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May 26, 2020

How an Epidemic Gave Us an Epic Monk

May 26, 2020

You are probably familiar with the early Benedictine monk who goes by the name Venerable Bede. His Feast Day is May 25. He was one of the early giants in English Literature, right up there with Chaucer and company. His life, which began around 673, was highly influenced by a virulent epidemic that raged across England in multiple waves during his lifetime.

When he was a young lad of 7, his parents put him in the Benedictine monastery of Saints Peter and Paul, – apparently not an uncommon practice back in the day. When he was 13, he transferred to the newly founded monastery of Jarrow in Northeast England. Within months of the monastery’s opening, a plague ravaged the area. Within a year all the monks of Jarrow had died – save the Abbot and the teenaged Bede. The old man and the novice sang the Liturgical Hours together, alternating verses in an otherwise empty choir. Bede served the Abbot’s Mass throughout the dark days of the plague. No one else could be present.

Bede was ordained a deacon at 19 – rather young but an indication that clergy were in short supply due to the plague. He was ordained a priest at 30. The familiar title “Venerable” was probably the title of all monastic priests in 7th century England.

Bede wrote over 60 books, made advances in measuring time and predicting tides and even invented a water clock. He is most remembered and studied for his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, the preeminent source for the early history of the Anglo-Saxon Church. Strangely, he never mentioned the devastating plague of 686 when he was a 13 year old novice. Monk, priest, theologian, Saint Bede was named a Doctor of the Church by Pope Leo XIII in 1899 – the only Englishman to date to be so honored.

In writing about history, Bede did more than record details of the past. His real contribution was to describe history in a way that revealed the deeper significance of the events. He told history with a deep theological insight.

The English historian, Francis Young, speculates that Bede’s life of extraordinary scholarly and scientific productivity just might have been the result of his narrowly escaping death during the 686 plague. Bede became highly motivated to make the best use of the time he was given. He not only described what happened but with theological insight he wanted to know what was the meaning of what happened, why did this happen.

Someone once said cleverly that “There are three kinds of people: those who make things happen, those who watch things happen and those who wonder what’s happening.” In whichever category you might place yourself, Bede invites us all to ask why is this happening, what is the significance of this moment. Good questions to ponder and pray with at this most unusual time when we have all been quasi-monastics, cloistered in our home monasteries, from the very young to the very old.

In Christ,
Most Reverend Ronald W. Gainer

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