Sacred Places Journal
5 October, 2001: Durham and Jarrow: The Venerable Bede
Bells from the great cathedral on the hill behind us ring as we make our way across the courtyard from our cottage at St. Anthony's Priory at Durham to the modern round chapel of the Society of the Sacred Mission, for morning prayers. Our hymn, appropriately, is by John Bunyan, author of The Pilgrim's Progress: "He who would valiant be, 'gainst all disaster, Let him in constancy follow the master. There's no discouragement shall make him once relent his first avowed intent to be a pilgrim." I smile at the repreated refrain, . . ."to be a pilgrim."
Evelyn departs, and my daughter Elizabeth is now my fellow pilgrim. We take the train to Newcastle, then the Metro through an ugly, grey industrial area to the stop marked "Bede" and walk past Cuthbert Court and the Bede Industrial Estate to the site of the ancient St. Paul's Monastery at Jarrow. We pass Bede Technology, Ltd., and laugh at the thought that in Bede's day it would have been a Scriptorium.
Guest cottage at St. Anthony's Priory - former vicarage of George Carey, now Archbishop of Canterbury
From the road busy with whizzing traffic, we turn into a wooded haven. The Venerable Bede (673-735) spent most of his life as a monk here. He entered a nearby house at the age of seven and a few years later moved here. He left it only a few times for research trips to Lindisfarne and York. The monastery was destroyed and abandoned in the middle of the ninth century, but the memory of its former glory and the fame of Bede ensured its re-founding in 1074. It has remained a center of pilgrimage and historic interest to the present day.
St. Paul's Church at the monastery was dedicated in 681 and still serves today as the parish church for Jarrow. In 2001 we enter on the national day of Prayer "for what has happened" as the volunteer guide says. We take the sheet up to the chancel and pray in the very church where Bede would have prayed and where monks some 200 years after Bede would have voiced similar prayers as Viking invaders terrorized their world.
Tea in priory garden
I light a candle, as a visual prayer for peace and justice. The plaque quotes Bede: "Christ is the bright morning star which when the light of this world fails, bringeth his saints to the joy of eternal life and to the light of everlasting day."
On a rack at the back of the church some small brown monks' robes are hanging. "For school parties," the guide explains. "They come for a day to experience the life of a monk."
Now we go up the hill through a park to the Bede's World interpretative center, opened by Her Majesty the Queen just last December. One of the objectives of the development is to change the modern environment to be something nearer the landscape Bede would have known.
St. Paul's Monastery at Jarrow where the Venerable Bede spent his life
I gasp at the center's astounding beauty. It is based on the Roman architecture the Anglo-Saxons would have found when they came to Britain. Past a colonaded courtyard with a fountain, we are drawn by the gentle sound of splashing water, a corridor of murals of Roman Britain, wafting Gregorian chant, and the inflected sounds of Anglo-Saxon poetry as a scop would have recited it. This center appeals to all the senses.
The purpose of Bede's Ecclesiastical History, the book for which he is most famous, was to give an account of the creation of an English Church. It is the most important source of written information about the early Anglo-Saxons, completed in 731 - three centuries after the first Anglo-Saxon settlers arrived.
One wall displays present-day evaluations of Bede:
"Monks" at Bede's World
"The father of the footnote." J. D. A. Ogilvy
"We should not think of ourselves as 'English' today had Bede not written the Ecclesiastical History. N. B. P. Brooks
"Whenever you look at a calendar think of Bede, whenever you look at a history book think of Bede, whenever you look at an atlas think of Bede." Terry Deary
The reconstructed Anglo-Saxon village where efforts are underway to breed rare animals is closed because of foot-and-mouth, but we look through windows, past the Roman loggia to the parallel images: Anglo-Saxon huts below oil storage tanks; an Anglo-Saxon stone cross on a hill ringed with electrical transformer towers.
Then it's back to Durham and Evensong at the cathedral, but first we stop at the Galilee Chapel, where medieval pilgrims to St. Cuthbert's shrine gathered before making their final way to the saint's tomb behind the chancel in the cathedral. I have come, though, not thinking of Cuthbert-he's for another day. Today is Bede's, and this is where he lies.
Entering the Galilee Chapel is like entering a woods in winter. The myriad slender pillars supporting the zig-zag arches of the chapel give the effect of leafless trees. Bede lies to the right of the altar. "The father of English learning" died 735, the plaque says.
The story in pictures of Benedict Biscop, founder of Bede's Monasteries at Wearmouth and Jarrow
A father brings his two small daughters, probably ages two and four, to the prie-dieu and teaches them to kneel. Then it's my turn. Bede's prayer is calligraphied there:
I implore you, good Jesus, that as in your mercy you have given me to drink in with delight the words of your knowledge, so of your loving kindness you will also grant me one day to come to you, the fountain of all wisdom, and to stand for ever before your face. Amen.
I sit to write in Bede's chapel, knowing he would approve. What more could any lover of English Christian history ask, than to be granted the privilege of writing in the presence of the Venerable Bede?
Then Choral Evensong in the cathedral, continuing the National Day of Prayer, with one worshiper wearing an "I Love NY" teeshirt. Then, a candlelight service of Celtic Prayers for Peace and Justice at the Priory. And finally, to bed.