Durham Cathedral is one of my very special places for very personal reasons.
This great Northern building is especially precious to many because, without doubt, a visit can enfold you with a feeling that this is a very holy place. That may very well be because it houses the shrine of the great Northern Saint, Cuthbert and also the bones of another Northern Saint, the Venerable Bede.
Bede is most renowned for his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, a chronicle of our early history as a nation and as a church and for which he is rightly recognized as the ‘father of English History’
It is all the more remarkable because Bede never left the North East of England. When he was 7, in what is described as a free-will offering to the church, his parents placed him in the care of the Anglo-Saxon monastery at Wearmouth near what is now Sunderland. This was in about the year 680AD and a year later he moved to the new sister monastery at Jarrow where he stayed until his death. Here he learned and taught the scriptures and shared faith and prayer with others.
At the age of about fifty nine he said: “I have spent all my life in this monastery [of Jarrow], applying myself entirely to the study of the Scriptures; and amid the observance of the discipline of the Rule and the daily task of singing the Divine Office in the church, it has been my delight to learn or to teach or to write.”
Apart from the Ecclesiastical History, Bede also wrote the lives of various Northern Saints including Cuthbert but he was also a renowned Biblical Scholar. He wrote commentaries on many biblical books including the first Latin commentary on the Acts of the Apostles, which is still available today and which has a contemporary feel to it.
He led a quiet, devoted and happy life in which he simply obeyed God and followed what God asked of him. In that life he left a mighty legacy of learning but also the foundation of all our knowledge about the British lands, its people, its church and its faith. It was a life deeply rooted in prayer.
St. Alcuin related that Bede used to say: “I well know that angels visit the congregations of brethren at the canonical hours. What if they should not find me there among my brethren? Will they not say, ‘Where is Bede? Why comes he not with his brethren to the prescribed hours?”
Hehas become known as Bede the Venerable and there is a little story as to how he got this title. Late in life he is said to have become almost blind. One day some jesters came to him and said that there were some people in the church waiting to hear the word of God. In fact there was no-one there except the jesters. So, ever anxious for the salvation of others, the saint went to the church and preached, not knowing that it was empty. When he had ended his sermon, he prayed, and, instead of a human response, he received one from the angels: “Amen, very Venerable Bede”.
I do not know how much truth is in this story but it has a certain holy authenticity about it!
When Bede was dying he was working on a translation of the Gospel of John.
Bishop Joseph Barber of Durham in his famous Leaders of the Northern Church describes the scene:
A man past the middle of life lay on his deathbed, surrounded by his disciples. They were sorrowing, says a bystander who relates the incident, at the thought that they should see his face no more in this life. A youth was taking down some words from the master’s lips. ‘One chapter still remains,’ said the lad, ‘of the book which thou hast dictated; and yet it seems troublesome to thee to ask more of thee.’ ‘It is not troublesome,’ said the dying man, ‘get out thy pen and prepare, and write quickly.’ So the hours went on. At intervals he conversed with his scholars; then again he dictated. At length his amanuensis turned to him; ‘Beloved master, one sentence only remains to be written.’ ‘Good,’ he replied,’ write it.’ After a short pause the boy told him that it was written. ‘Good,’ said he, ‘it is finished; thou hast said truly.’ And in a few moments more he gave up his soul to God, with his last breath chanting the doxology, familiar to him, as to us.
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost.
I like to think that his friends the angels awaited to take him into the joy of eternal life.
The prayer below says so much about him. It is based on one Bede wrote.
Lord God almighty,
open wide the door of my heart
and enlighten me with the grace of the Holy Spirit,
that I may seek what is pleasing to your will.
Guide my thoughts and my heart,
and lead my life in the way of your commandments,
that I may always seek to fulfil them,
and that I might be found worthy of the eternal joys of the heavenly life;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.