12 January 2012

St. Benedict Biscop (c. 628 – 690)

I love telling the stories of the saints. Having Mass every day as we do at the school, it means our children get to know authentic heroes, men and women who show selflessness and genuine godliness in their lives. They are ordinary people made extraordinary by God’s grace. And as we meet them each year, it begins to dawn on many of the students, “if they could do it, maybe I can too.”

Today we commemorate St. Benedict Biscop. He’s not the best known saint, by any means. He didn’t suffer for his faith. He lived fairly comfortably when compared to his contemporaries. But he had a sense of destiny, not just for himself, but for his people. He was (as hagiographers are so fond of saying) “of noble birth,” whatever that means. I suppose it means he didn’t grow up in a hovel, and his parents must have had more than a couple of coins to rub together. He served his king and he was rewarded with his own land grant. The typical “local lad makes good” story.

It could have stopped there. A young man, a property owner, a good Catholic boy, who might have settled down and married the maiden next door, have a passel of children, pass into old age and a quiet death, unknown except to those closest to him. And that would have been fine, if God hadn’t had other plans for him.

Benedict Biscop wanted to travel. He wanted to go to Rome. There was a deep desire within him to make his own kind of ad limina. Saints had lived there, and they had died there, and he wanted to see it, experience it, soak it in for himself. He wanted to pray at the tombs of St. Peter and St. Paul. He wanted to take in the beauty of it all. And he did, not only once, but several times. In fact, much of his life was spent traveling back and forth to Rome, and what he saw there he wanted to carry back to his own people. And that he did too. Art, liturgy, theology, music, everything he experienced in that great city of faith was something he knew would benefit his people in cold, far-away Northumbria.

Here’s part of the spiritual genius of St. Benedict Biscop. Great music, great art, great architecture isn’t just for the great centers of civilization. God intends it for us all. He has created us with a hunger for such things. The good abbot built the first stone structure his people had ever seen. He brought the finest continental glaziers to wild Northumbria to give his monastery unheard-of glass windows. He filled the place with paintings which served as poor men’s books. He established the expectation of learning amongst his monks, astonishing even them with what they could accomplish. His work reached even a young boy named Bede who came and never left.

When it comes to fitting out God’s house, and the worship offered within it, it takes godly imagination, obedience to Catholic tradition, a readiness to reach higher than one thought possible, a desire to do all things well for God. It was done by Benedict Biscop then, and we can do it now.

O God, by whose grace thy servant St. Benedict Biscop, enkindled with the fire of thy love, became a burning and a shining light in thy Church: Grant that we also may be aflame with the spirit of love and discipline, and may ever walk before thee as children of light; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, liveth and reigneth, one God, now and for ever. Amen.