If you have an interest in medieval English history, Christianity in Anglo-Saxon England, or the now-ubiquitously-popular concept of “Celtic Christianity”, there is one giant of literature that you have to get to know: the Venerable Bede. His body resides in Durham Cathedral and you can read a bit about him on their website if you like. As that page notes, Bede’s “most famous work is The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, the first ever written history of England. Completed in 731, it is a key source for understanding early British history, details about St Cuthbert’s life and the arrival of Christianity.”
It is from his writings that we have the oldest-preserved poem in English, Cædmon’s Hymn (which I had to memorize in Anglo-Saxon and translate for an exam in college), and from his students we have another gem of a poem that he recited on his deathbed:
Before the journey that awaits us all,
No man becomes so wise that he has not need
to think out, before his going hence,
What judgment will be given to soul
after his death: of evil or of good.
He died 1,285 years ago tomorrow, but his commemoration day is today. The reason for that is tomorrow is the commemoration of another saint, August of Canterbury, whose feast is traditionally of a higher “rank” than Bede’s. Although the Prayer Book tradition only acknowledges two ranks of saints days (the red-letter days appointed with Collects and Lessons, versus the black-letter days listed in the calendar and left as optional commemorations) we still follow the old precedent of celebrating Augustine on May 26th and moving Bede up a day… and besides, it’s easiest to have just one saint per day.
But let’s go back to that poem.
It is, first of all, a reflection upon death and judgment. It is not simply a momento mori (remembrance of death) like became popular in medieval piety over the centuries, but a remembrance of judgement and eternity. No one should grow presumptuous (or worse, lethargic) about the state of one’s soul. Before we die, we all must contemplate eternity, we all most think on our sinfulness and on God’s grace. Bede does not say we should live in fear, as some accuse medieval Romanism of preaching, nor does he swing in the direction of easy-peasy pop-evangelicalism that focuses on God’s loving-kindness and tends to forget about our sinfulness. He does not swerve in either direction, but stays simply in the middle: one must be mindful of judgment.
This poem navigates the balance between different sorts of biblical texts, such as:
- Fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell (Matthew 10:28).
- Judgement begins at the household of God (1 Peter 4:17).
- They will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand (John 10:28).
I wish I knew more about Bede himself. Hopefully I’ll make some time to his Ecclesiastical History in the coming year or two. For now, though, this should be a good spiritual introduction to Bede’s sort of sober spirituality.