This week’s saint is St. Cuthbert (634-687), whose feast day is this coming Saturday (March 20). St. Cuthbert was from Northumbria. He spent his life until age eight being a child, until (according to the Venerable Bede) God sent him a message from a 3-year-old that he should live more soberly, seeing as how he was destined for holiness and the like. Apparently he heeded the child (Life of St. Cuthbert, 1).
He grew up to become a shepherd. He shepherded until the death of St. Aidan (651), founder of the monastery at Lindisfarne, when he had a vision of the sky lit up and the angels receiving St. Aidan’s spirit. He decided, on this basis, that he should become a monk. So he went to Melrose, where Prior Boisil received him with evidences of Cuthbert’s holiness, and Abbot Eata confirmed the young man’s call to the monastic life. He lived at Melrose for a while, until King Alhfrith gave the monks of Melrose land at Ripon, where Cuthbert, Eata, and others went to live according to their rule.
At Ripon, Cuthbert was in charge of providing hospitality to visitors, a task that brought him into contact with an angel who was there to test Cuthbert’s faithfulness (entertaining angels unawares). He proved to have great zeal at this task as at all of his other monastic labours.
The monks of Ripon had been living in a monastery according to the Celtic custom rather than by the “Roman” or Benedictine Rule. It is my understanding that Celtic monasticism holds more in common with the monasticism of the East as we see today on Mt. Athos than it does with the Benedictine organisation. At this time in England, however, the Celtic way of Christianity was clashing with the imported Roman way that had been introduced by continental missionaries such as St. Augustine of Canterbury (d. 604). Since the monks of Ripon did not agree to live according to Roman customs, King Alhfrith drove them out and a Benedictine monastery with St. Wilfrid as its abbot was established in their place in 658.
After their return to Melrose, Prior Boisil, who had been a spiritual mentor to St. Cuthbert, passed away (664*). Cuthbert was appointed to take Boisil’s place as Prior. Part of the role of Prior at Melrose was to go around the countryside preaching. This St. Cuthbert did with as much zeal as all of his other monastic tasks, such as prayer, fasting, solitude, and hospitality. He went to the villages and towns of Northumbria calling the pagans to Christ and those who had accepted Christ to repentance, increased depth of faith, and greater holiness of life. He even went to small, hidden villages of squalid conditions, places few other missionaries dared go, to give the people the Gospel of Christ.
St. Cuthbert, upon the death of Abbot Eata, moved to Lindisfarne with the unenviable task of introducing the Benedictine Rule amongst the brothers there. They did not take kindly to this, but he, through good graciousness, charity of speech, and lack of rancour, succeeded at his task. Lindisfarne is an island in the North Sea off the coast of Northumbria that is only an island at high tide; thus, one can access it by foot at low tide. It was chosen as a monastery no doubt because of its similarity to the desert, for the wild, alone places were the habitations of the earliest monks, such as St. Antony.
After dwelling amongst the monks of Lindisfarne for a time, in 676 St. Cuthbert retired to the hermit’s life on a true island just south of Lindisfarne. St. Benedict’s Rule does, in fact, recommend that one spend time as a cenobite (monk who lives in community) before taking up the life of a hermit, and only to become a hermit at the true call of God when one has reached a certain degree of holiness. By what I read in Bede’s account, St. Cuthbert had reached such a degree. At first he received visitors, but soon would only see them through a window, as had been the practice of various Egyptian hermits before him.
In 684, against his wishes, he was elected Bishop of Lindisfarne — Lindisfarne was both a monastic retreat and an episcopal see whose clergy, although separate from the abbot and the monks, all lived lives of asceticism. In St. Cuthbert’s reluctance to take up the yoke of the episcopacy we see more echoes from the desert, for one of the sayings of the Desert Fathers was to flee women and bishops, lest one fall into fornication or ordination. As bishop, St. Cuthbert continued his missionary work amongst the people of Northumbria.
After Christmas of 686, St. Cuthbert retired from his role of bishop, feeling certain that his death-day was soon. In March of 687, St. Cuthbert, living once again as a hermit, fell ill and then fell asleep in the Lord. Paul Cavill, in Anglo-Saxon Christianity: Exploring the Earliest Roots of Christian Spirituality in England, notes that in the earlier, anonymous Life, Cuthbert turns his eyes and hands towards heaven as he dies. In the Venerable Bede’s version, he makes a little speech against schismatics (ie. people of Celtic custom who did not agree with the Synod of Whitby). This version, says Cavill, is pure Bede. Many miracles are recorded in association of his relics, confirming this saint’s holiness.
I highly recommend reading Bede’s Life of St. Cuthbert which can be found in the Penguins Classics book Lives of the Saints.
*The same year as the fateful Synod of Whitby.