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Bede Jarrett: A Model of Religious Obedience

Monday, January 13, 2020

By Br Bede Mullens, O.P. | Bede Jarrett, the founder of Blackfriars, Oxford, can be an example to us all of how to entrust ourselves into the Lord's loving hands.

Bede Jarrett is probably best known for having founded the present-day Oxford Blackfriars: a portrait of him hangs in our refectory. He was clothed in the habit in 1898 and died in March 1934. Of those thirty-six years in Dominican life, he was twenty years pretty much continuously in office, first as prior of London (two years) then for an exceptional four terms as prior provincial between 1916 and 1932, at the end of which he was all of one month relieved of duties before being installed as prior of the Oxford community. No rest for the wicked, they say, and it may be true enough; only there seems little spare for the righteous.

It might seem odd, to appeal to a man who spent most of his life a religious superior for a model of religious obedience. After all, obedience surely means doing what you’re told; and superiors tell other people what to do – right? Say that to a religious superior, and you might find it’s not so straightforward. But Bede is outstanding as a man who could really sympathise with those under authority. A number of letters survive in which he counsels and consoles brothers and priests in the Order who disliked their situation or had received unwelcome assignations: a man sent to the parishes, who had imagined for himself a future in the academy; a homesick missionary; struggling novices. Bede’s replies have two hallmarks. First, he tries to offer in each case a cogent point-of-view from the superior’s side. The Rule of St Augustine (ch. 7), which we follow, points out that ready obedience is an act of mercy to one’s superiors; certainly, toward the end of his life Bede would have felt this very keenly. Over this more human(e) rationale, however, he expounds consistently and from deep conviction a theological groundwork for making sense of obedience.

To the would-be academic priest, he writes in one letter that two things above all ought to be stressed in preaching and spiritual direction “at the present moment” (the date is 1932, but it may well still be the case): “(a) the presence of God everywhere; (b) the will of God governing everything.” In a word, the classical Christian doctrine of providence. God did not just bring the world into being, and let it be; every moment He sustains it in being, is present to it, and every moment he directs it to its consummation, makes it present to Himself. A great many things may occur, to our lights, purposelessly or for the frustration of good intentions. But a true believer in providence, will trust that all things – even wicked things, even sin – come to pass, at the last, for the good. Bede was forcibly struck by Julian of Norwich’s teaching on the matter: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

God is never out of control. And He has a perfect knowledge of each one of his creatures: He knows each one of us more deeply and more intimately than we each know ourselves, every single human in this profound way. What is distasteful to me may take place really for my good, or the good of another that I know not. Analogously, Bede points out to the reluctant missionary, he as his provincial could perceive talents and aptitude for the South African situation that the priest himself could not see. The superior had a more comprehensive vision: acquaintance with the priest in question and an awareness of what was needed in South Africa. Even provincials may get it wrong, yet God has a perspective that is not at all narrow and not at all fallible.

He treats the relationship of superior and subordinate as an image of that between creature and provident Creator. This is because in submitting oneself to another human’s authority, one is really submitting to God’s own good will. Bede expressed both these insights with great simplicity when (quite unwelcomely) elected prior of Oxford. After so long serving the province, he really needed a period of rest: there can be no doubt that it was exhaustion as much as anything which made him so weak in his final illness, and caused him to succumb to an early death; he had already been suffering a variety of physical ailments over the preceding four years. Nevertheless, on hearing of his election, Bede wrote to his successor as provincial, Bernard Delaney, as follows: “As you can guess it is certainly not what I wanted. I had hoped for other things. However since it is your wish that I should ultimately accept it, I can do so knowing that it must be right for me to do so. As for the rest it must be as God wills.”

The letters we have cited were written toward the end of or even after his provincialate. The aspiration, at least, to such a foundational trust in divine providence is evident in communications from twenty-three years earlier, 1909, when Bede was a young priest recently assigned to work in the London parish. This had meant effectively the cessation of his own incipient academic career. One letter, written to his close friend and contemporary in the Order, Jerome Rigby, describes how “revoltful” he felt against the varied menial tasks imposed upon him. In fact, he hints that he has considered even leaving the Order. “Then God sends me a thought of physical premotion [a doctrine closely aligned with that of divine providence], the all powerful, all-pervading Will – and I have peace and am ready to bear with it all.” In time, he willingly took on a great deal of work in the parish that even fell outside his obligations, though it came his way. He was chaplain to the parish Scouts’ group, for instance, but effectively became the Scout leader as well: so recalled the boys in later life. (He won a special reputation for his terrifying ghost stories around the campfire.)

The young priest’s fitful thoughts settled over the years into a determined attitude. As a superior, Bede may not often have found himself at the receiving end of direct commands; he certainly found himself at the receiving end of whatever designs Providence had in store. We remember Bede as a hugely important and successful provincial, and with good reason. On the other hand, if one reckons what he actually achieved against his ambitions and aspirations – well, a different picture emerges. He had great missionary fervour, and drew up and began to implement plans to establish a mission in different parts of India on three separate occasions; all fell flat. Persia, too, occupied his attention in each of his terms as provincial – to no avail. Of all his missionary ventures, real or aspirational, only one, that to South Africa, can really be called a success; there he managed to set up a house in Johannesburg and bought a property which would become a priory in Stellenbosch. That repeated failures did not dim his desire to accomplish good things is shown by the redoubling of missionary efforts in each of his terms.

What is in our power to accomplish are good intents, Bede insisted, not necessarily their fulfilment. “We are free in our hearts and wills, not in our lives. There we are at the mercy of odd accidents which are neither odd nor accidental but God’s declared Will thro’ His Providence.” In the end, Bede’s understanding of Providence leads him to the Cross. The Will that we glimpse but dimly through the vagaries of our lives, is the Will and work that our Lord himself came to accomplish. The frequent pain of it comes not from cruelty on God’s part – rather, from our own confusion and the limitation of our perspective. Of course, life can be cruel, even tragic. But God has His purpose. Our readiness to obey, be it in fulfilling the commands of a superior or taking the flack life itself seems to throw at us, is the mark of our trust in Him.

Bede comments on those pregnant words, “Into your hands Lord, I commend my spirit”:

“His hand are strong and powerful hands and we can confidently rest there…they are not only the hands of power, and not only the hands of wisdom, but of love, and it is only when we leave all things in his hands that we find complete serenity; and then a great peace shall come into our souls.”

The image is taken from a portrait of Bede Jarrett which hangs in the refectory of Blackfriars, Oxford.

Br Bede Mullens O.P.

Br Bede was born in Enfield and grew up in Essex. He read Literae Humaniores at St Hugh’s College in the University of Oxford. It was in Oxford that he first met the Dominicans, and he joined the Order in 2017 after completing his degree. The writings of Pope Benedict XVI/Joseph Ratzinger greatly influenced his development in the Faith. He retains a wide interest in literature; among religious authors, he particularly admires St Augustine and St John Henry Newman. | bede.mullens@english.op.org



Daragh commented on 14-Jan-2020 09:28 AM
Excellent. He was a great role model and practiced what he preached.
Robert Tickle commented on 19-Jan-2020 07:48 PM
Brother Bede, thankyou for this profound and helpful reflection.

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