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.

Ancient Demonology: The Temptations of St. Antony

Temptations of St. AntonyMy first introduction to ancient demonology was the painting to the left, The Temptations of St. Antony, presumed to be by the Dutch painter Hieronymus (Jerome) Bosch (1450-1516).  As you can see, all sorts of the denizens of Hades are surrounding St. Antony, the hunched hermit by the shrub in the middle.  There is a naked woman in a pond, a variety of bizarre monstrosities on the roof of his abode as well as those scaling its walls with ladders.  The bottom left contains an example of the mediaeval imagination it is hard to explain, whereas in the right, above the egg, is a demon clearly designed to frighten.

However, front and centre, is Funnel Butt.  A person with his tunic pulled up over his head, his left foot in a jar, and a funnel coming out of his butt.  Flying from this funnel are birds.  And to the right we see a guy shooting arrows into the funnel from his perch in an egg.  Here’s a closer view of Funnel Butt:

Funnel Butt

This demonological wonder can be seen in the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, where Emily first showed me it.  The picture here is scanned from my postcard of the same.

In this late mediaeval painting, we have an example of the primary role demons play in human life: Temptation.

Wait.  Temptation?  What exactly is Funnel Butt tempting St. Antony to do?  What are any of these things tempting him to do?  I mean, the naked woman in the pond seems fairly obvious, but all these others?  What is going on?

To answer those questions, answer these:  What is the role of the monk?  What is the role, indeed, of every Christian?  What does the Devil fear most of all?

Bosch’s painting is inspired by the Life of St. Antony by St. Athanasius, one of the most popular books of the Middle Ages.  In this book, we read:

… there was a sudden noise which caused the place the shake violently: holes appeared in the walls and a horde of different kinds of demons poured out.  They took on the shapes of wild animals and snakes and instantly filled the whole place with spectres in the form of lions, bulls, wolves, vipers, serpents, scorpions and even leopards and bears, too.  They all made noises according to their individual nature:  the lion roared, eager for the kill; the bull bellowed and made menacing movements with his horns; the serpent hissed; the wolves leaped forward to attack; the spotted leopard demonstrated all the different wiles of the one who controlled him.  The face of each of them bore a savage expression and the sound of their fierce voices was terrifying.  Antony, beaten and mauled, experienced even more atrocious pains in his body but he remained unafraid, his mind alert.  And though the wounds of his flesh made him groan, he maintained the same attitude and spoke as if mocking his enemies.  ‘If you had any power, one of you would be enough for the fight; but since the Lord has robbed you of your strength, you are broken and so you attempt to use large numbers to terrify me, although the fact that you have taken on the shapes of unreasoning beasts is itself proof of your weakness.’  And he went on confidently, ‘If you have any influence, if the Lord has granted you power of me, look, here I am: devour me.  But if you cannot, why do you expend so much useless effort?  For the sign of the cross and faith in the Lord is for us a wall that no assault of yours can break down.’  They made numerous threats against the holy Antony but gnashed their teeth because none of their attempts were successful — on the contrary they made fools of themselves rather than of him. (Ch. 9, Carolinne White, trans. in Early Christian Lives, pub. by Penguin; another translation is online here.)

Demonology comes up throughout the Life of St. Antony; it is one of the foundational texts for much Christian demonological thought.  The demons are here attempting to draw St. Antony out of his cell, to drive him back into society, to stop him from praying.  David Brakke (Demons and the Making of the Monk) has said that it is more appropriately considered the trials of St. Antony than the temptations (both are the same in Latin).

The lesson for the Christian demon-fighter?  They will try to distract you from prayer.  They probably won’t make it seem as though your house is full of holes; they probably won’t appear like a horde of wild animals pretending to prepare to devour you; they probably won’t physically harm you in any way; unlike here or in Frank Peretti, they probably won’t make your presence known.

But prayer is one of the weapons we have in the fight.  So they will do their best to distract us, to tempt us to do anything else, to draw us into other things, even things that seem noble.  Many of the stories about the Desert Fathers tell of men who were drawn away from prayer and into excessive works of charity to the peril of their souls.  We need prayer to satisfy our souls, keep connected with God, and wage war on the front lines of the battle.  Let us remember the power of Christ within us, the power of His cross, to keep us safe and enable us to fight the fight and pray the prayers.

John Cassian & the Desert Fathers

We dealt with Grace & Freewill here.  The other thing that may go over people’s heads is the discussion here about Cassian’s relationship to the Desert Fathers.

Although John Cassian spent a decade or more living with the Desert Fathers, people do not trust his writings to be an accurate reflection of the Desert Tradition.  Some say that Cassian’s writings are too philosophical and theoretical at times, too sophisticated.  The pure and true Desert Tradition of the poor, simple Coptic monks was not like this at all.

The evidence seems to be to the contrary, however.  The letters of St. Antony are one example of Coptic literacy.  And Didymus the Blind is an example of illiterate sophistication.  Furthermore, teachings of Cassian and Evagrius that many think are antithetical to the “pure” Desert Tradition are frequently found in the teachings of the Desert Fathers.

The second difficulty people have with Cassian is the fact that his Conferences are so long.  As stated originally, I do not see this as a problem at all.  Just because the Apopthegmata, or Sayings of the Desert Fathers, are all short does not mean that these same men did not sometimes give longer discourses.

Finally, people point out that John Cassian himself acknowledges a certain amount of modification due to the differing circumstances of monks in Gaul as well as his faulty memory.  This is true, but we cannot fault Cassian for any resultant changes; Cassian was not seeking to write a history, such as the History of the Monks of Egypt or the Lausiac History.  He was seeking to engage with a tradition and pass on the wisdom of this tradition to people in a different situation.  I believe that he effectively did this without compromising the Desert Tradition.

Indeed, as I read Cassian, Evagrius, the Sayings, and other things, I see how big this tradition of the Egyptian desert is.  They are not all in agreement on every point, but they are still standing within the same flowing tide of teachings and practices handed down from master to disciple, beginning with Antony — though Cassian would tell us that it began with the apostles.  It is the handing on of wisdom and actions that makes a tradition.  One can be creative and true within a tradition at the same time.

Flirting with Monasticism

Every once in a while, Wycliffe College has a bunch of discount books for sale on some tables outside their bookstore.  On Thursday nights, I walk past these tables since they’re right outside the room where Graduate Christian Fellowship meets.  This past Thursday (March 26), I noticed Flirting With Monasticism: Finding God On Ancient Paths for sale there.  Since the U of T library system didn’t have it, I bought it on Friday.  And I read it on Friday, with the exception of the appendices which I read on Saturday.

Flirting with Monasticism is Karen E Sloan’s journey with Dominican friars through a year of novitiate.  The Dominican part of her pilgrimage began when she found she had a crush on a young man who was entering the novitiate.  Thus began a year of questions and searching for her as well as worshipping with a different group of Dominicans in the priory in her neighbourhood.  Over the year, Sloan journeyed into the monastic world as far as a Protestant woman really can, learning much about the Dominicans and Dominic, praying the Liturgy of the Hours and encountering God in rich, deep, powerful ways.

Christianity is about a life with God, about relationship, and the monks know it.

As a taste of what you find within, here are the chapter titles: “Finding God on Ancient and Not-So-Ancient Paths”, “Vestition: Receiving the Habit,” “The Liturgy of the Hours: Praying the Divine Office,” “In the Presence of Christ: Participating in Adoration & the Eucharist,” “Encountering Mary: Saying the Rosary,” “Community: Living Together Constantly,” “The Communion of Saints: Living in a Visual History,” “First Profession of Vows: Making Commitments,” “Epilogue: It’s Not a Program.”

Those chapter titles, now that I look at them, sound very Catholic.  However, Sloan is very up-front about her evangelical character as a Presbyterian pastor.  Thus, for those of us not in agreement with Rome’s doctrines about Eucharist, Mary, and the Saints, and for those of us not comfortable joining in on practices such as Eucharistic Adoration or the Rosary, don’t worry!  She finds lessons from these aspects of Catholic spirituality for the evangelical Protestant, many of them found in the meaning behind these actions and the contemplative nature of monastic life.

The biggest thing that runs through this book is the Liturgy of the Hours, which she prayed with the monks at the local priory twice a day for Morning and Evening Prayer.  Regular prayer has potency and the cycle of scriptures and Psalms is good for our souls.  We are bound together as we worship the one, holy Triune God.

So What?

So, I’ve been flirting with monasticism for a while.  You may recall posts on my old blog at St. Francis of Assisi.  My fondness for Francis led me to consider becoming an associate of The Society of Saint Francis (SSF) or to join the Brothers and Sisters of Charity, John Michael Talbot’s group, inspired by Talbot himself — including his book Lessons From Saint Francis, as well as Rich Mullins, GK Chesterton’s St. Francis of Assisi, and The Little Flowers of St. Francis of Assisi. I also own Celebrating Common Prayer, a version of the Daily Office of the SSF.  And I’ve seen Brother Sun, Sister Moon. St. Francis is always an inspiration to me, and a painting of him sits on the shelves on my desk as I do my work.

My monastic flirtation goes beyond St. Francis, but is mostly bookish, cerebral, intellectual.  Not as spiritual as I’d like.  My current research is into the fifth-century monastic writer John Cassian.  I wrote a paper on the Desert Fathers for a course in my undergrad (the inspiration for my current work) — I have read many of their sayings as well as the Life of St. Antony.  I’ve also read selections from the Rule of St. Benedict and Gregory’s Life of Benedict.  I love the film Into Great Silence which led me to read a book (lent by my uncle) entitled Carthusians.  Add to all these Lady Julian of Norwich’s Revelations Of Divine Love, St. John of the Cross’s Dark Night of the Soul, selections from the Philokalia, most of St. Theresa of Avila’s Interior Castle, Thomas Merton’s The Inner Experience, and selections from other monks/nuns/anchorites, and you could say that I’ve encountered a lot more monastic reading than the average person who thinks himself “evangelical.”

Flirting With Monasticism has challenged me to do more than just read about monks.  I should be seeking ways that monastic wisdom can be incorporated into my life as a married layperson.  And so I’m going to do just that.  I’ll keep you posted.