May 20, 2011

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

The wisdom of the saints: St. Bede

John F. FinkTwo weeks ago, I wrote that St. Athanasius lived the most tumultuous life of all the Doctors of the Church. Well, St. Bede, whose feast is on May 25, lived the quietest.

He was born on the lands of the Benedictine monastery of Sts. Peter and Paul at Wearmouth-Jarrow, England, in 673, entrusted to the abbot of that monastery when he was 7, and lived there until he died in 735. He left the monastery only once—to teach for a few months in the school of the archbishop of York.

Bede was learned in all the sciences, social and physical, of his day. He wrote 45 books on a variety of subjects, but is known particularly for his Historia Ecclesiastica, the history of the Church in England. He was an early popularizer of dating time from the incarnation of Christ as A.D.—Anno Domini. Thirty of his books were about the Bible, and he also translated books by other authors.

Here is some of what he said about the first part of Mary’s Magnificat, which she recited during her visitation to Elizabeth (Lk 1:46-55).

It begins, “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior” (Lk 1:46-47).

With these words, Bede said, Mary first acknowledged the special gifts that she had been given then went on to recall God’s favors to the entire human race.

Whenever we devote all our thoughts to the praise of God, he said, we proclaim God’s greatness. We have God’s power in our minds when we observe his commands, and our spirit rejoices in God in the mere recollection of our Creator, who gives us hope for eternal salvation.

It was only Mary, though, Bede said, who could truly rejoice in Jesus, her savior. She alone was chosen to be the mother of God, “and she burned with love for the son she so joyously conceived.”

She knew, he said, that the source of eternal salvation would be born in her body, “in one person both her own son and her Lord.”

Her canticle continues, “For the Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name” (Lk 1:49). Mary attributes nothing to her own merits, Bede said. Rather, she refers all her greatness “to the gift of the one whose essence is power and whose nature is greatness, for he fills with greatness and strength the small and the weak who believe in him.”

Mary did well, Bede said, to add “and holy is his name” (Lk 1:49), thus warning us who hear her words that we must believe and call upon his name. We, too, can share in everlasting happiness.

Those who pray the Liturgy of the Hours recite Mary’s Magnificat every day during evening prayer. Bede wrote—back in the eighth century—that this is an excellent and fruitful custom because “By meditating upon the Incarnation, our devotion is kindled, and by remembering the example of God’s mother, we are encouraged to lead a life of virtue.”

This is especially appropriate, he said, in the evening when “our minds are ready for contemplation.” †

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