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Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Discover & explore: The Venerable Bede

Here are the reflection and prayers from Monday's Discover & explore service at St Stephen Walbrook exploring the life and thought of The Venerable Bede:

‘History repeats itself.
Has to.
No-one listens.’

Thus says Steve Turner's short poem entitled ‘History Lesson’. Unlike the attitude satirised in the poem, the Venerable Bede was someone who wished to listen to and learn from the lessons of history.

Bede was born in Northumbria around the year 670. When he was seven years old, his family gave him to the monastery of St Peter and St Paul at Wearmouth. He then moved to Jarrow, where he lived as a monk for the rest of his life. Although it seems he never travelled further than York, his monastery - first under Abbot Benet Biscop and then Abbot Ceolfrith - was a centre of learning, and Bede studied extensively. He used all the resources available to write the most complete history of Christian England up to the year 729, as well as commentaries on books of the Bible.

He spent his whole life writing being the author of 45 volumes including text-books and translations, hymns and other verse, letters and homilies. He was one of the very earliest Anglo-Saxon poets and recorded "Caedmon's Hymn," the oldest complete poem in the English language. He wrote major scientific works and helped establish the foundations of medieval astronomy and chronology. He was primarily responsible for popularizing the western BC and AD dating system, as well as writing a treatise on grammar and figures of speech. He wrote all of his own work, saying of himself, "I am my own secretary; I dictate, I compose, I copy all myself." He asked for no assistance with his work until his last illness at the age of 62 when he was unable to write and engaged the help of a young scribe called Wilbert. He was renowned for his monastic fidelity and his love of teaching, and was fondly remembered by his pupils, including his biographer. He died peacefully in 735.

With the exception of foreign travel, much of our reading from Ecclesiasticus (39. 1 - 10) applies to and sums up Bede: devotion to study, seeking out the wisdom of the ancients, preserving sayings of the famous, seeking the Lord, petitioning the Most High and, as a result, being filled with the spirit of understanding and pouring forth words of wisdom of his own.

Bede was declared Venerable by the church in 836 and was canonised in 1899. He was named "Doctor of the Church" by Pope Leo XIII, because of his work and piety, and is the Patron Saint of scholars and historians. As a careful historian, Doctor of the Church, a lover of God and of the truth, he is a natural model for all readers of God's inspired Word. We heard in the Preface to his Ecclesiastical History of the English People how he valued those who diligently give ear to hear the words of Holy Scripture. He provides an example of one who prepared for public reading by prayerfully pondering the sacred texts and invoking the Holy Spirit in order to read in such a way that those who hear may attain learning and edification.

He also tells us why we should listen to the voices of history by industriously taking care to become acquainted with the actions and sayings of former people of renown, especially of our own nation. Where history relates good things of good people, we can excitedly imitate that which is good; and, where it recounts evil things of wicked people, we can both be warned so that we shun what is hurtful and wrong, and, by contrast, feel compelled to counteract evil by more earnestly performing those things which we know to be good, and worthy of the service of God.

At no time in our lives is this kind of reflection more important than as we approach death. St Cuthbert, Bede’s most famous disciple, described Bede's death as follows: "Being well-versed in our native songs, he described to us the dread departure of the soul from the body by a verse in our own tongue, which translated means: 'Before setting forth on that inevitable journey, none is wiser than the man who considers—before his soul departs hence—what good or evil he has done, and what judgement his soul will receive after its passing." Our present life is fleeting in comparison to eternity, so, when facing Death, that inescapable journey, who can be wiser than he who reflects, while breath yet remains, on whether his life brought others happiness or pains, since his soul may yet win delight's or night's way after his death-day.

Bede exemplified this attitude to the end of his days. On Tuesday 24th May 735, he took grievously ill but continued to teach, cheerfully suggesting to his pupils that they learn quickly as he may not be with them long. The next day he taught until nine in the morning. He then dictated part of his book to Wilbert. That evening Wilbert said to Bede " Dear master, there is still one sentence that we have not written down." Bede said "Quick, write it down." Wilbert then said "There; now it is written down." Bede replied "Good. You have spoken the truth; it is finished. Hold my head in your hands, for I really enjoy sitting opposite the holy place where I used to pray; I can call upon my Father as I sit there." And Bede then as he lay upon the floor of his cell sang the Gloria and as he named the Holy Spirit he breathed his last breath. His only possessions - some handkerchiefs, a few peppercorns and a small quantity of incense were shared amongst his brother monks as he had wished.


Merciful God, who gave such grace to your servant Bede that he served you with singleness of heart and loved you above all things: help us, to forsake all that holds us back from following Christ and to grow into his likeness from glory to glory. Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.

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. Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.

O Christ, our Morning Star, Splendour of Light Eternal, shining with the glory of the rainbow, come and waken us from the greyness of our apathy, and renew in us your gift of hope. Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.


God our Maker, whose Son Jesus Christ gave to your servant Bede grace to drink in with joy the Word that leads us to know you and to love you: in your goodness grant that we also may come at length to you, the source of all wisdom, and stand before your face; and may the blessing of God almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, be among you and remain with you always. Amen.

The next Discover & explore service at St Stephen Walbrook will be on Monday 6th June at 1.10pm and will explore the life and thought of St Columba with Revd Sally Muggeridge and the Choral Scholars of St Martin-in-the-Fields.


Will Todd - Christus Est Stella.

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