‘it has always been my delight to learn or to to teach or to write’

Job applications and fatherhood make you think about what kind of person you want to be and are. Earlier today, I was reminded of — and struck personally by — this passage from the Venerable Bede’s autobiography that he appended to The Ecclesiastical History of the English People:

I have spent all my life in this monastery, 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 in the church, it has always been my delight to learn or to teach or to write. (HE v.24, trans. McClure and Collins, p.293)

It is that final clause that gets me: it has always been my delight to learn or to teach or to write.

I am no Bede, certainly, but this is what delights me. Learning history, learning theology, learning philosophy, learning about poetry, learning from books, learning from conversation, learning from documentaries, learning from lectures. Teaching — I’ve done less of this! — teaching from pulpits, teaching in lecture halls, teaching undergraduates, ‘teaching’ informally around a table with friends, teaching through small group study. Writing this blog, writing academic articles, re-writing my thesis so it becomes a book, writing journals. Formerly — writing poems, writing stories.

I am no Bede, but here I find a consonance with that monk buried 5 minutes away in Durham Cathedral. This is what I want to spend my life doing, both for the delight it brings and for the greater glory of God.

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Saint of the Week: Caedmon

Tomorrow, Saturday 11 February, is the commemoration of a seventh-century Anglo-Saxon monk by the name of Caedmon. He made his claim to fame by being a poet in the monastery of St.  Hilda (a post about whom will soon be reblogged here). As we learn from the Venerable Bede (Saint of the Week here), Caedmon had no natural poetic ability but, rather, a supernatural ability:

He himself learned the art of singing, instructed ‘not by men nor through man’ (Gal 1:1), but he freely received the gift of singing from divine aid. The he could never put anything frivolous or needless in his poems, but only those things which pertained to religion were fitting for his religious tongue.

Since, indeed, he remained in the secular way of life up to the time of a more advanced age, at which time he had learned no songs. And so, sometimes at banquets because it was decreed for the sake of delight that everyone ought to sing in turm, when he saw the cithara draw near, he rose up from the middle of the dinner, left, and went home.

At a certain time when he had done this, leaving the house of the banquet, he went out to the stable of the livestock since their guardianship had been delegated to him that night. There he gave his limbs to sleep at a suitable hour. Someone came to him through a dream, greeting him and calling him by name, ‘Caedmon, sing me something.’

But he responded, ‘I don’t know how to sing; for I withdrew hither, leaving the banquet for that reason, since I could not sing.’

The one with him answered and said, ‘But, come, you can sing for me.’

‘What,’ he said, ‘ought I to sing?’

And the person said, ‘Sing of the beginning of the creatures.’

When this answer was accepted, immediately he began to sing verses in praise of the creator God which he had never heard, whose sense was:

Now we ought to praise the maker of the heavenly kingdom,
the power of the Creator and his intent,

the deeds of the Father of glory:
how he, since he is the eternal God,
has been the author of all miracles
who in the first for the sons of men
created the sky like the top of a roof
,
and then the almighty preserver of human race
created the earth.

This is the sense, but not the precise order of the words, which he sang whilst asleep; for songs, although composed extremely well, cannot be translated from one language to another word-for-word without damage to their beauty and worthiness. And then, rising from sleep, he remembered all the things which he had sung whilst asleep and soon he joined many words of a song worthy of God into the same measure. (Bede, Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum 4.22.1-2 [SC 490, pub. 2005] or 4.24 [all previous edd], my trans.)

Caedmon is promptly sent to St. Hilda where, in front of ‘many learned men’, he sings the song. They test him by preaching a lengthy sermon which he is committed to put to verse. He succeeds, and Hilda convinces him to leave the secular life and join the monastery at Whitby. So he does.

Caedmon spent the rest of his life composing verse based upon the Scriptures and the salvation story as well as songs written to stir people up to shun vice and love virtue. He submitted himself to the discipline of the monastery’s rule and was harsh towards those who tried to live by their own rule.

Aware of his own impending death of a prolonged weakness, he moved into the house of the sick at the monastery and shared a few laughs with the men there. Then he received the Eucharist for the last time, made sure he and his monastic brothers were at peace, laid his head on his pillow, and died.

You can read my translation of the whole of Bede’s account of Caedmon’s life here. One of the things that is notable about Caedmon is the fact that he seems to have had an entirely oral/aural skill. Bede, throughout the account, refers to the things that Caedmon has heard being turned into songs. Caedmon was a Christian scop, an Anglo-Saxon poet who used the techniques of traditional oral poetry to compose songs about Christian themes.

We see here the fostering of the arts by St. Hilda; this is a recurring theme throughout the Middle Ages. The monasteries were in favour of the arts and of putting them to use of God’s glory. A reminder for us all.

And, since Bede laments the futility of translating verse, here is Caedmon’s hymn in Anglo-Saxon (found here):

Nu scilun herga hefenricæs uard
metudæs mehti and his modgithanc uerc
uuldurfadur sue he uundra gihuæs eci
dryctin or astelidæ he ærist scop aeldu
barnum hefen to hrofæ halig sceppend tha
middingard moncynnæs uard eci dryctin
æfter tiadæ firum foldu frea allmehtig.

Further Explorations (in anti-alphabetical order)

Cavill, Paul. Anglo-Saxon Christianity. A readable introduction to Christianity in Anglo-Saxon lands in the Early Middle Ages.

Bradley, S.A.J. trans. Anglo-Saxon Poetry. Everyman’s Library. A selection of a very broad swath of Anglo-Saxon verse translated into modern English.

Bede. The Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Trans. Bertram Colgrave. Oxford World’s Classics. Word on the street is that this is the recommended translation of Bede.

The Venerable Bede on Prayer

Prayer as a whole is not only in the words by which we invoke the divine mercy, but also in all the things which we do in the service of our Maker by the devotion of faith . . .  For how could anyone invoke the Lord with words in every hour and moment without a break?  But we pray without ceasing when we perform only those works which commend us by our godliness to our maker. –Venerable St. Bede from his Commentary on the Gospel of St. Mark*

May we all seek the Lord in every way we can.  There is a Benedictine idea that work is prayer (let alone the Desert idea that prayer is work).  When you work, especially in service to others, your deeds are prayer in action.  Vacuuming, washing dishes, mowing the lawn, gathering the eggs from the chicken coop, shelving books at the bookstore, making a spreadsheet for your boss, checking a guest into the hotel where you work — this is prayer.

Thus can we pray without ceasing.

*I found the quotation on p. 34 of The Wisdom of the Anglo-Saxons, ed. Gordon Mursell.

Saint of the Week: St. Cuthbert

This week’s saint is St. Cuthbert (634-687), whose feast day is this coming Saturday (March 20). St. Cuthbert was from Northumbria. He spent his life until age eight being a child, until (according to the Venerable Bede) God sent him a message from a 3-year-old that he should live more soberly, seeing as how he was destined for holiness and the like. Apparently he heeded the child (Life of St. Cuthbert, 1).

He grew up to become a shepherd.  He shepherded until the death of St. Aidan (651), founder of the monastery at Lindisfarne, when he had a vision of the sky lit up and the angels receiving St. Aidan’s spirit.  He decided, on this basis, that he should become a monk.  So he went to Melrose, where Prior Boisil received him with evidences of Cuthbert’s holiness, and Abbot Eata confirmed the young man’s call to the monastic life.  He lived at Melrose for a while, until King Alhfrith gave the monks of Melrose land at Ripon, where Cuthbert, Eata, and others went to live according to their rule.

At Ripon, Cuthbert was in charge of providing hospitality to visitors, a task that brought him into contact with an angel who was there to test Cuthbert’s faithfulness (entertaining angels unawares).  He proved to have great zeal at this task as at all of his other monastic labours.

The monks of Ripon had been living in a monastery according to the Celtic custom rather than by the “Roman” or Benedictine Rule.  It is my understanding that Celtic monasticism holds more in common with the monasticism of the East as we see today on Mt. Athos than it does with the Benedictine organisation.  At this time in England, however, the Celtic way of Christianity was clashing with the imported Roman way that had been introduced by continental missionaries such as St. Augustine of Canterbury (d. 604).  Since the monks of Ripon did not agree to live according to Roman customs, King Alhfrith drove them out and a Benedictine monastery with St. Wilfrid as its abbot was established in their place in 658.

After their return to Melrose, Prior Boisil, who had been a spiritual mentor to St. Cuthbert, passed away (664*).  Cuthbert was appointed to take Boisil’s place as Prior.  Part of the role of Prior at Melrose was to go around the countryside preaching.  This St. Cuthbert did with as much zeal as all of his other monastic tasks, such as prayer, fasting, solitude, and hospitality.  He went to the villages and towns of Northumbria calling the pagans to Christ and those who had accepted Christ to repentance, increased depth of faith, and greater holiness of life.  He even went to small, hidden villages of squalid conditions, places few other missionaries dared go, to give the people the Gospel of Christ.

St. Cuthbert, upon the death of Abbot Eata, moved to Lindisfarne with the unenviable task of introducing the Benedictine Rule amongst the brothers there.  They did not take kindly to this, but he, through good graciousness, charity of speech, and lack of rancour, succeeded at his task.  Lindisfarne is an island in the North Sea off the coast of Northumbria that is only an island at high tide; thus, one can access it by foot at low tide.  It was chosen as a monastery no doubt because of its similarity to the desert, for the wild, alone places were the habitations of the earliest monks, such as St. Antony.

After dwelling amongst the monks of Lindisfarne for a time, in 676 St. Cuthbert retired to the hermit’s life on a true island just south of Lindisfarne.  St. Benedict’s Rule does, in fact, recommend that one spend time as a cenobite (monk who lives in community) before taking up the life of a hermit, and only to become a hermit at the true call of God when one has reached a certain degree of holiness.  By what I read in Bede’s account, St. Cuthbert had reached such a degree.  At first he received visitors, but soon would only see them through a window, as had been the practice of various Egyptian hermits before him.

In 684, against his wishes, he was elected Bishop of Lindisfarne — Lindisfarne was both a monastic retreat and an episcopal see whose clergy, although separate from the abbot and the monks, all lived lives of asceticism.  In St. Cuthbert’s reluctance to take up the yoke of the episcopacy we see more echoes from the desert, for one of the sayings of the Desert Fathers was to flee women and bishops, lest one fall into fornication or ordination.  As bishop, St. Cuthbert continued his missionary work amongst the people of Northumbria.

After Christmas of 686, St. Cuthbert retired from his role of bishop, feeling certain that his death-day was soon.  In March of 687, St. Cuthbert, living once again as a hermit, fell ill and then fell asleep in the Lord.  Paul Cavill, in Anglo-Saxon Christianity: Exploring the Earliest Roots of Christian Spirituality in England, notes that in the earlier, anonymous Life, Cuthbert turns his eyes and hands towards heaven as he dies.  In the Venerable Bede’s version, he makes a little speech against schismatics (ie. people of Celtic custom who did not agree with the Synod of Whitby).  This version, says Cavill, is pure Bede.  Many miracles are recorded in association of his relics, confirming this saint’s holiness.

I highly recommend reading Bede’s Life of St. Cuthbert which can be found in the Penguins Classics book Lives of the Saints.

*The same year as the fateful Synod of Whitby.

The Saint of Last Week: St. Alban the Martyr

Last week’s saint was to be St. Alban the Martyr.  So you get him today instead.  I am a big fan of St. Alban.

St. Alban holds the distinction of being the first British martyr.  According to the Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, he was martyred under Diocletian, c. 305.   The following is pretty much from memory; correct me if I’m wrong.

Alban was converted when he gave refuge to a priest during the persecution.  While the priest was staying with him, he observed this Christian at prayer and was converted to the Faith and then baptised by him.  When the soldiers came to arrest the priest, Alban dressed in the priest’s clothes, so they took him instead.  Having gone before the magistrate — who, if I remember aright, was sacrificing to demons at the time — the ruse was found out.  Nevertheless, he refused to make the necessary sacrifice and was condemned to death.  I imagine the sacrifice was burning incense to the Emperor.

As the soldiers were marching him to the place of execution, for some reason they couldn’t use the bridge.  Alban was so prepared to stand before the Judgement Seat of Christ that, like Moses, Joshua, or Elijah, he parted the waters of the river and continued on to the place of his earthly death.  His first executioner was converted by the miracle and refused to behead this holy man.  He was condemned to death also.  The second executioner’s eyes proceeded to fall out of his head when he did the wicked deed — much to the delight of mediaeval illuminators.  And where Alban’s head fell, there did a spring bubble up.

Alban has been a part of my life for many years.  My father was rector of St. Alban’s Anglican Church in Brooks, Alberta, when I was born.  I was thus baptised at St. Alban’s.  St. Alban’s martyrdom was accordingly listed in the events on my dad’s timeline of church history during confirmation class (although by then we were at a different parish).  In university, I was blessed to attend St. Alban the Martyr Anglican Church in Ottawa.  Then I was married at St. Alban’s in 2007.  All that remains is to find a St. Alban’s for me to attend at the hour of my death so that I may have my funeral at St. Alban’s.

Oh yes—and whilst in university, the martyr would occasionally grow restless.  My friends and I would oblige him by taking his statue from the church around the city and getting some photos with him.  He visited the pubs with us, went to class, saw the Parliament Buildings, attended my wedding.

Finally, let us reflect on St. Alban and see what we can learn from his tale.  Certainly we learn that Christ can use even the observation of a believer at prayer to enact His work of saving grace in people’s lives.   We should not be awkward about praying or uncomfortable mentioning our prayer lives to those around us.  Second, we see that we should carry ourselves with bravery.  This saint went bravely and eagerly to his martyrdom.  Perhaps you doubt tales of miraculous river crossings, eyes popping out of heads, springs rising up where bits of saints land.  Nevertheless, we should not be ashamed of the Gospel; it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone!  Let us be emboldened by St. Alban the Martyr — not to the point of insensitive spiritual bullying, but to the point of clear, unabashed statements of what we believe as followers of the Most High God.

St. Alban’s feast day is June 22 by the BCP calendar.  He is much remembered and revered by Anglicans because he is England’s first martyr.  Thus, there were 9 parishes dedicated to him in England in “ancient times”.