January 12: St Benedict Biscop OSB


Today, the Roman Martyrology (and the Ordo of the English Congregation of Benedictines) mentions St Benedict Biscop, a seventh century Anglo-Saxon abbot, and he is really one of those saints who deserve to be better known as one of those responsible for the preservation of Western civilization in the 'dark ages'.

As a monk he had a reputation as being pious, ascetic, learned and holy. He is particularly honoured as the founder of the twin monasteries of Wearmouth whose Church still stands and Jarrow, where he was St Bede the Venerable's first abbot.

But his particular interest is the way his fascinating career illustrates the cross-fertilization of cultural currents at the time, and his work in importing books and skills to England where they were preserved and re-exported back to the Continent a century later.

Some modern historians, have argued that Benedict Biscop and his monastery were not in reality 'true' Benedictines.  Don't believe a word of it!  St Bede's Life of the saint opens by painting him as a true son of St Benedict of Nursia:
THE pious servant of Christ, Biscop, called Benedict, with the assistance of the Divine grace, built a monastery in honour of the most holy of the apostles, St. Peter, near the mouth of the river Were, on the north side. The venerable and devout king of that nation, Egfrid, contributed the land; and Biscop, for the space of sixteen years, amid innumerable perils in journeying and in illness, ruled this monastery with the same piety which stirred him up to build it. 
If I may use the words of the blessed Pope Gregory, in which he glorifies the life of the abbot of the same name, he was a man of a venerable life, blessed (Benedictus) both in grace and in name; having the mind of an adult even from his childhood, surpassing his age by his manners, and with a soul addicted to no false pleasures.... 
Near the end, he exhorts his monks to follow the Rule in electing his successor.  And another contemporary life defends his long absences from the monastery by pointing to St Benedict's Abbot-President type role at Subiaco.

To Rome and Lerins

Biscop (aka Benedict Barducing) was a noble who at the age of 25, in 653, left his promising career as a minister at court and headed off in pilgrimage to Rome, returning filled with fervour for the Church. Twelve years later, he did a second trip to Rome, this time ending up at the famous monastery of Lerins in the south of France (which had adopted the Rule of St Benedict by this time) where he became a monk and stayed for two years to learn what he could.

He returned to England on the instructions of the Pope, in order to act as interpreter and native guide for the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Theodore of Tarsus, a Greek monk who had been living in Italy as a refugee from the monothelite heresy then raging in the East. St Benedict then spent two years as abbot of the monastery at Canterbury before that role was taken over by Archbishop Theodore's companion Abbot Hadrian.

England at the time was still in the process of healing the breach between the Irish adherents of St Columba and the Anglo-Saxons, and St Benedict Biscop was firmly in the Roman party as a friend of the inimitable St Wilfrid (look him up!). In all, Abbot Benedict made six trips to Rome, each time bringing back many books (which he instructed his monks to carefully protect and retain!), relics, statues, icons, fabulous silks, and skilled workers.

Liturgy and Gregorian chant

On one of last of these trips, around 680 AD, for example he brought back a monk, Abbot John, to teach the chant for the liturgical year as it was done at Rome (and probably also do a bit of politicking on behalf of the Pope), teaching the locals "the theory and practice of singing and reading aloud, and he put into writing all that was necessary for the proper observance of festivals throughout the year."  It is worth noting that Constant Mews of Monash University has found some evidence that St Peter's at that time was essentially using the Benedictine Office.

In any case, chant workshops were as popular then as they are now it seems - 'proficient singers from nearly all the monasteries of the province' came to hear him; he received many invitations to teach elsewhere; and Abbot John's document detailing the proper observances for various feasts was, according to St Bede, copied for many other places.

Books

This St Benedict was keenly aware of the tradition of learning in the Order (possibly encouraged by his time at Lerins, which had always been something of a theological school producing many bishops). The library (and scriptorium) he assembled at Wearmouth was one of the largest then around, with over three hundred books, including many manuscripts rescued from Cassiodorus' fifth century attempt to preserve classical culture at the Vivarium (not least the Bible 'pandect' produced their, which in turn formed the basis for the Codex Amiatinus, probably the earliest surviving complete Bible).

Sacred art and architecture

Similarly, when Abbot Benedict built his own monastery at the invitation of King Egfrith of Northumbria, no effort was spared. St Bede wrote:

"After the interval of a year, Benedict crossed the sea into Gaul, and no sooner asked than he obtained and carried back with him some masons to build him a church in the Roman style, which he had always admired. ...When the work was drawing to completion, he sent messengers to Gaul to fetch makers of glass, (more properly artificers,) who were at this time unknown in Britain, that they might glaze the windows of his church, with the cloisters and dining-rooms. This was done, and they came, and not only finished the work required, but taught the English nation their handicraft, which was well adapted for enclosing the lanterns of the church, and for the vessels required for various uses.

All other things necessary for the service of the church and the altar, the sacred vessels, and the vestments, because they could not be procured in England, he took especial care to buy and bring home from foreign parts.

Some decorations and muniments there were which could not be procured even in Gaul, and these the pious founder determined to fetch from Rome..."

A holy death

St Benedict Biscop spent the last three years of his life paralysed by an illness:

"..yet he never lost his cheerfulness, nor ceased to praise God and exhort the brethren. He was often troubled by sleepless nights, when, to alleviate his weariness, he would call one of his monks and desire to have read to him the story of the patience of Job, or some other passage of scripture by which a sick man might be comforted, or one bent down by infirmities might be more spiritually raised to heavenly things.

Nor did he neglect the regular hours of prayer, but as he was unable to rise from his bed to prayer and could scarcely raise his voice in praise, he would call some of the brethren to him that they might sing the psalms in two choirs, he himself joining with them to the best of his ability."

He died early on this day in 689, surrounded by his brethren, and was buried in the Church he had founded, surrounded by the treasures that he had collected.

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