Horatio

Horatio
[Photo by Jacquelyn Griffin)

Monday, May 25, 2015

The Venerable Bede

Today we commemorate the Venerable Bede:
Bede was a monk at the English monastery of Wearmouth and Jarrow, in Northumbria. From the age of seven, he spent all his life at that monastery except for a few brief visits to nearby sites. He says of himself: "I have devoted my energies to a study of the Scriptures, observing monastic discipline, and singing the daily services in church; study, teaching, and writing have always been my delight."

He was the first person to write scholarly works in the English language, although unfortunately only fragments of his English writings have survived. He translated the Gospel of John into Old English, completing the work on the very day of his death. He also wrote extensively in Latin. He wrote commentaries on the Pentateuch and other portions of Holy Scripture. His best-known work is his History of the English Church and People, a classic which has frequently been translated and is available in Penguin Paperbacks. It gives a history of Britain up to 729, speaking of the Celtic peoples who were converted to Christianity during the first three centuries of the Christian era, and the invasion of the Anglo-Saxon pagans in the fifth and sixth centuries, and their subsequent conversion by Celtic missionaries from the north and west, and Roman missionaries from the south and east. His work is our chief source for the history of the British Isles during this period.
When I was an English major, many years ago, I was assigned to read Bede's History in a Medieval Literature course, taught by a witty professor who reminded me rather of Flurry Knox. He deplored the need to study Church History as literature, but smiled and added, "there are some gems to dug out of the quarry, though, if you keep your eyes ope."

He wasn't wrong; I never get tired of this gem:
THE king, hearing these words, answered, that he was both willing and bound to receive the faith which Paulinus taught; but that he would confer about it with his chief friends and counsellors, to the end that if they also were of his opinion, they might all together be consecrated to Christ in the font of life. Paulinus consenting, the king did as he said; for, holding a council with the wise men,' he asked of every one in particular what he thought of this doctrine hitherto unknown to them, and the new worship of God that was preached? The chief of his own priests, Coifi, immediately answered him, "0 king, consider what this is which is now preached to us; for I verily declare to you what I have learnt beyond doubt, that the religion which we have hitherto professed has no virtue in it and no profit. For none of your people has applied himself more diligently to the worship of our gods than I; and yet there are many who receive greater favours from you, and are more preferred than I, and are more prosperous in all that they undertake to do or to get. Now if the gods were good for any thing, they would rather forward me, who have been careful to serve them with greater zeal. It remains, therefore, that if upon examination you find those new doctrines, which are now preached to us, better and more efficacious, we hasten to receive them without any delay."

Another of the king's chief men, approving of his wise words and exhortations, added thereafter: "The present life of man upon earth, O king, seems to me, in comparison with that time which is unknown to us, like to the swift flight of a sparrow through the house wherein you sit at supper in winter, with your ealdormen and thegns, while the fire blazes in the midst, and the hall is warmed, but the wintry storms of rain or snow are raging abroad. The sparrow, flying in at one door and immediately out at another, whilst he is within, is safe from the wintry tempest; but after a short space of fair weather, he immediately vanishes out of your sight, passing from winter into winter again. So this life of man appears for a little while, but of what is to follow or what went before we know nothing at all. If, therefore, this new doctrine tells us something more certain, it seems justly to deserve to be followed."
I mean, isn't that second paragraph magnificent? A great image, arresting, compelling, and rich.

If I ever get to do the sermon on a Sunday that falls on this date, it's a an opportunity I'll grab with both hands. Because that text? It'll preach.

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