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.

Saint of the Week: Saint Dominic

St. Dominic (1170-1221) was the founder of the Order of Preachers, that is Black Friars or Dominicans (natch). He was born in Caleruega, Spain, near the Benedictine abbey of St. Dominic of Silos. His parents wished to dedicate his life to the Church, and he studied theology at Palencia University around age 14.

A hard-working student, he actually owned his own books as a demonstration of his commitment to his studies, given the vast expense of books in a world of manuscripts and copyists. However, he demonstrated an even greater commitment in his life, a commitment to the ‘book of charity’, when he sold these books amongst other possessions in order to help the needy during a famine in Palencia.

In part due to this charitable activity, he was made canon of Osma Cathedral while still a student and took on his duties enthusiastically, living a communal life under the Rule of St. Augustine, which was later to form the backbone of the Order of Preachers he was to found. In 1201, Dominic became prior of the chapter when his friend Diego de Azevedo become bishop of Osma.

On embassies for Alfonso VIII of Castile, Dominic became aware of the spiritual danger of the Cathars, or Albigensians, as well as the need for evangelising the pagan Cuman peoples. As part of his desire to evangelise the lost and reform the heretics, he visited Citeaux, home of St. Bernard, which had been a centre of anti-Albigensian activity.

Dominic and his friend Diego were in contact with various Albigensians and, while noting the spiritual danger of their teachings, were also aware of the sincerity of the followers of this syncretistic religious group with roots in the religions of the ancient Mediterranean lands. Since the Albigensians lived lives of strict poverty, Diego and Dominic arranged the missions of those they sent to live a similar lifestyle and to seek to convert the Albigensians to the Catholic faith through reasoned discussion, not coercion.

Diego and Dominic spent several years in southern France preaching amongst the Albigensians, and won a number of converts to orthodox Christianity, including several who chose to enter the religious life. Yet the Albigensians were numerous, and the workers were few. Soon, after an Albigensian assassinated a papal legate, an all-out ‘crusade’ was launched against the French Albigensians, and Dominic’s approach of reasoned evangelism came into peril as the Catholic forces sought to exterminate Albigensianism by exterminating Albigensians.

In 1215, Dominic went to the Fourth Lateran Council, which sought to organise the Church in a manner conducive to the propagation of the Gospel through the preaching of the Word and the reasoned battle against heresy. The fruit of Dominic and his companions’ activities in the midst of the energetic Pope Innocent III was the establishment in 1216 of the Order of Preachers which took the Rule of St. Augustine as its own along with Constitutions appended by Dominic.

The Order of Preachers is technically not a monastic order but an order of mendicant friars. Mendicant is a fancy word for beggar. Like the Franciscans, Dominicans were meant to be dependent not on their own or worldly resources but on the charity of those around them and of the Church. They were to move from place to place on foot (sometimes they would acquire horses and nowadays have been seen in all sorts of newfangled technologies) and to preach in the towns of Europe and dispute with the heretics, especially the Albigensians. They followed the call to ‘evangelical poverty’, taking seriously Jesus’ commands to sell everything and give to the poor.

This wandering, begging lifestyle of shabby clothing and sleeping on the floor is the one Dominic had as his own from before the establishment of the Order. Combined with his charismatic personality, his mode of life as well as personal virtues made him the sort of person the Albigensians, who sought purity and perfection, would listen to. His ascetic lifestyle made inroads for the Gospel.

The Order spread rapidly during Dominic’s lifetime and now stretches around the world, seeking to bring the light of the Gospel of Jesus with it through preaching as well as through theological education to save people from the pitfalls of heresy.

His feast is August 8.

Most of this information came from Butler’s Lives of the Saints: August.

More on Dominicans

Flirting with Monasticism. This highly readable book (recommended here) gives an introduction to the spiritual life of the Dominican order and how you, too can benefit from monastic spiritual practices.

Famous Dominicans

St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Catherine of Siena, Blessed Fra Angelico (there are others, but I’m not really familiar with them at all)