By Denise Trull
Bede is that quintessentially Medieval figure who steps through the mists of the marvelous, monk-filled ages to charm us with his ways of expression. The Medievals could be so direct, so down to earth, and practical--but they always made it sound so inviting and lovely. You just, in no uncertain terms, wanted to love God when they put it the way they put it. Bede was no exception. His gift was words; beautiful, descriptive words, and an observant heart.
His father and mother brought him to the Benedictine Monastery to receive an education when he was quite young. He noticed everything and, more importantly, he remembered it. Flannery O’Connor assures us in one of her essays that “The writer should never be ashamed of staring. There is nothing that does not require his attention.” Bede was one who was never ashamed of staring. He made a habit of keeping his eyes wide open to every particular.
He began, as a child, to carefully observe the daily routine of these holy men. It was the stuff of fascination for him. A secret world that reached out and made him privy to its treasures--treasures never seen in the greater world outside its doors. Humble treasures that gave off the holy light of an unseen glory beyond their simplicity. The weaving of prayers and work, the sound of flowing voices, the way each monk wore the habit just a bit differently, the flowers on the altar giving off the scents they reserved for Jesus alone, the peaceful faces at Compline, the tired but determined sound of shuffling feet heading to pray for the world at 3:00 am. Bede noticed the feasts and the fasts and when and where they fell in the recurring cycle of the Church’s prayer and liturgy. He learned to look forward to his favorite saint days. He knew what the monks ate, what they drank, what monks were the best cooks and the best bakers. Which ones could sew a seam and keep the cowls looking worthy of chapel. Which ones didn’t mind him underfoot and might tell him a miracle story or two while they peeled the carrots for supper.
He noticed the quirks and whimsical, daily habits of the monks. He perhaps witnessed a temper or two flare up and be instantly dissolved by the forgiving word asked for and given. He watched all kinds of work: milking cows, planting crops, shaving heads, setting tables, illuminating manuscripts in the slanting light of the scriptorium.
He sat in his place in the great stone chapel and perhaps drifted in the peace that is monks singing praise. It is here he would have heard the psalms chanted over and over again, yet never growing old in meaning somehow. In that silent Church he began his love story with the Holy Scriptures. Monks singing the Scriptures IS a love story! It has always been for me. In that way, I guess I understand Bede's fascination.
He learned to love the monks so much, he stayed on with the Benedictines and joined the rhythm of their days for the rest of his life as a monk.
He wrote a history of the Church of England that is filled with stories and anecdotes that charm and warm the soul. It is one of the only books that has preserved so minutely that particular Medieval world for us and gives us the wonderful details for which we long. He had a way of seeing things with new eyes and presenting them with an all fresh insight. So much so that, when reading his words, a particular idea or passage in Scripture suddenly comes alive, and once in a while your heart really does "burn within you" at his words.
He felt a great urgency to translate the Gospel of St. John into English, so the common people could hear it and find wisdom and comfort. He is among a smattering of saints throughout the ages who regarded this as vitally important-- that the people hear God's word in their own tongue. I find that a thought provoking urgency, which is a delicately loving act of kindness for the poor who wanted to know what Jesus was saying to them.
He became old and ill while accomplishing this task and worked on this, his magnum opus, all the way up until the day he died. A young monk who was writing down his words in dictation said at last, "There is still one sentence, dear Father, that is not written down."
"Then quickly! Write it."
As soon as the young monk announced with a flourish of his quill, "It is finished." Bede echoed with his own fiat, "Then it is finished." And he asked to be lifted up in his bed to look upon the place in his cell where he had prayed day after day for all those years and he died as quietly and calmly as he had lived.
He must have been a lovely, affable man, because all the monks missed him sorely, this quiet, staring monk who saw so many things no one else saw and expressed them so beautifully to the greater world of his own time and for future times to come.
What is Bede staring at now, I wonder? What would he tell us? It is a lovely thought to think on.