"Today the concept of truth is viewed with suspicion, because truth is identified with violence. Over history there have, unfortunately, been episodes when people sought to defend the truth with violence. But they are two contrasting realities. Truth cannot be imposed with means other than itself! Truth can only come with its own light. Yet, we need truth. ... Without truth we are blind in the world, we have no path to follow. The great gift of Christ was that He enabled us to see the face of God".Pope Benedict xvi, February 24th, 2012

The Church is ecumenical, catholic, God-human, ageless, and it is therefore a blasphemy—an unpardonable blasphemy against Christ and against the Holy Ghost—to turn the Church into a national institution, to narrow her down to petty, transient, time-bound aspirations and ways of doing things. Her purpose is beyond nationality, ecumenical, all-embracing: to unite all men in Christ, all without exception to nation or race or social strata. - St Justin Popovitch

Saturday 28 May 2011

Conference 25th May 2011 St Bede the Venerable (by Abbot Paul of Belmont, UK)

            This week we celebrate the feast day of two important monastic saints, Bede the Venerable and Augustine of Canterbury. There is also the feast of that remarkable man, Pope St Gregory VII, the monk Hildebrand, who was instrumental in the reorganization of the Western Church in 11th Century, but we never get to celebrate him liturgically because of more attractive alternatives such as St Philip Neri. For this short conference I will just concentrate on St Bede and St Augustine.

            This morning we heard that short autobiographical conclusion to Bede’s History of the English Church and People. What struck me was the direct, matter-of-fact way in which he spoke about himself, as though no-one would have the slightest idea who he was, when, in fact, by the time he had written that famous tome, he was already well-known throughout the country. It exemplifies the extraordinary humility of a great man. Bede was born, so to speak, with Benedictine blood in his veins. His family lived on land that belonged to the monastery of SS. Peter and Paul at Wearmouth and Jarrow and no doubt worked for the monks, so Bede was conceived, born and reared within sight of the monastery. You can imagine his mother telling her little boy, “When you’re old enough, sweetheart, you can go and live with the monks and, if you’re good enough, become one of them.” And so it was that at the age of seven he was entrusted to the care of St Benet Biscop. From the day he entered the monastery to the day he died in 735, he never left the enclosure.

            He goes on to tell us how he devoted himself to the study of the Scriptures and how amid the observance of the Rule and the daily task of singing the office in church, his chief delight was always to study, teach and write. He was ordained a deacon when he was just nineteen and a priest eleven years later. At no time did he seek higher office and was never infirmarian or guest master, bursar or novice master, parish priest or prior. But he made it his business, both for his own benefit and that of his brethren, to compile short extracts from the works of the Fathers on Holy Scripture and comment on their meaning and interpretation. In fact, in the writings of St Bede we have the finest and most homogeneous collection of biblical commentaries written in patristic times. He never had an off day by the look of things for his writings maintain a constant high standard. Of course, the interesting thing is that he never went away to study. His extensive knowledge was acquired at the monastic school and in the monastery library. Both St Benet Biscop and his successor, St Coelfrid, must be thanked for the number and quality of books and manuscripts they collected for the library and the high level of study they maintained in the monastery.

            What can we learn from the life and example of St Bede? Many things: humility and obedience, serious work and devotion to prayer, attentiveness to his own spiritual needs and to those of his brethren, a total lack of ambition or need to make a name for himself, a disciplined observance of the Rule of St Benedict including the duty of singing each day the whole of the Divine Office, his desire only to live and die for love of the brethren and his dedication to community life, his application to the study of the Scriptures and to helping others to do the same, his simplicity and straightforwardness, his cooperation with the abbot, his gentleness and kindness, putting others first, his ability not to murmur and just get on with the job of being a monk and living the monastic life, his love for the monastery and for the monastic enclosure and, finally, his spirit of joy and gratitude. There is much more but I think these examples are enough for our purposes. The question is how do we compare? I know we don’t pretend to be saints, but we are monks. What are our priorities, our strengths and weaknesses, and what are we doing to work together with God’s grace to improve our attitude and our behaviour each day?

            To touch briefly on St Augustine before we conclude: I don’t think we know much about his early life nor do we know what were the particular qualities seen in him by St Gregory the Great to be called to lead the mission to England. He certainly seems to have suffered from cold feet on more than one occasion, lacking the confidence to go on and wanting to turn back while still in Gaul. It was St Gregory’s firm resolution that held Augustine and his men to their mission. Again Gregory had wanted London to become the centre of the mission, but Augustine couldn’t bring himself to go further than Canterbury. Now I’m not saying that Augustine was not a great saint, but he certainly had a flawed personality. Were it not for the insistence of St Gregory and the hospitality afforded by King Ethelbert of Kent and the support of his Queen, one could ask what would have become of the English mission? And, of course, had it not been for the perseverance of St Augustine and his band of forty monks, would Benedictine monasticism have spread and flourished in England to the extent of producing a Benet Biscop, a Bede and a Cuthbert within less than a hundred years? God can work miracles even with weak and imperfect instruments. There’s great consolation there.

            Where is this getting us? Monks, it is often said and, let us add, even among the saints, are a motley crew. In every monastery you invariably have a Bede and an Augustine, those who never think of leaving the cloister and dedicate themselves within the enclosure to an intensive life of work and prayer, and those who spend most of their monastic life outside the monastery, on the move, going from one mission to another and forced, under obedience, to live their monastic life in the marketplace. Then you have those who are faithful to the Rule and obedient to the Abbot, monks whose delight is to sing the office in choir and who dedicate themselves to a life of lectio, study and manual work. You have those who are humble, generous and get on well with their brethren, while you have others who struggle with the life and who find living in community difficult, even unbearable. There are some who persevere at any task given them, and others who stumble and fall, who have cold feet and who want to turn back. And not every abbot has the persuasive powers or the sheer holiness of Pope St Gregory to make others turn aside from their worst fears and return to the task at hand. You can look upon Bede and Augustine as a sort of monastic Martha and Mary.

            But we can go further. In each one of us there is something, I imagine, of both St Augustine and St Bede. We should all be blessed with a missionary spirit, even if we are not asked to work directly on the mission: in the parishes committed to our care, on the retreats’ programme or as a chaplain to nuns,  in a hospital or to the armed forces. Like St Therese of Lisieux, the Little Flower, you don’t necessarily have to be out there: some of us are better missionaries on our knees. Likewise, we should all be blessed with a love for the monastic life and that means a love for all things monastic. We need to beware of a pick-and-chose mentality, which unfortunately is prevalent everywhere nowadays, even in the Church, even in Benedictine and Cistercian monasteries. If not as yet blessed with all the virtues of St Bede, the least we can do is pray for them. I believe that you can only become a monk one step at a time, one day at a time and that the process lasts a lifetime.

            This morning the short reading ended with this lovely prayer of St Bede. Let us make it our own and let us pray earnestly each day that it come to fruition in our lives and in the lives of all our brethren. “I pray you, merciful Jesu, that as you have graciously granted me joyfully to imbibe the words of your knowledge, so you will also, of your goodness, grant that I may come at length to you, the fount of all wisdom, and stand before your face for ever. Amen.”  


1 comment:

Unknown said...

By reading your excellent post it seems to me that the abbey functioned almost like Google. That is, all the information that Bede needed literally "came" to him and he just had to look around. It was then very obvious that the Spirit chose someone as Bede to give him the virtues of patience, labor and duty to perform his immense task. Is it not marvelous and mysterious that the correct man was put in the correct place to perform a task that would be fully appreciated centuries later? Is this not what we mean by "Divine intervention"?

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