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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“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?

Saint of the Week: St. Hilda (or Hild)

Last week, my wife and I visited Durham Cathedral, where they have a commemoration to St. Hilda — as well as the bodies of St. Cuthbert (saint of the week here) and the Venerable Bede (saint of the week here) and a commemoration to St. Aidan of Lindisfarne (saint of the week here). Since Hilda was also abbess of Caedmon’s convent (recent saint of the week here), it seemed more than high time to post about her as Saint of the Week.

Here is a re-post of what I originally wrote on this Northumbrian saint four and a half years ago:

Today’s feature is St. Hilda, Abbess of Whitby, one of the many good English saints. Here’s the prayer from the Prayer Book for any saint:

O ALMIGHTY God, who willest to be glorifled in thy Saints, and didst raise up thy servant Hilda to shine as a light in the world: Shine, we pray thee, in our hearts, that we also in our generation may show forth thy praises, who hast called us out of darkness into thy marvellous light; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

I would reprint all of the Venerable Bede about her, but that would take too long. It is worth reading, and the story of Caedmon is part of hers, as he was a brother at her monastery. You can find it in The Ecclesiastical History of the English People Book IV.23-24; my translation of the Caedmon bits here.

Here is her entry from the Catholic Encyclopedia:

Abbess, born 614; died 680. Practically speaking, all our knowledge of St. Hilda is derived from the pages of Bede. She was the daughter of Hereric, the nephew of King Edwin of Northumbria, and she seems like her great-uncle to have become a Christian through the preaching of St. Paulinus about the year 627, when she was thirteen years old.

Moved by the example of her sister Hereswith, who, after marrying Ethelhere of East Anglia, became a nun at Chelles in Gaul, Hilda also journeyed to East Anglia, intending to follow her sister abroad. But St. Aidan recalled her to her own country, and after leading a monastic life for a while on the north bank of the Wear and afterwards at Hartlepool, where she ruled a double monastery of monks and nuns with great success, Hilda eventually undertook to set in order a monastery at Streaneshalch, a place to which the Danes a century or two later gave the name of Whitby.

Under the rule of St. Hilda the monastery at Whitby became very famous. The Sacred Scriptures were specially studied there, and no less than five of the inmates became bishops, St. John, Bishop of Hexham, and still more St. Wilfrid, Bishop of York, rendering untold service to the Anglo-Saxon Church at this critical period of the struggle with paganism. Here, in 664, was held the important synod at which King Oswy, convinced by the arguments of St. Wilfrid, decided the observance of Easter and other moot points. St. Hilda herself later on seems to have sided with Theodore against Wilfrid. The fame of St. Hilda’s wisdom was so great that from far and near monks and even royal personages came to consult her.

Seven years before her death the saint was stricken down with a grievous fever which never left her till she breathed her last, but, in spite of this, she neglected none of her duties to God or to her subjects. She passed away most peacefully after receiving the Holy Viaticum, and the tolling of the monastery bell was heard miraculously at Hackness thirteen miles away, where also a devout nun named Begu saw the soul of St. Hilda borne to heaven by angels.

With St. Hilda is intimately connected the story of Caedmon, the sacred bard. When he was brought before St. Hilda she admitted him to take monastic vows in her monastery, where he most piously died.

The most notable part of the example of St. Hilda is her perseverance through her sickness and trial. To quote Bede:

When she had governed this monastery many years, it pleased Him Who has made such merciful provision for our salvation, to give her holy soul the trial of a long infirmity of the flesh, to the end that, according to the Apostle’s example, her virtue might be made perfect in weakness. Struck down with a fever, she suffered from a burning heat, and was afflicted with the same trouble for six years continually; during all which time she never failed either to return thanks to her Maker, or publicly and privately to instruct the flock committed to her charge; for taught by her own experience she admonished all men to serve the Lord dutifully, when health of body is granted to them, and always to return thanks faithfully to Him in adversity, or bodily infirmity. (from CCEL)

We should all take courage from the example of this saint and realise that we can do things for God, make an impact, and rest in His grace, sure in the knowledge that our afflictions are temporal and we can still serve Him. St. Hilda’s “life was an example of the works of light, not only blessed to herself, but to many who desired to live aright.” (Bede again.)

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.

Christian Fiction

Ever since Joseph and Aseneth was a runaway second-century bestseller, Christians have been writing fiction.  Some of it has been among the world’s great literature, such as Dante’s Divine Comedy, Milton’s Paradise Lost, Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, Evelyn Waugh’s Helena, and many more.

My recent discussion of The Shack by Wm. Paul Young and its lack of certain heresies (read it here) has set me thinking about Christian novels worth recommending.  While The Shack was entertaining and thought-provoking, it won’t be in the following list.  The books I’m going to recommend have the following benefits: not only are they good novels but they express deep truths about the universe, God, humanity, and people who aren’t professing Christians could enjoy and read them as well.  Here are five, in alphabetical order by title:

Byzantium by Stephen R. Lawhead.  This is a novelisation of the adventures of St. Aidan, an Irish monk who, in the Early Middle Ages sets off from Kells to Byzantium with a complaint about the behaviour of Western clerics on the Continent.  There are Vikings, Muslims, Byzantines, loss of faith and its recovery.  Aidan is very . . . real.  And the Vikings are fantastic (“Heya!”).

The Cosmic Trilogy by C.S. Lewis.  Many people find The Chronicles of Narnia their favourites; others applaud Till We Have Faces as a work of genius.  I’m not sure what my favourite work of Lewis’ fiction is.  The Cosmic Trilogy, however, is well worth a read.  These books centre on the adventures of Ransom, who in the first (Out of the Silent Planet) travels to Mars (Malacandra), the second (Perelandra) to Venus (Perelandra), and in the final volume (That Hideous Strength), the battle takes itself to Earth.  The stories are excellent, the characters compelling, and a whole gamut of “issues” is run throughout this trilogy.

Godric by Frederick Buechner.  This is a novelisation of the life of St. Godric, an Anglo-Saxon hermit in the Middle Ages.  This well-written novel tells Godric’s life, including Godric’s struggles and doubts, his own humility and questioning of his vocation.  It is beautiful and wonderful.

Helena by Evelyn Waugh.  This is a novelisation of the life of St. Helena, mother of the Emperor Constantine.  I believe that this book captures the spirit of the Late Antique world, especially in terms of philosophy and religion.  Waugh is not trying to make a historical reconstruction but simply telling the legend of St. Helena’s life.  I believe this is a masterpiece; it was Waugh’s favourite of his works.  Loyola Classics has a snazzy edition out.

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle.  This, along with its companion novels, is among my favourite books.  It is a type of science fantasy, if such a genre exists.  It is about four children who set out across the universe to fight the Dark and to find their missing father; the Dark is taking over planets, extinguishing stars.  Their greatest weapon in the fight against the Dark?  Love.

Christian fiction I want to read:

All Hallows Eve by Charles Williams

Brenden by Frederick Buechner

The Pendragon Cycle by Stephen R. Lawhead (I’ve only read Taliesin)

The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan

The Psychomachia by Prudentius

What Christian novels do you recommend?