The Life of St Benet was recorded by St Bede in “The lives of the Abbots of Wearmouth and Jarrow”. This is a short synopsis of this work about Abbot Benedict Biscop – patron saint of our Parish church.
Born Biscop Baducing, of a noble Northumbrian family, he entered the service of King Oswiu of Northumbria until 653. But at the age of twenty five he felt a calling to study the work and worship of the Roman Church, which contrasted with the austere and simple Celtic practices of the Lindisfarne monks he knew at home.
So in that year he set off for Rome in the company of (St.) Wilfrid to visit the tombs of the Apostles. In Lerins near Cannes whilst on a second trip, he entered a monastery having first carefully noted the customs of Roman monasteries. As a monk, he took the name of Benedict (Benet being the English form). Two years later he visited Rome again.
There the Pope appointed Theodore as the New Archbishop for Canterbury. Benet accompanied him back to Canterbury and became Abbot.
After seeing the magnificent stone architecture of Rome, and being impressed by the beauty, the learning and the singing in the seventeen monastries he had visited en route, he visualised a stone monastery as a centre of culture and Christianity in his own native land, where even the royal palace was a timber construction.
From 665 to 667, Benedict Biscop lived at the monastery of Lerins in the Bay of Cannes. There he took his vows to become a monk, and the tonsure of a Roman Monk, which deferred from the Celtic tonsure in that the hair was shaved to stimulate a crown of thorns. Each day the monks worshipped seven times during daylight hours and once during the night in obedience to the scriptural texts of Psalms 119, mainly by singing or reciting psalms and other scriptures. This was to become the pattern adopted by Benet.
During Benedict’s Biscop’s third visit to Rome he was commissioned by Pope Vitalian to be guide and interpreter to Theodore of Tarsus, the newly appointed Archbishop of Canterbury. For two years Biscop stayed at Canterbury assisting the Archbishop and also taking charge of Canterbury Monastery of St Peter and St Paul. The experience confirmed his vocation to found a monastery based on learning and beauty and with this in mind he made his fourth journey to Rome, intent on purchasing books and relics. The books were handwritten on vellum.
By 673 Biscop returned to Northumbria. He related his experiences to King Egfrith and showed his books and treasures. Egfrith gave seventy hides of land on the north bank of the River Wear and ordered Biscop to build a monastery here in honour of St Peter.
Biscop went on his travels again, this time to France to recruit stone masons who came and built the church within the year. It was probably the third stone church in Britain, following Canterbury and York.
When the stonework was completed crafts men were brought from Gaul to make glass for the windows. This was the first recorded instance of glass being made in England. The services of the church were to be the best that could be offered to the Glory of God and since Biscop believed that beauty was the pathway to God, fine vestments were provided as an aid to worship.
The use of incense was a feature of Benedict Biscop’s worship, not only sweetening the air of the sanctuary, but also symbolizing prayers rising to heaven. The churches were filled with pictures collected on Biscop’s fifth visit to Rome, so that “all who entered the church, even those who could not read, were able to contemplate Christ and his Saints”. Bede says that Biscop was “a dedicated collector of everything necessary for the services of the church and altar”. He scoured Europe for the best available candlesticks, chalices, patens etc. he also bought relics of the saints.
When Biscop returned from this fifth journey to Rome (c. 679) he brought John the Arch-Canter, the chief singer of St Peter’s, Rome, to teach the art of Gregorian Chant and also the technique of reading aloud in worship. He stayed at Wearmouth for a complete year. And the students came from many other monasteries to hear him. This was several centuries before musical notation had been invented.
It would take about ten years to memorize the full repertoire of the Plainsong Liturgy but it seems likely that Wearmouth would be the fifth place outside Rome to share in the experimental use of musical shorthand symbols that were being introduced at this time to aid the memory of the singers. For many centuries a chant has been dedicated to Biscop’s memory using the words, “Lord you gave me five talents, Behold I have gained five talents more”. No wonder he is considered to be the Patron saint of the arts.
Biscop became ill after his sixth journey to Rome (c.686). By January 689 his end was near. The brethren said psalms and prayers by his bedside. He received the sacrament as preparation for his last journey – this time to his heavenly home. “Free at last his soul took wing to the glory of eternal bliss” (Bede).
Biscop died on the 12th January 689. He was buried near the Wearmouth altar, but in the 10th century his remains were reverently transferred to Thorney Abbey, Cambridge, the foremost monastery of that century, but have subsequently been lost.
Bede wrote of himself, “at the age of seven I was, by the care of my relations given to the most Reverend Abbot Benedict to be educated” – without Biscop’s monastery and library, Bede could not have developed his talents as the first historian of the English Nation.