Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Venerable Bede (673-735)

The Death of Bede

Bede's life seems to have been one peaceful round of study and prayer passed in the midst of his own community of monks. How much he was loved by them is tenderly revealed by the touching account of the saint's last sickness and death left us by Saint Cuthbert, his contemporary and student.

On Tuesday 24th May 735 Bede took grievously ill but continued to teach. He cheerfully suggested to his pupils that they learn quickly as he may not be with them long. His students came as usual to read their lessons aloud to him at his bedside, but their reading was constantly interrupted by their tears. The next day Bede taught until nine in the morning, then he turned his attention to the gospel according to John. Forced by his illness to accept the help of a scribe, he was being assisted by a boy named Wilbert. As he felt his death approaching, 

Bede called Wilbert to his side and told him to write with all possible speed. Wilbert did not understand that he was trying to finish the translation that same day, and implored him to take breaks from the work because of his obvious weakness. "There is still a chapter wanting," said the boy as the day wore on; "had you not better rest for a while?" "Be quick with your writing," Bede answered, "for I shall not hold out much longer." The two worked side by side with urgency for the rest of the day. As so often happens, with saints as well as ordinary men and women, Bede managed to hold on to life just long enough to reach a milestone that meant a great deal to him.

As evening fell, Wilbert told his teacher that they were very close to completing the task. "There is still one sentence, dear master, which is not written down." Bede said, "Write it down quickly." After he finished Wilbert then said "There; now it is written down." Bede replied "Good. You have spoken the truth; it is finished. Take my head in thy hands for it much delights me to sit opposite any holy place where I used to pray, that so sitting I may call upon my Father." Then he said "I have a few treasures in my box. Run quickly and fetch the priests of our monastery, and I will share among them such little presents as God has given me." His "box of treasures" contained his only possessions -- some handkerchiefs, a few peppercorns and a small quantity of incense -- and these were shared amongst his brother monks as he had wished. Then Bede began to sing the Gloria in a broken voice, but only got as far as "Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost" before he breathed his last and passed to his reward on Ascension Eve.

As illness and weakness came upon Bede at the end of his life, he became preoccupied with completing his translation of the fourth Gospel into English. Despite sleepless nights and days of weariness, he continued his task, making what speed he could, and taking great care in comparing the text and preserving its accuracy. "I don't want my boys," he said, "to read a lie or to work to no purpose after I am gone." His persistence in prayer and scholarship even at the end of his life was a powerful example of devotion to his disciples.

Folio 3v from Codex Beda Petersburgiensis 

graphic: The Death of Bede Detail of window in Whitburn parish church, Tyne and Wear, by Burlison and Grylls

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