In 686 the plague broke out in a monastery in Jarrow in the north of England. All the monks died, except the abbot a young novice aged 14. Between them the two maintained the full monastic worship of the church until more brothers joined them.
The young boy was Bede, later called ‘the Venerable Bede.’ (Feast day 25th May). Bede was essentially a simple man with a great intellect. For most he was content to stay where he was – in the monastery at Jarrow, a far flung outpost in the civilised world of his day. He never travelled further than York, and that only once. In mind, prayer and study, however, he travelled far. He completed over sixty books, and was considered one of the most learned men of his time. At the same time his interests were wide ranging. He wrote of his love of cooking, walking the coastline, poetry and music.
Within his writings Bede allows for questions to come forward, and for spaces to ponder and think. Curiously, and challengingly his translation of St John’s Gospel into the English of his day ends at John 6.9 – during the story of the feeding of the five thousand at the words, about the bread and fish, What are they among so many?
In his Ecclesiastical History of the English people Bede tells this story reflecting on the value of the Christian faith to the people to whom it was being presented for the first time in early England:
Another of the king’s chief men signified his agreement with this prudent argument, and went on to say: “Your Majesty, when we compare the present life of man on earth with that time of which we have no knowledge, it seems to me like the swift flight of a single sparrow through the banqueting hall where you are sitting at dinner on a winter’s day with your thegns and counsellors. In the midst there is a comforting fire to warm the hall; outside, the storms of winter rain or snow are raging. This sparrow flies swiftly in through one door of the hall, and out through another. While he is inside, he is safe from the winter storms; but after a few moments of comfort, he vanishes from sight into the wintry world from which he came. Even so, man appears on earth for a little while; but of what went before this life or of what follows, we know nothing. Therefore, if this new teaching has brought any more certain knowledge, it seems only right that we should follow it.”
Bede’s Prayer, above his tomb in Durham cathedral:
Christus est stella matutina, Alleluia
Qui nocte saeculi transacta, Alleluia
Lucem vitae sanctis promittit, Alleluia;
Et pandit aeternam, Alleluia
(Christ is the morning star who when the night of this world is past brings to his saints the promise of the light of life & opens everlasting day.)