Little Lives of the Great Saints – Saint Bede, O.S.B., Father of the Church

illustration of Saint Bede the Venerable, from the Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493Article

Died A.D. 735.

The early history of the Catholic Church in England is crowned by one of those great figures that stand out above the sea of ages, and triumph over the forgetfulness as well as over the systematic contempt of scoffing and frivolous generations.

The name of Bede, after having been one of the brightest and most popular in Christendom, still remains invested with an imperishable fame. He is the type of that studious and learned life which, in the eyes of many, sums up the entire mission of the monk.

To have seen him pray, says an ancient writer, one would think that he left himself no time to study; and when we look at his books we admire that he could have found time to do anything else but write.

Our Saint was born in the North of England, at a village near the mouth of the Tyne, in the year 673. The little Bede, at the age of seven, was confided by his relatives to the care of Abbot Saint Benedict Biscop, who had just completed his monastery of Wearmouth. But the great abbot soon transferred the charge and education of his young pupil to his assistant, Ceolfrid. The latter, with twenty companions, had founded the house of Yarrow.

No sooner, however, had they settled down in their new home than a cruel epidemic swept over the establishment. Death carried away all the choir monks. The Abbot Ceolfrid and his favorite pupil, the young Bede, then in his thirteenth year, alone remained. But the two continued to celebrate as best they could, with tears and sorrow, the entire canonical service until the arrival of a new body of monks.

It is truly touching to think of these two heroic souls. One was already a mature and illustrious man, the other an obscure child predestined to fame. Together they sang the praises of God in their lonely, plague-stricken cloister – together they awaited the future with lofty faith and unconquerable courage.

The life of Bede was entirely passed in the monastery of Yarrow, which he immortalized by his virtues and his vast learning. From a pupil he soon rose to be a master of the highest rank. At the age of thirty he was elevated to the sacred dignity of the priesthood. Many were his duties. It was his pleasure, as he himself tells us, “to learn, to teach, and to write.” He gave daily lessons to six hundred monks. And until his last illness he had no assistant in his literary labors.

“I am my own secretary,” he said; “I dictate, I compose, I copy all myself.”

This great genius, this cheerful and unwearied worker, was the author of forty-five different books. Many of these are comments on Holy Scripture, but he handled all the sciences and every branch of literature.

He taught princes and advised prelates, but such was his love of simplicity that he would never accept the dignity of Abbot. When consulted as to abuses in church or state, his words were wise, noble, and weighty. He always wrote with manly independence.

In a letter to his pupil Egbert, Bishop of York, he says: “Beware, dear bishop, of the crime of those who think only of drawing earthly lucre from their ministry. It is said that there are many villages in our Northumberland, situated among inaccessible hills or woods, where the arrival of a bishop to baptize, and teach the faith and the distinction between good and evil, has never been witnessed, yet where no one is exempt from payment of the bishop’s dues. Thus there are bishops who, far from evangelizing their flock without reward, as our Lord wills, receive, without preaching, the money which He has forbidden them to accept even while preaching.”

In this great soul the Christian virtues were naturally united to that thirst for knowledge, that love of study, that vivifying desire for work, that noble thoughtfulness of things human and divine, which makes Bede such an interesting figure in early English history – that history of which he himself was the father and founder.

But the most beautiful part of his life was the hour of his happy departure from this world. It was a scene sublime. His last days were devoted to the translation of the Gospel of Saint John into Anglo-Saxon. Even his illness did not interrupt the work, which he continued with the aid of a young secretary. As the venerable monk dictated he would sometimes pause and say: “Make haste to learn, for I know not how long I may remain with you, or if my Creator may shortly call me.”

On the eve of the Ascension the translation was nearly finished. “Beloved father, there is still one chapter wanting,” said the young secretary. “Would it fatigue you to speak any more?’

“I am still able to speak,” answered Bede. “Take your pen, make it, and write rapidly.” The other obeyed.

At noon he sent for the priests of the monastery and bade them a last farewell, requesting each of them to say Masses for his eternal repose. Thus passed his last day until the evening.

“Most dear master,” said his companion tenderly, “there remains but one verse to write.”

“Write quickly,” answered Bede. In a few minutes the work was completed, and the young monk exclaimed: “It is now finished.”

“You say truly, it is finished,” said the dying Saint. “Dear child, hold my head in your arms, and turn me, that I may have the pleasure of looking towards the little oratory where I was wont to pray.” Thus, lying on the floor of his cell, he sang, “Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost,” and as he murmured the last of these divine names his beautiful soul passed to the bosom of God.

His death occurred at the age of sixty-two, on the evening of the 26th of May, in the year 735.

“Remember,” writes the famous monk Alcuin to the religious community of Yarrow, many years after, “remember the nobility of your fathers, and be not the unworthy sons of such great ancestors; look at your books, at the beauty of your churches and monastic buildings. Let your young men learn to persevere in the praises of God, and not in driving foxes out of their holes, or in wearing out their strength running after hares. What folly to leave the footsteps of Christ and run after the trail of a fox! Look at Bede, the noblest doctor of our country. See what zeal he showed for knowledge from his youth, and the glory which he has received among men, though that is much less important and less dazzling than his reward before God. Stir up, then, the minds of your sleepers by his example. Study his works, and you will be able to draw from them, both for yourselves and others, the secret of eternal beauty.”

MLA Citation

  • John O’Kane Murray, M.A., M.D. “Saint Bede, O.S.B., Father of the Church”. Little Lives of the Great Saints, 1879. CatholicSaints.Info. 25 September 2018. Web. 17 November 2018. <>