The feast day of the Venerable Bede seems like a good time think about the modern resurgence in the liturgy of the hours. For Bede, the liturgy of hours was the most constant part of his life, seven times a day, every day from childhood to death. According to his disciple Cuthbert, he sang it continually on his last days, dying as the choir sang vespers on the eve of the Ascension. It often seems as though terminally ill people hold on to reach a particular day or to see a particular person one last time; for Bede the consummate theologian reaching the feast of the Ascension was such a goal. Although his Old English death song gets much more publicity today, it was an Ascension antiphon: “O King of Glory, Lord of Might, Who rose today in victory above the heavens, Do not leave us orphans, but send us the Father’s promised Spirit of Truth, Alleluia” that his disciple Cuthbert reports moved him the most in his last days. Bede’s repetition of this antiphon from Easter to his death on Ascension Eve (when the medieval church considered the feast day to begin) suggests that his goal was to enter the heavenly kingdom as his brothers celebrated the Ascension. I wonder if they would have sung the litany of the dead for him on the Ascension day?
The full liturgy of the hours is still celebrated today much as it was then in some monasteries. Abbreviated forms of daily prayer have come and gone among the laity. It is said that the late medieval Book of Hours format is the most common type of medieval book to survive. This tradition is carried on by the Book of Common Prayer (BCP), which offers four daily offices. Eventually, I will explore the idea of creating a new Anglican Book of Hours in this space but I have much more study to do before then. This is an idea I think that Bede would have fully embraced. We know that the faith and practices of the laity were one of the concerns on his mind in his last months. From his last letter in November 734, to Bishop Egbert of York: (Farmer trans, 1990, p. 340)
“In preaching to the people, this message more than any other should be proclaimed:… the Catholic faith, as contained in the Apostle’s Creed and the Lord’s Prayer … as for the unlearned, that is, those who know their own language only, make these learn the texts in their own tongue and accurately sing them. This should be learned not only by the laity still settled in secular life but also by clerics and monks who are already expert in the Latin language…That is why I have frequently offered translations of both the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer into English to many unlearned priests.”
There has been a growing realization in the last decade in particular that to understand Bede we have to put the Historia aside and look at his other works, the majority of his work. We need to understand Bede the theologian, the exegete, and the monk before we have a hope of understanding Bede the historian. To that end, two very important books on Bede’s works appeared in 2006. The collected study Innovation and Tradition in the Writings of the Venerable Bede (DeGregorio, ed., W. Va. Press) and N.J. Higham’s (Re-)Reading Bede: The Ecclesiastical History in Context (Routledge). Reviews of both of these books will appear here as time permits. The third book of importance published last year is Scott DeGregorio’s translation of On Ezra-Nehemiah (2006, Liverpool UP), so lets end with Bede’s closing for this possibly his last commentary (p. 226):
“Highest father of lights, by whom every excellent thing is given and from whom every perfect gift descends, you have given me, the humblest of your servants, both the love and the aid to consider the wonders of your law, and have manifested to me, unworthy though I am, the grace to not only grasp the ancient offerings in the treasury of this prophetic book but also to discover new ones beneath the veil of the old and to bring them forth for the use of my fellow servants – Remember me with favour, oh my God.”