672/73 – 735
Optional Memorial: Liturgical Color: White
There is no world bigger than a monk’s cell. Those four, high walls shape thought like steep banks shape the flow of a river. The banks force the raging river to carve a path through the landscape, always forward, always deeper. Here the tall banks stop the powerful river from pouring over into the plains. There the low banks allow the gentle current to run low and straight. And at the bend, the banks are worn away by the constant, pounding pressure. The edges make the channel. A river without banks is a lake. And a mind without borders is a puddle. No forward movement, no depth, and unable to sustain life. Borders, limits, and guardrails have expansive effects, paradoxically. A frame makes a painting pop; lanes keep traffic moving; and the dark of the small theater allows the imagination to roam. Big thoughts start with boundaries. That’s why big thoughts happen in small spaces. Many thousands of monks’ minds were molded by the limits of the four, cold walls of their cells. And these scholar monks and saint monks gave birth to what we now call Europe.
Today’s saint was a model monk who lived his whole life in an English monastery, although he occasionally traveled to neighboring communities to teach young scholars. Venerable Bede’s cell and monastery were nothing like those impressive stone structures with the soaring arches and large courtyards which jump to mind as icons of medieval Europe. Bede lived long, long before that golden age of monasticism. He died less than two hundred years after St. Benedict, the founder of monasticism. The monasteries of Bede’s era were more like farms, where the monks lived in a dormitory above a large chapter room or perhaps even in crude huts huddled around a squat stone church. These first simple efforts to plant religious life into English soil led, over centuries, to monasteries flowering into a colorful garden of English universities, towns, schools, hospitals, lodges, cathedrals, trade centers, and charitable institutions. Venerable Bede and his monastic brothers planted. Later generations harvested. And King Henry VIII then confiscated the garden and gave it to his friends. The tomb of St. Bede rests today in a Protestant Church.
From his cell in remote England, Bede was enmeshed in the Church matters of his day. He became involved in the long simmering dispute over the date of Easter, promoted the practice of using Christ’s birth as the starting date for calendars, translated Christians works from Latin or Greek into Anglo-Saxon (to the immense good of the growth of the Church in England), and authored numerous works, the most famous of which is a history of the Church in England until his days. He was, in short, a prolific and wide ranging scholar. In 1899 Pope Leo XIII honored that reputation by naming him a Doctor of the Church, the only native of England to be so honored.
Thomas à Kempis, in his spiritual classic The Imitation of Christ, writes that every time a monk leaves his cell he comes back less a person. It is in the cell that the monk learns everything he needs to know about himself, the world, and God. It is inside of our vocations that we find God’s will and our own fulfillment. A deep and abiding commitment to a specific person, a specific religion, a specific home, job, school, parish, spouse, and family is the stuff of life. Wandering is fun for a while. Commitment, though, is more exciting in the long run. The banks must be built up. The edges and borders stacked high. The rails set in place. Then, and only then, life starts to be lived. To go deeper, not wider. To run those roots down into the rich soil. When we leave the four corners of our commitments and vocation, it may be liberating for a while, but time rectifies the deception. Our vocation is our home, and in that home we find happiness, make others happy, and satisfy the divine plan of the God who made us.
Bede the Venerable, we see in your life a model of commitment to one place, one idea, one love, and one Church. We ask your intercession to aid all scholars, all monks, and all who waver, to stay at their desk, their kneeler, or their work bench to fulfill the task at hand.
From Butler’s Lives of the Saints:
VENERABLE BEDE, the illustrious ornament of the Anglo-Saxon Church and the first English historian, was consecrated -to God at the age of seven, and intrusted to the care of St. Benedict Biscop at Wearmouth. He became a monk in the sister-house of Jarrow, and there trained no less than six hundred scholars, whom his piety, learning, and sweet disposition had gathered round him. To the toils of teaching and the exact observance of his rule he added long hours of private prayer, and the study of every branch of science and literature then known. He was familiar with Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. In the treatise which he compiled for his scholars, still extant, he threw together all that the world had then stored in history, chronology, physics, music, philosophy, poetry, arithmetic, and medicine. In his Ecclesiastical History he has left us beautiful lives of Anglo-Saxon Saints and holy Fathers, while his commentaries on the Holy Scriptures are still in use by the Church. It was to the study of the Divine Word that he devoted the whole energy of his soul, and at times his compunction was so overpowering that his voice would break with weeping, while the tears of his scholars mingled with his own. He had little aid from others, and during his later years suffered from constant illness; yet he worked and prayed up to his last hour.
The Saint was employed in translating the Gospel of St. John from the Greek up to the hour of his death, which took place on Ascension Day, 735. “He spent that day joyfully,” writes one of his scholars. And in the evening the boy who attended him said, “Dear master, there is yet one sentence unwritten.” He answered, “Write it quickly.” Presently the youth said, “Now it is written” He replied, “Good! thou hast said the truth—consummatum est; take my head into thy hands, for it is very pleasant to me to sit facing my old praying-place, and there to call upon my Father.” And so on the floor of his cell he sang, “Glory be to the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost;” and just as he said “Holy Ghost,” he breathed his last, and went to the realms above.
Reflection.—”The more,” says the Imitation of Christ, “a man is united within himself and interiorly simple, so much the more and deeper things doth he understand without labor; for he receiveth the light of understanding from on high.”
Lives of the Saints, by Alban Butler, Benziger Bros. ed.