bede, a voluminous writer, wrote over 40 treatises on almost all fields of human knowledge especially on theology, science and history. He also wrote Latin poetry and a hymn in verse. His writings are thus regarded as major influences on English literature.
Because he wrote the lessons for the common on Our Lady’s feast Bede had the enviable distinction of being Our Lady’s homilist.
Bede’s life was capsulized by an old Benedictine breviary which said, “He always read, he always wrote, he always taught and he always prayed.”
Father of English History
However since he believed that it was not only in Scripture but in the history of his own people and the stories of holy lives that the handwriting of God could be discerned, his most important monumental and authoritative work Historia Ecclesiastica is a complete history up to 731. Ecclesiastical History is not only a history of the English Church but of the English People and nation. His reading of the handwriting of God became his own path to sanctity. Considered one of the greatest history books ever written it is regarded as the primary source of the history of Christianity in England up to that time and is still in print.
Because he wrote this first English language history book he came to be known as the “Father of English history” and became the most respected historian in medieval Western Christendom. As one writer said, “He made his mark on the pages of history and he wrote about history.” Written in Latin but later ordered translated into Early English by King Alfred this most important account of early English history covers from 55 B.C. to 731 A.D. It is considered one of the most valuable, thorough, scholarly and beautiful of historical works. It is said Bede’s simplicity, goodness, zeal, humility and honesty shines through his writings with unusual charity!
However because Bede was always a prayerful man he closes his book with a formal prayer.
In recognition of his saintliness, holiness, wisdom and learning Bede was called “the Venerable”, a term of respect infrequently bestowed on the religious. But he was officially called this while he was still living by the Council of Aachen in 836 (some say in 853) because of his holiness. When not studying or teaching he would spend long hours in prayer often shedding tears when overcome with devotion.
It is no wonder that noblemen and even the pope sought his advice and counsel.
He certainly merited his name Bede which in Anglo-Saxon means prayer. The title “Venerable” means “worthy” and is given to people who are likely to be made saints in the future. Few people are bestowed this title in their lifetime. He was also called an Admirable Doctor for Modern Times.
But because it seemed peculiarly suitable to a man like Bede it has clung to him even during succeeding centuries. Even to this day it remains his special designation.
It is said that in his later years Bede became blind. He was taken one day as a prank by a boy to a lonely and stony place where he was to preach. Believing there were people there Bede preached his sermon. When he had finished the stones responded with a great cry of “Amen, Venerable Bede.”
Up to the very end Bede remained a teacher and writer. However during his last years he was constantly ill. When he was already experiencing the pains of his last illness he chided his students several times, “Learn your lesson quickly, for I do not know how long I shall be with you nor whether my Maker will soon take me from you.”
In the forty days before his death on May 25 he managed to dictate two new books. When he thought he had finished his last book, a translation of the gospel of St. John from Greek into English he asked his assistant or scribe to run and get quickly his things of value in his chest such as peppercorns, napkins and incense. Then he told him to bring the other priests to him so that he could distribute among them the gifts that God had given him.
Having done that he asked the priests to pray for him.
But that evening the scribe noticed that the translation was not quite finished missing one sentence untranslated. Hurriedly he dictated the last passage.
Then he said, “All is finished.” He died on the floor of his cell singing, “Glory be the Father. . .” Just as he said “Holy Ghost” he breathed his last. What a happy and peaceful death! Bede had worked and prayed till the very end.
Ironically Bede who was one of the most influential people of his day and who was honored as a saint while still living was not canonized and named a Doctor of the Church until 1899 by Pope Leo XIII. However the title of Venerable remains his special designation to this day. His feast day is celebrated every May 25. His relics are to be found in the Galilee chapel of Durham Cathedral.
He is the only English doctor of the Church and the only Englishman who sufficiently impressed Dante to name him in his Paradiso. He is also probably of all the saints the one doctor of the Church who lived the most peaceful life.
And in spite of the fact that he hardly left his monastery he became well known throughout England and far beyond. In fact his homilies are still read everywhere in the Western church.
It was St. Boniface who aptly described Bede as “a light of the Church lit by the Holy Ghost.” It is aptly said that to know Bede was to love him!
SOURCES of REFERENCE
Butler’s Lives of the Saints – Vol. II – pp 402 – 405
The Illustrated World Encyclopedia of Saints – p 126
Pocket Dictionary of Saints – p 66
The Watkins Dictionary of Saints – pp 30 – 31
All Saints – pp 229 – 230
A Year With the Saints – May 25
Butler’s Saint for the Day – pp 237 – 239
Illustrated Lives of the Saints – Vol. I – pp 221 – 222
My First Book of Saints – p 104
Saint Companions – pp 187 – 188
Saints for Our Time – pp 109 – 110
Saint of the Day – pp 114 – 115
Voices of the Saints – pp 292 – 293
The Lion Treasury of Saints – pp 210 – 211, 122 – 123
The Way of the Saints – pp 66 – 67