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 …

Evangelicals and Tradition: The Saints

Polycarp

Back to my Cypriot seminars. When we look at tradition as it moves along, various developments inevitably occur. We need to test each of these developments against the core of tradition in the Canon of the Faith as well as against Scripture. Some things will be helpful for us as individuals or churches; some will be indifferent; others are to be rejected.

I believe the tradition of honouring our forebears in the faith is reasonable; we do it today to living heroes such as Billy Graham or past ones such as Martin Luther and John Calvin. We see this going on in the mid-second century when Polycarp, a man who had known the Apostle John, was killed by the Roman authorities in Smyrna. The Christians buried his bones and commemorated his life and teachings ever after. We see the same going on with Perpetua and Felicity a bit later in Carthage around the year 200. This sort of practice continued and is evident in Kyprianos of Carthage’s letters in the 250s when the Emperor Decius systematically sought to stamp out Christianity.

However, at some stage, the commemoration of faithful believers went beyond this, and we have the poetry of Paulinos, Bishop of Nola, who was a contemporary of Augustinos’ in the late 300s. He wrote poems to St. Felix, an early Christian martyr, referring to Felix as his friend and offering up prayers to Felix. We also see at this time the emergence of relics and shrines as sites of healings. Missionaries were being sent out in the late 300s accompanied by the relics of martyrs and other holy Christians of prior days to take with them. These are traditions that may have roots in the 200s but which are becoming clearer in the 300s — although various people questioned such action well into the 600s.

Furthermore, although someone like Paulinos of Nola may be a big fan of praying to St Felix, most Christian piety well into the 500s and beyond is focussed on Jesus; it is Jesus most documented Christians pray to most often; it is Jesus who is the centre of the liturgies of these periods; it is Jesus who is even, very often, the focus of the lives of the saints. He is the centre of devotion, even at the time when the prayers to the saints were starting to develop and grow in popularity. This praying to the saints is, I believe as a good Anglican, a derailment of a tradition that developed as a way of encouraging persecuted Christians and remembering the teachings of those who have gone before. However, it should not keep us from reading the so-called ‘Lives of the Saints’ in hagiography. I have read many, many saints’ lives, and sometimes they are silly, but sometimes there is a flash of insight into true virtue or prayer or worship or the character of God that I would have missed because I do not believe in praying to saints.

At all times, the tricky parts of the multitudinous traditions should be held up against the core of the tradition and against Scripture. Are they in conformity to this? Do they draw people nearer to Christ? Do they detract from the true worship of God? Even if a text, such as a saint’s life like the late fifth-century Life of Daniel the Stylite, is not necessarily entirely historically accurate, can God show us things through the example and life of Daniel?

When we approach ancient texts in this way, we can sort through the silly or false parts and find some gems. For there are gems to be found in ancient Christianity, and they are worth finding. For me, the gems have been found in the teachings about the person of Christ and the Trinity, as discussed on Thursday, as well as in the worship and prayer practices of the ancient Church, which have helped me appreciate the holy God of the Bible even more and drawn me nearer to him and helped me in my own times of daily devotion. We must learn to sift through the oddities so as to live with the gems which greatly outweigh the oddities and hard parts, if we are willing to read with an open spirit.

A collection of … hagiography?

I am the proud possessor of a small but growing collection of saints’ lives. My first was a remaindered copy of the Penguin Classic Early Christian Lives by Carolinne M. White, picked up for St. Antony but also containing the delightful lives of Paul of Thebes, Hilarion, and Malchus by Jerome, Martin of Tours by Sulpicius Severus, and Benedict by Gregory the Great. These are lives that helped establish the genre.

My interest in Desert monasticism drove my next hagiographical purchase, the Cistercian Studies translation of the Historia Monachorum in Aegypto called The Lives of the Desert Fathers. This is an interesting travelogue that visits a bunch of the fourth-century monks and tells their stories. It is as illuminating as it is entertaining.

My third was a grab at a used book shop of another Penguin Classic, Lives of the Saints by J. F. Webb, containing the Voyage of Brendan and the lives of Cuthbert and Wilfrid. I bought it because of the Voyage of Brendan but greatly enjoyed Bede’s prose Life of Cuthbert. I have yet to read Wilfrid, but this volume contains lives that show us the world of Early Mediaeval Britain and Ireland, the saints of the “Celtic” and Anglo-Saxon worlds. Worth a read. This is, I have learned, no longer published, but the material available has been expanded in the Penguin Classics volume The Age of Bede.

My most recent acquisitions take us back to the desert, one being Cyril of Scythopolis’ Lives of the Monks of Palestine, translated by R. M. Price for Cistercian. This is a collection of seven monastic biographies by Justinianic (sixth-century) Palestinian monk Cyril. It tells the stories of some of Palestinian monasticism’s founders, such as Sts. Euthymius and Sabas. These are lives of men approximately contemporaneous with Brendan and Benedict but living on the other side of the world in the desert. Very informative about the world of sixth-century monasticism.

At the same time as Cyril of Scythopolis, I got Cistercian’s translation of Besa’s Life of Shenoute, telling the life of one of the most important figures of Coptic monasticism, Shenoute, archimandrite of the White Monastery in the first half of the fifth century. I haven’t read this one yet, but it’s bound to be good.

I’m thinking of getting my own copy of Adomnán’s Life of St. Columba. We’ll see about that.

If I could, I would certainly add John of Ephesus’ Lives of the Eastern Saints, but the only English translation is that by E. W. Brooks in PO 17, 18, 19. Alas.

So many saints. Because of its chronological and geographical breadth, I’d recommend White’s Early Christian Lives if you wish to start reading hagiography yourself! The genre is introduced at the beginning of the volume, and each life contains a brief introduction to the subject. The translation is highly readable, which is always a blessing.