I pray you, good Jesus, that as you have given me the grace to drink in with joy the Word that gives knowledge of you, so in your goodness you will grant me to come at length to yourself, the source of all wisdom, to stand before your face forever. Amen.
Today is the feast of St. Bede the Venerable (672-735)—monk, priest, homilist, teacher, historian, poet, and the person most responsible for popularizing the “A.D.” system of dating things. He was a phenomenon in his own day, and his mind, character, and achievement still stand out as a remarkable expression of human response to the gifts and call of God. But, there is something else I am thinking about on his feast today: his yearning for communion with God.
In his own writings, St. Bede understood himself as a preacher, a teacher, a writer…but most of all as a monk. For him, this meant a great deal of time spent in liturgical prayer, study, and contemplative silence. This, I believe, is the key to opening the door of his spectacular achievement as a disciple of Our Lord and Master—and its value for one so much less gifted who lives today.
Monasticism, as my spiritual director (an anchoress) likes to say, is “Christianity lived to the hilt.” In a sense, monasticism is like the edge of the ploughshare, the part that digs into the soil and opens it up, exposing the truth of what is there—and taking the rocks and other obstructions head-on. It is a raw and honest form of following Jesus. It embraces the challenge of faithfulness in this world, always going back to basic principles.
It may also be likened to a spiritual version of an experimental research station, where cutting-edge study on the matters of the soul and the human spirit occurs. In such a community, the thirst for knowledge must be deep in order to sustain the effort, the struggle, and the privations any focused and determined study requires.
In St. Bede’s day, Benedictine monasticism was a new and highly sophisticated phenomenon in northern England. The monasteries at Monkswearmouth and Jarrow were rather like space colonies, what with their ongoing connections to Rome so many miles away, their use of then high-tech skills such as glass-making, mural-painting, book-making, writing, and studies in apparently non-productive things like orthography, horology, mathematics, and history. Why were these men all so focused on things having no immediate “payoff?” In a time when sheer survival was hard, and where each day was a struggle with starvation, warfare, disease, why spend all of one’s life in such pursuits?
The Prayer of St. Bede gives us an answer. This prayer tells us that for Bede and his less-famous and less-brilliant brothers, the desire to “stand before God’s face forever” was the supreme desire, the highest good. Thus, they ordered their lives according to this ultimate desire. Each day, each hour was connected to the expectation that a life lived rightly here in this world would lead to an eternity of communion with God, where the learning, love, and increase in sacred knowledge would never end.
For the brothers at Jarrow and other monasteries, the call to know God deeply and then share the fruits of that knowledge with the world around the monastery resulted in the foundation of a society where the Gospel was brought to bear on daily life, justice enacted, mercy shown, and beauty experienced. This simple desire for communion with God the Holy and Undivided Trinity fueled a revolution transforming the north of England from fringe territory in the post-Roman world to a center of world learning and the practice of the Gospel.
For us who commemorate this great saint today, the question remains: What is our ultimate desire? If we know that, we will know how to order our lives.
Our own era presents us much the same challenge as Bede’s very different world did for him. As in his day, we are urged to focus on immediate gratification, practical accomplishments, and measurable achievements. Yet Christians must always reject the false reasoning that living in the world must mean worldliness, with its fixation on wealth, power, sex, youth, and control. Rather, we are people of communion: with God, with neighbor, with all of Creation—and with the redeemed self even now coming into being through this relationship of love and knowledge. It is this communion, not individualism or competitive isolation that we seek. And this colors all our doings, all our days.
As a former priest of a mission dedicated to St. Bede, I hold him in particular reverence. His witness is not remote or obscure to me. His gentleness in an aggressive and bitter time is an inspiration. His commitment to daily prayer, study, and silence is a powerful encouragement to do the same in my own day. His placing communion with God above even the use of his own great capabilities awes me—and charms me. I, too, want that communion. I, too, have been given the gifts of the Holy Spirit in baptism, the call by God to follow Christ’s example, the tools of the catholic faith, the sacraments, the holy scriptures, the witness of the saints, the life of prayer…all these things are mine as they were his.
My responsibility is to recommit, as he did, every day to the task. By saying his prayer, I taste once more his own thirst, and am recalled to take up the burdens—and the blessings—of a life founded on communion, offering it for whatever redemptive good our loving God may have for it…if only I, too, may join the saints in drinking in the joy that comes by standing before God’s face, forever.
Holy Bede, pray for us.