The article of the month

Living Stones: Saints of Our Isles by Kathryn Turner

Saint Benet Biscop

Many people know of the Venerable Bede and his great reputation for scholarship. But how did a monk in a monastery close to what had been the uttermost edge of the Roman Empire have access to the learning on which to base his prolific and scholarly writing? The answer lies in the lesser-known but nonetheless visionary Saint Benet (Benedict) Biscop.

Benet was born in Northumbria, in the north-east of England, in a century of massive change, around 628. When he was about thirteen years old, King (Saint) Oswald won the Battle of Heavenfield and invited monks from Iona to come and help to re-establish Christianity in his kingdom. This led to a time of great resurgence of faith in Northumbria. However, with some significant differences between the Roman and Insular versions of Christianity, tough decisions would soon be faced—as, for example, the two versions had their own way of calculating the date of Easter, which date should be adopted by the people. This was among the issues brought to the Synod of Whitby in 664, where it was resolved that the Northumbrians would adopt the Roman ways.

Benet Biscop was one of those who combined the zeal of the age with an embracing of Roman culture. It seems that he saw no reason why the far north-east should not have the learning and beautiful artefacts that he had seen on travels to Rome and Gaul. He undertook many journeys, including five pilgrimages to Rome and, according to Bede, “returned loaded with…abundant spiritual merchandise. In the first place,” Bede tells us, “he brought back a large quantity of books of all kinds.” These would not, of course, have been paperbacks but handwritten on expensive parchment or vellum and often decorated with gems and precious metals; it is estimated that there were around 250 books in the monastic libraries.

Benet’s interest was not just in learning but in making his monasteries, Saint Peter’s in Wearmouth (Sunderland) and Saint Paul’s in Jarrow, places of great beauty. He brought masons over from Gaul to build the churches—the chancel of Saint Paul’s is still standing and still used for prayer. He also sent for stained-glass artists who revived a skill lost when the Romans left off creating coloured glass for windows. To enhance the worship further, “he introduced the Roman mode of chanting, singing, and ministering in the church, by obtaining permission from Pope Agatho to take back with him John, the arch-chanter of the church of Saint Peter, and abbot of the monastery of Saint Martin to teach the English”.

For such a traveller, Benet’s last illness must have been a considerable trial, leaving him bed-bound for three years. Bede tells us that, during the sleepless nights, he would call someone to read passages of Scripture and, at the liturgical hours, some of his brothers would come to his room and sing the psalms “and thus”, says Bede, “make up by their voices for the deficiency of his own”.

It seems appropriate that some of the gifts he had brought to his monasteries—the chant, the beauty, and the books—were, at the end of his life, there to help raise his soul to the God he had so faithfully served.

Kathryn Turner is a member of the Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales Spirituality Committee and has a long-­established website, wellspring.co.uk, which ­offers a variety of prayer and spirituality resources.