St Cuthbert and missionary monks

Melrose Abbey

When I lived in Durham, my office was a two-minute walk from the powerful, weighty Romanesque/Norman cathedral. I visited the cathedral at least once a week to refresh my soul in what was, for us, a difficult year. If you turn right on entry and go to the Galilee Chapel, you find the tomb of the Venerable St Bede. If you turn left and walk along one of the broadest Romanesque naves of Europe, through the transept and into the late mediaeval Gothic expansion, you will find the tomb of St Cuthbert, behind the High Altar of the chancel.

St Cuthbert’s tomb is at the same height as the chancel, so you’ll have to take some stairs to get to it.

When King Henry VIII wanted the wealth of the church, combined with a Reformation zeal for simplicity, the old, glittering, glitzy, bejewelled shrine to St Cuthbert was dismembered (disiecti membra sancti?). Today, the saint lies interred beneath a black slab, similar to that of St Bede, ‘Cuthbertus’ inscribed in gold on it.

This body, intact for centuries (they disinterred it in 1104 and found it still to be fleshy and the limbs moveable), is Durham’s greatest treasure. To be sure, there are some mediaeval ecclesiastical politics behind the placement of St Cuthbert’s body, to do with the desire of Durham to be the episcopal seat of Northumberland, but the choice of St Cuthbert as Durham’s preferred saint is no accident.

Christianity arrived in (returned to) England in 597, and King Oswald of Northumberland brought St Aidan (d. 651) as his monastic mission-bishop based at Lindisfarne. The mission of St Aidan was something of a top-down affair. The king and his thegns converted, and the assumption was that their people would as well.

Around the time of Aidan’s arrival from Iona, Cuthbert, his most famous successor, was born. What makes St Cuthbert so interesting, from his time as a monk at Melrose to his death as a hermit on Inner Farne (at the time, all that was Northumberland), was the fact that, although a hermit at heart and contemplative by practice, he was also a preacher.

It is rumoured he preached as far north as Edwin’s Burg (Edinburgh), where a church to St Cuthbert stands today where once the shores of the Nor’ Loch lapped against the land. And he did not just preach to kings and carls, to thegns and landholders. He preached to the common folk of Northumberland, people to whom the king’s religion had not yet reached in the ensuing decades.

And this is why St Cuthbert is the greatest treasure of Durham Cathedral, for he really, truly was the instrument of the Holy Spirit in bringing the Gospel to Northumberland (which in medieval terms would include County Durham).

When I think about how we might reorient our lives and churches in post-Christendom, it is the example of such figures as Sts Cuthbert and Aidan that strikes me the most — people who are devoted to both the inner chamber, the secret room, the contemplative life of the mystic, and to the outer world, the preaching of the Gospel, the saving of the lost, the making of disciples.

Maybe we need more missionary monks.

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Saint of the Week: St. Aidan of Lindisfarne

Since we took a trip to Holy Island (aka Lindisfarne) yesterday, it is only fitting that this week’s saint be Aidan (I already covered Cuthbert here).

Aidan was an Irish monk from the monastic community on Iona founded by St. Columba (saint of the week here and here). When King Oswald of Northumbria asked for missionaries from Iona to spread Christianity amongst the English of his kingdom, the first recruit, a man named Corman, decided the English were too stubborn to convert and went home. Aidan was not impressed with such an attitude, so in 635 he left Iona to evangelise the English of Northumbria.

He chose as the centre for his missionary activity the island of Lindisfarne and founded the first monastery there. He established Lindisfarne as an episcopal centre and hub for missionary activity. Lindisfarne is a reasonable choice as a mission centre for Northumbria; it is a tidal island, and twice a day is connected to the mainland — thus, it is not entirely separated from the mainland. However, as an island it would also serve well as a monastic foundation for those seeking solitude and escape from the world. Its proximity to Bamburgh Castle also makes it strategic for safety reasons and nearness to the travelling court of the king (not that Bamburgh Castle could help much when the Vikings started raiding England in 793 with a bang).

Aidan would undertake the missionary journeys himself on foot, walking from village to village to preach the Gospel to the uncoverted, heathen English. At first, he only knew Irish and early encounters required the use of an English interpreter, possibly even King Oswald himself on occasion.

Oswald’s successor, Oswine, was also favourably disposed towards Christianity and continued to sponsor Aidan’s efforts to convert the people of Northumbria. Oswine died a few days before Aidan.

In Aidan we see the lives of various persons mentioned on this blog converging — St. Columba’s work on Iona branching out after his death to Lindisfarne; Oswald who sponsored Aidan also had a vision of St. Columba the night before Heavenfield Battle the year before Aidan arrived; St. Cuthbert was a monk (and later abbot) of Lindisfarne and also engaged in his missionary efforts throughout Northumberland by foot; the method of evangelisation allied to kingly sponsorship was practised in Britain not only by Aidan but also by Kentigern (saint of the week here), St. Columba, St. Cuthbert, and St. Augustine of Canterbury (saint of the week here); the Venerable Bede (saint of the week here) wrote about the lives of Sts. Aidan, Cuthbert, and Augustine.

When we read the inspiring lives of these Early Medieval British saints, one thing that mustn’t be lost is the rigour with which they lived, a rigour most of us lack today. How zealous about the ‘Celtic’ church would so many of us be if we considered that its great heroes were monks who prayed several times a day, some of them reciting the entire Psalter every day, not partaking of wine or strong drink, fasting frequently, eating sparsely, walking miles and miles through all sorts of British weather, learning foreign tongues, growing their own vegetables, and so on and so forth?

Perhaps, however, this ascetic spirituality is just the kind of earthy spirituality modern Britain needs.