St Cuthbert: Action & contemplation in Northumbria

Beholding Durham Cathedral in awe

Today is the Feast of St Cuthbert. Not only is my office a two-minute walk from the tomb of the Venerable Bede (d. 735), it is also about the same distance from that of St Cuthbert (d. 687),* whose life Bede wrote a few times — once in verse, once in prose, and once as part of his Ecclesiastical History of the English People. So before my thoughts on contemplation and action really get biblical, they’re going to be historical.

I’ve blogged on St Cuthbert before, and I’ve had an accidental (providential?) tendency to follow him around. St Cuthbert started his contemplative career as a monk of Melrose (which I’ve visited), and one of his duties while holding office in the monastery was preaching in the countryside. It is extremely likely that the country folk of what is now southern Scotland in the mid-600s were still practising whatever Anglo-Saxon paganism was.** So evangelism was part of his monastic career from fairly early on.

Remember that the professed goal of monasticism is to go off and spend time in intentional community (or entirely alone) and pray, seeking purity of heart and freedom from the passions so that you can get to know God better. What’s interesting is how few monks ever get to spend all that time alone; too many of them end up helping others. Indeed, the missionaries of Britain from both the Continent and Ireland were monks. Monk missionaries are a thing.

Worth contemplating. 😉

Later, St Cuthbert was bishop of Lindisfarne, which was the episcopal see for the Kingdom of Northumberland. His job was the care of souls as well as the management of the monastery on Holy Island. He oversaw the introduction of the Rule of St Benedict on Lindisfarne. His life of contemplation remained wedded to a life of service and action.

Even later, St Cuthbert became a hermit on an island called Inner Farne and had little desire to spend time with anybody but the local birds and Jesus. The hermit’s life is meant to be a life of single-minded devotion to Jesus and cultivation hesychia, or peacefulness/stillness. People still brought their problems to him, though.

St Cuthbert is Northumbria’s biggest hit. He was so popular that, when local unrest and a few Viking raids made the monks leave Lindisfarne, they brought St Cuthbert (and King St Oswald’s head) with them, eventually depositing him in their new cathedral on the rocky peninsula that is Durham. Lots of miracles of one sort or another are attributed to his relics and to visions of him and suchlike.

In 1104, the tomb was opened and a very laborious inventory made, described by Symeon of Durham — including St Cuthbert’s undecayed body.

Anyway, for us today, we should consider this dual life of St Cuthbert — the preaching and praying. The contemplation and action. The monasticism and mission. The evangelism and eremetism. I believe that this sort of radical commitment to the love of God through prayer and meditation, coupled with love to neighbour through preaching and acts of mercy, is what will fuel the new evangelisation of Europe.

Not choral evensong. Not the latest light show on the stage. Not ‘relevant’ sermons. Not making church feel less ‘churchy’. Not more gospel tracts. Not better gospel tracts. Not contemporary Christian music. Not organ concerts. Not serving fairtrade coffee after church.

Contemplation and mission.

*Actually, in terms of straightforward proximity, I am closer to Cuthbert than Bede, but because one enters Durham Cathedral from the back, and Bede is buried near the narthex but Cuthbert in the amubulatory, Bede is closer in terms of walking distance.

**We know very little because, although they loved writing almost as soon as they converted to Christianity, Anglo-Saxons did not love writing about their pagan past. And, since the Old Norse Eddic poetry and sagas are about as far in time from St Cuthbert as St Cuthbert is from Jesus, they are actually less helpful than you’d think.

“Imitating the blessed apostles”: The matrix for ancient and medieval discipline

In my new job, I am acquainting myself with the works of the monk-historian Simeon of Durham, who died around the year 1129. In his History of the Church of Durham (Libellus de Exordio atque Procursu istius, hoc est Dunelmensis, Ecclesie), Simeon writes:

Imitating the blessed apostles, the venerable Cuthbert adorned with good works the episcopal office which he had assumed; for by his continual prayers he protected the people committed to his charge, and called them to mind the things of heaven by his wholesome exhortations. (Book 1.10, trans. J. Stevenson)

A great many of our ancient and medieval ascetics believed themselves to be imitating the Apostles, or living the apostolic life, or living according to the Gospel, living ‘evangelically’ (gospelly). A century after Simeon, Franciscans will make much of ‘evangelical’ poverty.

This is in strong contrast with how most Protestants view asceticism. Indeed, asceticism tends to be associated with body-hating, unbiblical extremism; it is even used with such connotations by Richard Foster, author of Celebration of Discipline. Moreover, it is in contrast with how the apostles are viewed; the only disciplines usually even considered in relation to the apostles are prayer and the study of Scripture.

Now, what might Simeon have in mind for St Cuthbert? Certainly, as the context makes clear, prayer and preaching — these are the chief apostolic virtues of St Cuthbert’s Scots-Irish predecessors, Sts Columba and Aidan. St Cuthbert, like those two, was an evangelist before he was a bishop.

He was also what one might call a prayer warrior. Of course, we might not go for his version of what continual prayer looks like. It is one thing to promote the daily office and cultivate silence, as St Cuthbert (who promoted the Rule of St Benedict amongst the monks of Lindisfarne) would have. It is another to stand in the freezing waters of the sea for an all-night vigil or to try and become a hermit.

Nonetheless, there may be something to the disciplined life being ‘apostolic’. It is clear from the biblical testimony that the apostles prayed at the Jewish hours of prayer; they fasted; they renounced worldly possessions; some of them forewent the joys of marriage for their apostolic mission; they studied and prayed over Scripture.

Many believe that St Paul’s time in Arabia was spent in prayer and communion with God before entering into ministry. Jesus certainly spent 40 days fasting on the cusp of his ministry.

As we saw a few months ago, in fact, Bede relates the story of the Roman mission to the Anglo-Saxons, headed by Augustine at Canterbury, in terms of them living as the apostolic community did according to Acts 2. These were certainly monks.

Later in the Middle Ages, it was the canons regular who claimed to be living the apostolic life. These were not, by a strict definition, monks, but clergy who lived together in community, lived a disciplined life, prayed a version of the daily office, and were active in their local communities, preaching and tending to the poor.

It is worth thinking about and pondering seriously — what does the apostolic life look like? It may not look like the cloister, but does it look like the comfortable pew?

St Cuthbert and Me

St Cuthbert on his deathbed, from a 12th century northern English copy of Bede’s prose Life of Cuthbert (London, British Library, MS Yates Thompson 26, f. 73r).

On Tuesday evening, for the first time in several months, I turned up at St. Andrew’s Orthodox Church for Vespers. It being the first week of Orthodox Lent, the service was that of St Andrew of Crete, and things were lit only by oil lamps and candles. I lit my candle and proceeded over to the icons on display — the usual trio of Christ, the Theotokos, and St Andrew the Apostle, but also the Saint of the Day, in a modern icon — St Cuthbert (634-687).

If you know your feasts, you will immediately say, ‘St Cuthbert’s Day was Wednesday!’ Following old customs, the cycle of the day begins with Vespers.

And so, in with various prayers of humility and for mercy, coupled with prostrations that involved touching foreheads to the floor, came that Early Mediaeval Northumbrian saint, Cuthbert.

If you want details for the life of good St Cuthbert, he was Saint of the Week around his feast day in 2010. I recommend also that you get a copy of the Penguin Classic The Age of Bede (or the original edition Lives of the Saints), which includes Bede’s prose Life of St Cuthbert (which is online here).

Since I first read Bede’s Life of this saint, I’ve had a soft spot for Cuthbert. I bought Lives of the Saints for St Brendan the Voyager, but fell for Cuthbert. I mean, The Voyage of Brendan (in both editions of Penguin’s volume) is a fun read and a masterpiece of Early Mediaeval imagination. But Cuthbert is a man who draws me the way St Francis of Assisi (my page on him here) or Blessed Ramon Llull (saint of the week here) draw me.

He was a mystic and a missionary. He was a monk and a preacher. He was a hermit and a bishop. He lived both the active and contemplative lives. My belief is that each fuels the other.

I have happily followed Cuthbert around Britain. Although I’ve yet to visit Melrose Abbey in the Scottish Borders, where he was admitted as a monk, I have been to two Romanesque foundations associated with this mystic missionary.

The first was Lindisfarne. I should give you the piece I wrote about Lindisfarne at some point. Lindisfarne, or Holy Island, is where St Cuthbert was Abbot-Bishop, seeking to reform the monastic habits of the brothers there, which included both simple reform as well as bringing them in line with Continental forms of monasticism.

Here you can see the beautiful red sandstone edifice erected years after Cuthbert’s monastery was long gone by monks who honoured the memory of this monk-missionary in particular as well as his brethren who lived on Holy Island from the days of St Aidan (saint of the week here) in the first half of the 600s until 875 when ongoing Viking raids caused the monks to flee from Holy Island to the mainland of Northumberland. Lindisfarne is the site of the famous, earth-shattering Viking raid of 793 that is often thought of as the start of the Viking Age. The Romanesque Priory was built c. 1093 by Durham Benedictines.

Here are some of my photos of Lindisfarne:

The Rainbow Arch at Lindisfarne
The Rainbow Arch at Lindisfarne

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Lindisfarne is the point of origin of the Lindisfarne Gospels, a masterpiece of mediaeval book production, full of magnificent illuminations, and produced by Cuthbert’s successor, Eadfrith, in honour of St Cuthbert:

(Not my image.)

In 875, the monks took the relics of St Cuthbert with them. Cuthbert was a big deal and his shrine an important pilgrimage site. First, they stopped off at Chester-le-Street (pronounced Chesly Street) for nine years. I’ve been there, too; changed buses on the way from Durham to Beamish.

They settled in Durham, though. And the big, beautiful Romanesque cathedral that stands there now is built in honour of God and St Cuthbert. Within, you can see the saint’s tomb with a simple, black slab over it. With his body is the head of King St Oswald (d. 642). There is also something of a canopy and kneelers to pray. This is nothing compared to the late mediaeval marble opulence covered with gems that was removed during the Reformation.

St Cuthbert is at the East end of the cathedral, behind the holy table. At the West end, make sure you find the tomb of his hagiographer, the Venerable St Bede (saint of the week here). Here are some pics of Durham Cathedral that I took:

Magnificent North portal
Magnificent North portal
The cloisters
The cloisters

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This past June, on the way back from Oxford where I was doing research, I stopped overnight in London. In London, I visited the British Library — and what was on display there but the Cuthbert Gospel? This is the copy of the Gospel of John that was buried with St Cuthbert, presumably his own copy! So I was pleased to see that, as well as an illuminated manuscript of Bede’s Life of St Cuthbert. Even in the South of England, I follow Cuthbert.

The Cuthbert Gospel (not my photos):

I have one other connection with St Cuthbert I can think of. There is a rumour that Cuthbert’s Northumbrian missionary enterprise extended as far as the Firth of Forth (the northern extent of the Northumbrian Kingdom of Bernicia), and that he established a house of worship on the shores of the Nor’ Loch, beneath the Briton (not Pictish!) fortress of Eidyn — the belief is that today’s Church of Scotland Parish Kirk of St Cuthbert that borders where the Nor’ Loch would have been, beneath the mediaeval/early modern fortress of Edinburgh Castle is on the same site as Cuthbert’s house of worship.

St Cuthbert’s, Edinburgh:

St Cuthbert's as viewed from Edinburgh Castle
St Cuthbert’s as viewed from Edinburgh Castle

Cuthbert seems to follow me. Or, rather, I seem to follow Cuthbert. I really should get down to Melrose soon …

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.

Saint of the Week: St. Cuthbert

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.