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Seattle Catholic
A Journal of Catholic News and Views
30 Mar 2004

From His Age to Ours

by Matthew M. Anger

St. Bede the Venerable

The Life and Writings of St. Bede the Venerable

Relatively little is known about the Englishman St. Bede (672-735), traditionally referred to as the "Venerable Bede," who lived in that misty and shadowy period known as the Dark Ages. Even so, the genius of the Benedictine monk who labored at the monastery of Jarrow is acknowledged every day by our continued usage of B.C. and A.D. in our dating system. Though the system was first devised by St. Denis of France in the 6th century, it had lain dormant for two centuries until Bede popularized it in his philosophical and historical tracts. From Bede it was passed on to English missionaries and thence to Charlemagne's court, the popes, and eventually all European society. But most readers familiar with the Anglo-Saxon monk will know him through his instructive chronicle The Ecclesiastical History of England (written in 731 A.D.).

It is through his voluminous writings on historical, philosophical and religious subjects that Bede left an important legacy for Catholicism, not only in England but throughout the West. Many centuries after his death, as the Protestant "Reformation" was heating up, both Catholic and Protestant controversialists delved into ancient tomes for evidence for their respective beliefs. Bede emerged as one of the earliest and most reliable witnesses for the traditions of the Church. In 1650 a book was published in Antwerp which summarized more than forty items of belief and practice held by Bede and rejected by the schismatic Church of England. Among these were prayers to the Blessed Virgin and the saints, the use of holy water and holy oil, confession and penance, offering of Masses, reservation of the Sacrament and prayers for the souls in Purgatory.

Even today, Bede can help us to better understand our faith. For example, in the History he mentions the counsel which Pope St. Gregory addressed to the early English mission, including questions about marital relations. It is a reminder that people and their problems never change and that the Church's pastoral care is truly timeless.

Wisdom for a Pagan Age

At a time when the rampant barbarism of a New Paganism is threatening to drag civilization into another Dark Age we can always turn to St. Bede for solace. From the collapse of Roman rule in the mid-5th Century to the sudden appearance of the mission of St. Augustine of Canterbury at the very end of the 6th, England underwent a period of backwardness and savagery that defies imagination. One gets some sense of the despairing zeitgeist from the writings of St. Ambrose, bishop of 4th Century Milan. He spoke of the impending Apocalypse as barbarians swarmed over the remains of a decaying Roman Empire. Likewise, the accounts of early Christian England are filled with many tribulations and setbacks. Yet because the faithful were willing to rise to the occasion, the challenges were met.

A particularly moving account from early Christian Britain is St. Alban's martyrdom in the Roman persecution of 300 A.D. Alban, a pagan, was stirred by the plight of a fleeing priest and sought instruction at his hands. Not long after, soldiers arrived in search of the priest. Alban decided to take the priest's place and greeted the Romans in clerical vestments. He underwent a terrible scourging and was led to the place of execution, where he gave witness to the Faith before the gathered onlookers. Alban's prolific miracles even caused the executioners to falter when it came to picking up their weapons. One obdurate pagan was eventually found willing to deal the final blow, but not before the first executioner asked to share the death of the saint.

The soldier who had been moved by divine intuition to refuse to slay God's confessor was beheaded at the same time as Alban. And although he had not received the purification of Baptism, he was certainly cleansed by the shedding of his own blood, and rendered fit to enter the kingdom of Heaven.

When modern believers are forced to deal with the despair of an infidel culture, a spiritualized sense of humor seems as obligatory as the virtue of hope. One pictures the Venerable Bede with a wry grin on his face as his put quill to parchment in describing another event—St. Wilfrid's mission to the pagan Saxons. According to Bede, St. Wilfrid found the inhabitants of ancient Sussex so idiotic that they hardly knew how to feed themselves and were reduced to starvation. In despair they began tying themselves together with rope and throwing themselves off cliffs into the sea. The priest asked why they didn't catch fish for supper. The pagan king replied they were too slippery. The missionary took pity on the benighted Saxons and taught them to make nets whereupon the people, amazed at his wisdom, converted en masse and Wilfrid became their bishop.

What these tales teach us today is that when society rejects God, then nature itself—which is meant to aid us and contribute to our happiness—devours the very men it is supposed to nourish. In a culture like ours, that prides itself on inconsequential freedoms, it is worth recalling what the yoke of Christ meant to the peoples of early England. As Bede tells us:

Wilfrid instructed and baptized them all in the Faith of Christ. Among them were two hundred and fifty male and female slaves, all of whom he released from the slavery of Satan by baptism; granting them their freedom, and releasing them from the yoke of human slavery as well.

Physical and spiritual liberation. It's a nice touch, and one overlooked by academics who would never dream of letting the rest of us know that the Christian West was the first society to eliminate slavery on a wide scale. While neither complete nor perfect, this emancipation nevertheless served as a model for other nations throughout the world, for whom slavery was a sad fact of everyday life. The example of St. Wilfrid remains pertinent in a world which suffers increasing servitude to mass ideology and mass consumerism.

Understanding the Past

The Western concept of history, insofar as it still survives, is indebted to the Christian religion for its ability to conceptualize events and place them in order and perspective. Without it life is little more than a series of random and senseless acts. So it was for the pre-Christians, doomed to the fatalism of their false gods; so it is for the post-modern deconstructivist doomed to the fatalism of his egocentric philosophy.

Behind history is a teleology, the idea that human events proceed from a definite beginning and work towards a definite end. St. Augustine of Hippo taught this clearly in his monumental City of God. The same teleological idea is at the heart of Bede's History and all classics since then. Even popular liberal writings are compelling only insofar as they adopt a (false) teleology that claims mankind is progressing towards something, even if that end is a humanistic rapture rather than a fulfillment of God's eternal plan.

There are many interesting sidelights to Bede's panoramic view of the past. One major incident has been forgotten in the passage of millennia, but it had tremendous long-term consequences for English-speaking Christendom. It was the manner in which Britain was re-evangelized in the post-Roman era. Imagine for a moment, that instead of Anglo-Saxon being the basis of our language that we all spoke a Gaelic dialect. This would have been the case except for an unexpected fluke in England's early history.

When Britain was no longer under Roman control, society quickly sank into anarchy. The Christian Britons (the original Romanized Celtic population) became isolated as the pagan Saxons (Germanic tribes) occupied the eastern shore and cut off ready access to Europe across the narrow part of the Channel. While retaining their religion, the Britons began to stray into errors and superstition. When St. Augustine arrived in 597 A.D. at the behest of Pope St. Gregory, his first thought was naturally to enlist the help of the Britons in the western parts of the island in his missionary work. In such a case, the missionaries would have worked their way gradually eastward and the Celtic tongue would have spread with them. As it turned out, the Britons "stubbornly preferred their own customs to those in universal use among Christian Churches," and rejected St. Augustine's call to unity. They insisted on a number erroneous practices and were so hateful towards the pagan Saxons that they refused to have anything to do with them, including conversion and baptism. Bringing upon themselves, in the words of St. Bede, the wrath of God, the Britons were doomed to conquest by the newly Christianized Germanic tribes. Anglo-Saxon became the basis of our language and culture and left its imprint well beyond the Norman Conquest of 1066.

Lasting Influence

In addition to his chronicle of Christian England, which made him the "father of English History," Bede left behind a number of scriptural commentaries and philosophical works—forty-five writings in all. It was for this that he was finally declared a Doctor of the Church by Leo XIII in 1899, though his greatness was acknowledged much earlier. In Dante's Divine Comedy Bede is the only English saint specifically mentioned. He is introduced by the beatified St. Thomas Aquinas as one of the dozen great thinkers in the "sphere of the Sun" (Paradiso, X, 131). St. Bede's fame had spread far by the High Middle Ages. In the case of the Florentine poet it is possible that while composing his cantos on Hell, Purgatory and Heaven, he found inspiration in the supernatural vision related in the Ecclesiastical History of England.

"In order [says Bede] to arouse the living from spiritual death, a man already dead returned to bodily life and related many notable things he had seen...." The soul of this man, an inhabitant of Northumbria, was greeted by a "handsome man in a shining robe" who guided him through the realm of the afterlife. The spiritual companions first entered a great valley which was divided into a field of horrible flames on the left and a field of bitter cold and snow on the right. Both sides of the valley were filled with souls in torment, leaping back and forth from the heat to the cold, seeking respite from the one to suffer the afflictions of the other. Next, the Northumbrian was taken to a place of darkness where even the flames were black. For a moment his guide disappeared from view and the man feared he would be dragged into the abyss with agonized souls and howling demons. Among the souls enchained by devils was "one man tonsured like a clerk [cleric], a layman, and a woman." At last, the man was mercifully delivered by his guide from this unspeakable gloom and taken to a third region. This was a "very broad and pleasant meadow" inhabited by "innumerable companies of men in white robes, and many parties of happy people... sitting together." Thinking he had found paradise, the man was surprised when he was taken to the threshold of a vast realm of pure light. It was a place he could not enter.

Before the Northumbrian revived, his mystical escort explained the meaning of the things he had witnessed. The valley of fire and ice is the place where souls are confined for their spiritual indolence, because they held off repentance until the last moment and shall not be delivered until Judgment Day. It is a prolonged Purgatory. The pit of darkness is the antechamber to Hell, "and whosoever falls into it will never be delivered throughout eternity." The flowery meadow (an upper level of Purgatory) is where souls are received who lived good lives but have not reached perfection so as to permit their immediate entrance to the realm of blissful light.

More Than a History

A refined product of a crude age, the scholarship of Bede's History was well in advance of its time. The author conscientiously cited other books and even requested copies of important documents from the papal archives in Rome—all this at a time when civilization was near its lowest ebb. It merely proves that the Church and monasteries were the bastions of culture, ensuring that Europe's precious secular and spiritual patrimony would not be lost to future generations. But while Bede's work is acknowledged for its invaluable record of early Christendom, it can still be read simply as a "good book."

One can pick up the History without having ever read any texts on early England. The wealth of life and learning that the monk at Jarrow poured into his literary vessel makes it more than a fascinating glimpse into Anglo-Saxon society. It is also full of insights presented in a remarkably fresh and innocent style that is quite invigorating in an age of resurgent idolatry and nonsense. The reader should feel the thrill that the ancients did when told of an exotic land on the fringes of Christendom and its amazing conversion.

Britain, formerly known as Albion [...] remained unknown and unvisited by the Romans until the time of Caius Julius Caesar.

Even today, while visiting the southern coast of that land, one may find oneself on the very spot where Caesar landed with his intrepid Legionaries over two-thousand years ago. St. Bede's book, like life, is full of those little events that we stumble across in our daily haste; seemingly insignificant encounters that add up to the great drama of history and which add depth and meaning to our own being.


Matthew Anger is a freelance Catholic journalist who writes on historical and literary subjects. He lives with his wife and seven children in the Richmond, Virginia area.

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