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Life Together in the Time of Plague

Bede’s wisdom for the COVID-19 pandemic.

David Grubbs
David Grubbs
David Grubbs is an Assistant Professor of English at Houston Baptist University, and the program coordinator for HBU’s Master of Liberal Arts degree program. He is a host of the Christian Humanist Podcast, as well as a regular interviewer on the Christian Humanist Profiles podcast (www.christianhumanist.org). David serves in his local church as a lay pastor and teacher. On Twitter, he’s @TheRealGrubbsy.

In AD 686, plague struck the Anglian kingdom of Northumbria, and the twin Benedictine monastic communities founded by Benedict Biscop were hit hard. At St. Paul’s at Jarrow, one account says, “all those brethren who could read or preach or recite the antiphons and responds were taken away, with the exception of the abbot and one little lad.” That “one little lad” grew up to be the man we know as the Venerable Bede. He would have been about thirteen.

We’ve been told often over the last six months that the COVID-19 pandemic now dominating our world is “unprecedented.” In some ways this is true: our globalized society makes us aware that this is a global phenomenon; we track statistics from countries far away; we compare our local experience with others. Still, the voices of those who have endured these things before us seem to speak up, to remind us that we walk a well-trodden valley. The Venerable Bede is one of those voices.

His is not the wisdom we think we need, though. Bede can’t tell us whether to shut down or open up, or which strategies mooted by politicians and medicos we should adopt. Because Bede thought of pestilence as a sort of natural disaster—something to be endured, not avoided—his policy advice would be badly out of date and do more harm than good.

To hear Bede’s wisdom, we need a view of the past and the present that places our different experiences against a common horizon. And, as it turns out, this is exactly where Bede can be helpful. As a theologian and a historian, he thought deeply about the meaning of individual lives and communities in the grand outworking of God’s plan. And Bede has a place for disease at each of these levels of the story: his, mine, and ours.

 

His Story: Pestilence in God’s Providence

Bede’s understanding of history begins with God as the Creator and Ruler of the universe. As such, Bede says in The Reckoning of Time, God is also Lord of time, “who, abiding eternal, established the seasons when it pleased Him, and who knows the limits of the ages.” Bede saw God as the inventor of time and its measurement, ordaining astronomical cycles, seasonal cycles, and the liturgical calendar. Bede’s theology of time explains his obsession with the date of Easter Sunday, so befuddling to modern readers of his Ecclesiastical History of the English: all cycles in heaven and on earth foreshadowed and were fulfilled by the Paschal event. God aligned the universe to Easter.

What has this got to do with pandemics? Bede thought pestilence was, essentially, the result of weather, and weather arises from seasons. God ordained the seasons as a health-giving cycle through the four humors: heat, cold, wetness, and dryness. But God also ordains it when climactic conditions tip this cycle off-balance. In such times, “pestilence is born from air that has been corrupted . . . by excessive drought or rains.” (Readers may be reminded that some have argued a similar link between our epidemic and climate change.) This pestilential weather sets the human body’s humors off-balance, leading to serious illness and swift death. So God, who controls seasons and weather, also controls pestilence. It is, in fact, his tool.

His tool for what, though? Here Bede says things we might expect from a medieval monk. Pestilence arises “on account of the deserts of men”—in other words, as a judgment. In his Ecclesiastical History, Bede repeats St. Gildas’s account of a period of sinful luxury in Britain: in punishment, “a terrible plague struck this corrupt people” with such devastating effect that “the living could not bury the dead.” In another work, Bede refers to pestilence with the epithet “the avenger of evil deeds.” Typical Dark Ages gloom and doom!

Before we dismiss Bede as a benighted and backward medieval, we should note three things. First, as a Christian, Bede had ample biblical instances of God sending pestilence in judgment—and as Christians we have those same examples with which to reckon. Second, because Bede saw pestilences as climatic phenomena, not all were clearly a divine punishment. God’s providential dealings with the world are inscrutable without a prophetic voice to reveal the divine intention. As one commentator on Bede puts it, “sometimes bad weather is just bad weather.”

The third thing to consider is that, for Bede, pestilence was a sign of judgment even when not clearly a punishment for specific sins. Bede’s Ecclesiastical History records a letter from Pope Gregory the Great to the newly converted King Ethelbert of Kent. Gregory warns that “the end of the present world is at hand” and that “wars, famines, pestilences,” and similar disasters are signs of that coming end. So, says Gregory, “if any such things occur in your own country, do not be anxious, for these portents of the end are sent to warn us to consider the welfare of our souls.”

This is the first wisdom we hear from Bede, at the level of providence. Since God is Creator and Ruler, epidemics don’t elude his control. This is comforting. But God is also Judge now and at the end, and epidemics are warnings “to consider the welfare of our souls.” This is convicting but also comforting, for only a merciful Judge seeks reconciliation before the verdict.

 

My Story: Illness in the Saint’s Purification

Where do our personal experiences fit into this “big picture” of providence? While a pestilence might strike a region, in the life of the infected individual it is illness. Bede has wisdom for us here too. You see, while we may not understand God’s inscrutable providence, he has made his intentions toward his saints clear. God is Ruler of all in ways we do not fully comprehend, but Bede reminds us that God’s rule is “present for the elect in the grace of his benevolent protection”: “he draws them, guiding each one individually by his present gifts and chastisements to the possession of their future inheritance as a father guides his children.” And among these gifts and chastisements is the saint’s illness.

Since God is Creator and Ruler, epidemics don’t elude his control. This is comforting. But God is also Judge now and at the end, and epidemics are warnings “to consider the welfare of our souls.” This is convicting but also comforting, for only a merciful Judge seeks reconciliation before the verdict.

This too is a hard saying for many Christians today. It is good to remember, though, that Bede’s Christianity is not merely stoical resignation, but a way of finding ourselves within God’s larger purposes. For Bede, God’s acts on the universal macrocosmic level are mirrored by his working at our personal microcosmic level. If pestilence is God’s tool for judging a people, so illness in the individual saint is also the tool of justice—not for punishment, but for purification: to make us just.

Consider Bede’s account of the plague of AD 664. Preceded by an eclipse, the plague “brought widespread death to many people” in both Britain and Ireland. In the midst of this outbreak, a certain English student named Egbert pursued his theological studies at Rathmelsigi, an Irish monastery. In the midst of this portentous regional event, Egbert himself fell sick and his mind turned to reflection: “Egbert, believing himself about to die, went out one morning from the room where the sick were lying and, sitting down in a place by himself, began seriously to examine his past life.” Wracked with illness, Egbert repented his sins with tears, resolving on a life of devotion. He recovered, going on, Bede tells us, to become “a worthy ornament of the priestly order” and “an example of a holy life.” Egbert took his illness as a warning, and he heeded it.

Bede also sees illness as purifying even for those who are already “examples of a holy life.” When the great Abbess Hild of Whitby came to the end of her life, “it pleased the Author of our salvation to try her holy soul by a long sickness, in order that, as with the Apostle, her strength might be made perfect in weakness.” During this time she continued to serve faithfully and patiently, even when confined to bed: “she never ceased to give thanks to her Maker or to instruct the flock committed to her.” Of his own abbot, Benedict Biscop, Bede records that “the Divine Mercy” cast Benedict into “the bed of sickness” in order “to prove [his] great zeal for the faith by means of a further virtue, that of patience in suffering.” As he lay half-paralyzed for three years before his death, Benedict found wisdom for his pain in nightly readings from the book of Job. In the end, the abbot “tested and perfected by the burning pain of long but profitable suffering, left this earthly furnace of the flesh”—like Job, he came forth as gold.

 

Bede does not linger in his writings over such stories of saintly sickness because he is a morbid ghoul. Rather, he is rapt by a vision of Christ-embodying holiness wrought in souls who take up and endure their own peculiar cross, their joy set before them. This is the second wisdom we hear from Bede: to see the saint’s illness as the Father’s gift, the means by which God raises “the living stones of the Church from their earthly stations to the temple in heaven.” Perhaps Bede longed for such an ending himself. If so, he received his desire.

 

Our Story: Epidemics in the Church’s Purpose

While Bede’s call to self-examination in illness is an inward turn, we should not see this as simply individualism. It is easy to shift our attention from widespread suffering to the contemplation of our own feelings, especially in our narcissistic age of social media preening. But “what does this mean to me?” is not Bede’s last word on disease, nor should it be ours. After all, an epidemic is a community affliction. It is defined by how it affects all of us. What ought we to do and be as a community of God’s people, in a time such as this, for the sake of each other and for the world?

He is rapt by a vision of Christ-embodying holiness wrought in souls who take up and endure their own peculiar cross, their joy set before them.

Bede did not write about his experience as a thirteen-year-old survivor of the stricken Abbey at Jarrow, where he’d been living an apparently loving (and to that point stable) life since age seven. For that we rely on the Life of Abbot Ceolfrid, by one of Bede’s younger contemporaries. In the Life, we learn that Ceolfrid, the abbot of St. Paul’s, was apparently overwhelmed by the tasks of mercy, dealing with the dead and the ill. While he kept up the Liturgy of the Hours, it was in a much-truncated form, observed only by his silent young student. This is important, for the praying of the Psalms at the canonical hours is the work that orders all of Benedictine life. So Ceolfrid continued the work alone.

Ceolfrid’s endurance is admirable, but it is not the whole lesson. The Life describes the abbot’s tears as he sings the Psalms solo. Why tears? Because monastic worship is community worship, and the liturgy of St. Paul’s was built on call and response, reciprocity and cooperation. The Benedictine way requires a we, not just an I: life together in work and worship is their purpose. “Unable to endure it longer,” Ceolfrid devoted himself to teaching young Bede “the psalms with their antiphons” in their entirety. Together they sang, teacher and student, and the monastic we was restored.

Knowing this story, another theme stands out in Bede’s stories of saintly endurance. Not only did Abbess Hild suffer patiently, she also “never ceased” even when bed-ridden “to instruct the flock committed to her, both privately and publicly.” Benedict Biscop too, though paralyzed in his cell, continued to teach his community and to sing the Psalms with them at the canonical hours. Disease did not stop their work in the community, however changed the circumstances might be.

We should not be surprised, then, by the account Bede’s own student Cuthbert tells of Bede’s death. His final illness lasted over fifty days as he was confined to bed, weak and struggling to breath. Nonetheless, “he gave daily lessons to us his students, and spent the rest of the day in singing the psalms.” During this time, he both rejoiced, “thanking God that he had deserved this weakness,” and urging his students “to arouse our souls by the consideration of our last hour.” Between teaching and singing, he “translated the Gospel of Saint John into our own language for the benefit of the Church of God.” And all these things he continued until his last moment, lying on the floor of his cell chanting the Gloria Patri.

The hard work of life together continues even when the church is faced by disease. It is her purpose: to weld solipsistic mes into a loving we, in communion with one another as with our Lord.

Bede taught his students the wisdom he learned from Ceolfrid and Hild and Benedict Biscop. And he teaches us: that the hard work of life together continues even when the church is faced by disease. It is her purpose: to weld solipsistic mes into a loving we, in communion with one another as with our Lord. The form of that work will necessarily adapt to the straitening of circumstance. For Hild, Benedict, and Bede, it meant heroic effort and acceptance of physical confinement. For Ceolfrid, it meant even altering the form of worship, that worship might go on. But the work must continue: the work of worship, of teaching, of mercy—the work that makes us.

 

Conclusion: Hearing Bede in the Time of COVID-19

Perhaps this last wisdom is what we most need to hear now. It is easy to see our duty in this time to preserve the health of ourselves and our loved ones. What may be less easy to see is our pressing duty to the community of God’s people. Fashioned by our entertainment-driven consumer culture, we can satisfy our weekly urge for “church” by livestreaming a liturgy. If we set our weekly offering to auto-debit, the cyclical exchange of goods is efficient and effortless. What more do we need?

The Venerable Bede calls us to more than this. We are more than a demographic of consumers: we are the congregation of the living Christ, joined together as his visible body. This truth is central at all three levels of reality: His story of fatherly providence and my story of sanctification meet in the community of our story, to be celebrated mystically in our worship and practically in our service. As one of the antiphons of Holy Thursday reminds us, Congregavit nos in unum Christi amor: Christ’s love has gathered us into one.

In the time of plague, preserving life together was hard—but Ceolfrid and Bede found a way. We too must find our ways to be together in the time of COVID-19, and Bede’s wisdom teaches us to take heart in this hard work.