Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Venerable Bede

I've been so swamped with homeschool co-op student conferences on their MLA research papers that I've barely had time to breathe, much less blog lately. I have my final two Intermediate Writing students coming this afternoon, and their final exams (the MLA research paper) is due Thursday. I have to grade each MLA paper, taking into account MLA formatting, content, and usage -- about an hour a paper and longer if there are major problems. I check sources, thumb through note cards and source cards, and consider the persuasiveness of each point they make. Then I need to add up all the grades from September until now and compute their final class grade. I have ten students in this class. And five in my Advanced (honors) class, who are starting their conferences next week and are turning in their final papers on our final Class Day, June 11, and our last day of school is June 12. One of the students is graduating June 13, so I need to grade hers overnight so I can call the school in the morning and tell them her final grade for the class. Oh, and I'm teaching an online Shakespeare class at bravewriter.com right now, too.

But I do wish to pause for a moment and recognize a saint whom I've come to admire greatly: the Venerable Bede. I read his major work, The Ecclesiastical History of the English People last year, and I studied excerpts of it in my Christian Traditions class at Point Loma Nazarene University as an undergrad. As my literature major required the fewest number of classes in my major, I fulfilled my upper division credits with classes in philosophy and American History, mostly because Dr. Sam Powell and Dr. Dwayne Little were two of the most interesting professors on campus and I so enjoyed their mode of teaching. Christian Tradition was taught by Dr. Powell, and unlike his previous classes I had taken, this one was a required religion class. Well, so much the better.

Perhaps it was a result of my already obsessive Anglophilia, or my first church history class (church history is a current passion of mine as well), or Dr. Powell's interesting lectures, but I somehow "took to" Bede as if he were a long-long brother. And even now, over (cough!)twenty years later, Bede still entrances me, and I look forward to celebrating his saint day all month.

So what's so different about Bede, compared to the burgeoning trade in medieval saints? I think it's his attitude. While being an incredible scholar, studying so many fields as a true Renaissance Man a few centuries too late, Bede didn't allow his vast knowledge to inflate his self-importance. On the contrary, Bede retained a childlike innocence and excitement in all branches of his expertise. And his favorite study: the Scriptures. Bede was an extremely knowledgeable man, but that knowledge never "puffed him up" but allowed him to simply keep following this ribbon of knowledge or that one, ever eager and child-like in his pursuit of God and His natural world. And he is the only native Britain to receive the appellation "Doctor of the Church" (St. Anselm was born in Italy).

The closing words of his Ecclesiastical History of the English People display his simplicity of faith: "And I pray thee, loving Jesus, that as Thou hast graciously given me to drink in with delight the words of Thy knowledge, so Thou wouldst mercifully grant me to attain one day to Thee, the fountain of all wisdom and to appear forever before Thy face."

Britannica Biographies gives us some background information regarding Bede:
Within the walls of the imposing Norman Cathedral of Durham lies the simple tomb of a Christian monk who has earned the title as "Father of English History."

Bede was born at Tyne, in County Durham, and was taken as a child of seven to the monastery of Wearmouth. Shortly afterwards he was moved to become one of the first members of the monastic community at Jarrow. Here, he was ordained a deacon when he was 19 and a priest when he was 30; and here he spent the rest of his life. He never travelled outside of this area but yet, became one of the most learned men of Europe.

The scholarship and culture of Italy had been brought to Britain where it was transported to Jarrow. Here it was combined with the simpler traditions, devotions and evangelism of the Celtic church. In this setting Bede learned the love of scholarship, personal devotion and discipline . He mastered Latin, Greek and Hebrew and had a good knowledge of the classical scholars and early church fathers.

Bede's writings cover a broad spectrum including natural history, poetry, Biblical translation and exposition of the scriptures. His earliest Biblical commentary was probably that on the book of the Revelation. He is credited with writing three known Latin hymns.

He is remembered chiefly for his "Ecclesiastical History of the English People." This five volume work records events in Britain from the raids by Julius Caesar in 55-54 BC to the arrival of the first missionary from Rome, Saint Augustine in 597. Bede's writings are considered the best summary of this period of history ever prepared. Some have called it "the finest historical work of the early Middle Ages."

Bede's motive for recording history reminds us of his deepest desires. He clearly states his purpose in his writings when he says, "For if history records good things of good men, the thoughtful hearer is encouraged to imitate what is good; or if it records evil of wicked men, the good, religious reader or listener is encouraged to avoid all that is sinful and perverse, and to follow what he knows to be good and pleasing to God."

As we celebrate the new millennium, we are indebted to Bede, as it is to this man that we owe, from his historical accounts, our dating of years from the birth of Christ.

From AmericanCatholic.org's "Saint of the Day" for May 25:
St. Bede the Venerable (672?-735)

Bede is one of the few saints honored as such even during his lifetime. His writings were filled with such faith and learning that even while he was still alive, a Church council ordered them to be read publicly in the churches.

At an early age Bede was entrusted to the care of the abbot of the Monastery of St. Paul, Jarrow. The happy combination of genius and the instruction of scholarly, saintly monks produced a saint and an extraordinary scholar, perhaps the most outstanding one of his day. He was deeply versed in all the sciences of his times: natural philosophy, the philosophical principles of Aristotle, astronomy, arithmetic, grammar, ecclesiastical history, the lives of the saints and, especially, Holy Scripture. From the time of his ordination to the priesthood at 30 (he had been ordained deacon at 19) till his death, he was ever occupied with learning, writing and teaching. Besides the many books that he copied, he composed 45 of his own, including 30 commentaries on books of the Bible.

Although eagerly sought by kings and other notables, even Pope Sergius, Bede managed to remain in his own monastery till his death. Only once did he leave for a few months in order to teach in the school of the archbishop of York. Bede died in 735 praying his favorite prayer: “Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. As in the beginning, so now, and forever.”

His Ecclesiastical History of the English People is commonly regarded as of decisive importance in the art and science of writing history. A golden age was coming to an end at the time of Bede’s death: It had fulfilled its purpose of preparing Western Christianity to assimilate the non-Roman barbarian North. Bede recognized the opening to a new day in the life of the Church even as it was happening.

1 comment:

Jane D. said...

Thank you Susanne, I have to confess I am learning British History from an American!


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