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A Tiny Period of Calm.
By Helen Watson White in All Sorts
where do we find calm in our busy lives?A TINY PERIOD OF CALM
In a very busy week (as which week isn't?) I was captivated by this description of our short-lived time on a planet which is feeling increasingly besieged:
'The present life of men on earth, O king, as compared with the whole length of time which is unknowable to us, seems to me to be like this: as if, when you are sitting at dinner with your chiefs and ministers in wintertime... one of the sparrows from outside flew very quickly through the hall; as if it came in one door and soon went out through another. In that actual time it is indoors, it is not touched by the winter's storm; but yet the tiny period of calm is over in a moment, and having come out of the winter it soon returns to the winter and slips out of your sight. Man's life appears to be more or less like this; and of what may follow it, or what preceded it, we are absolutely ignorant.'
This little cameo was written by an early medieval historian, scholar and story-teller, who was one of the most famous monks in history. St Bede, or The Venerable Bede, author of The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, was born in 673CE. Even his birth date, in this form, tells a story. The signifier AD (Anno Domini -- in the year of Our Lord) has now been changed to the more neutral CE: Common Era. The familiar BC (Before Christ) has become BCE: Before the Common Era. You feel you need to reverse that change to understand Bede's importance in Christendom. After all, his time is much closer than ours is to the life of Jesus in history. He would have seen every year as a 'year of Our Lord'.
My Penguin Dictionary of Saints describes Bede's life as constrained but widely influential. Born in Northumbria in the late 7th century, he died in the 8th century after Christ, in the same monastery where he'd spent all his working life. Having been sent to school at a monastery at Wearmouth, he soon after entered the 'twin house' at Jarrow, (near present-day Newcastle) becoming a monk and a priest. This is where he died, in 735CE, having probably gone no further afield than (monasteries at) Lindisfarne and York. In his own words, " I have devoted my energies to the study of the Scriptures, observing monastic discipline, and singing the daily services in church; study, teaching and writing have always been my delight.' During his last illness he was translating St John's gospel, dictating the last sentence just before he died, sitting on the floor of his cell, surrounded by the brothers among whom he had lived.
Bede's world context was as different from ours as it could possibly be. Historian R W Southern in 1970 described the period 700-1050 as a 'primitive' age in the West, in which the Greek and Islamic systems were 'immensely richer, more powerful, and intellectually more sophisticated' than western Europe. 'As a result of plague, famine, destruction and commercial atrophy, the whole of the West was thinly populated, with no towns of more than a few thousand inhabitants, with no important industries, with a rural population practising a primitive agriculture in adverse circumstances.' An exception to this view of pretty backward times is one unarguable advance: by 1086 there were in England alone some six thousand water mills --harnessing the available energy of water for grinding flour.
In Bede's age the monasteries, rather like the royal hall he describes in the sparrow story, were a 'symbol of stability' in a world of change. They were 'the gate to heaven; they were replicas of heaven on earth'; they were also repositories of knowledge and enlightenment at a time when much of Christianity as practised by ordinary (uneducated) people consisted of superstitious rituals to prevent one's going to hell. St Boniface praised Bede's calm wisdom, calling him 'a light of the church'.
Further west than Bede's Jarrow and Lindisfarne, the Celtic monks of Ireland, living in community, also practised 'agriculture in adverse circumstances', but I would no longer call their methods 'primitive'. They worked with the seasons to grow their familiar crops, raise animals, and feed their people. Their saints' stories incorporated the same belief in supernatural interventions as was universal at the time, but they were at heart stories of love, devotion and endurance in an unbelievably harsh environment.
And now for something completely different: our present context. While writing this I felt some definite points of connection: the harnessing of water energy, the gardening including horticulture, the 'delight' of study, writing and community, the positives of living in faith. I even thought Bede's 8th-century description of 'our' brief life as relevant today as it was when he wrote it, with the exception that he is describing the warm, lit hall of royalty rather than the struggle of the poor to survive.
I have chosen for contrast an unreferenced piece I found on Facebook, which sums up the culture of today:
'The world is increasingly designed to depress us. Happiness isn't very good for the economy. If we were happy with what we had, why would we need more? How do you sell an anti-ageing moisturiser? You make someone worry about ageing. How do you get people to vote for a political party? You make them worry about immigration. How do you get them to buy insurance? By making them worry about everything. How do you get them to have plastic surgery? By highlighting their physical flaws. How do you get them to watch a TV show? By making them worry about missing out. How do you get them to buy a smart phone? By making them feel like they are being left behind.
To be calm becomes a kind of revolutionary act. To be happy with your own non-upgraded existence. To be comfortable with our messy, human selves, would not be good for business.'
Give me a tiny period of calm any day.
-- Helen Watson White