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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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. 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: The Venerable Bede

When we consider the recent weekly saints, we see a powerful evangelist in David Wilkerson, mystics in Mary, Evelyn Underhill, and John Climacus, a helper of the poor in Euphemia, and a Bible translator in Lancelot Andrewes. This week, our saint is … an historian?

The Venerable St. Bede (673-735) is most famous for his Ecclesiastical History of the English People. This document is something to be rightly famous for, giving us some of our only references to persons of the life of Anglo-Saxon England, as well as documenting the lives of the bulwarks of the early English church such as Alban (saint of the week here) and Hilda (I’ve written of her here). This work is important for mediaevalists and church historians alike, including King Arthur fans (that’s how I first heard of it).

But our dear friend Bede was more than a historian — not that being an historian is something at which one should turn one’s nose up. He was also a hagiographer, as we see when St. Cuthbert was saint of the week, having composed both a prose and a a verse life of St. Cuthbert. He also wrote lives of Sts. Anastasius and Felix as well as a Martyrology.

Bede also wrote Bible commentaries and is the upper limit for IVP’s Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, covering Acts, Revelation, the Catholic Epistles, the Pauline Epistles, Ezra and Nehemiah, Genesis, the prayer of Habakkuk, Luke, Mark, Proverbs, Samuel, Song of Songs, and Tobit as well as topical commentaries on the Tabernacle and Solomon’s Temple.

As well, Bede was a homilist, poet, hymnographer, letter-writer, writer of treatises on Latin metre and on scientific topics, and an editor of a Psalter for use by his fellow-monks. Bede, my friends, was a scholar.

He was, of course, a scholar-monk. He lived in the Anglo-Saxon monastery at Jarrow in the Kingdom of Northumberland. He entered the monastic life at Wearmouth, also in Northumberland, at age seven. He spent his life living in one of these two monasteries, and met some interesting people amidst the many, many books he read, including Adomnán of Iona, hagiographer of St. Columba (saint of the week here).

Bede does not seem to have travelled much, which is likely a common reality for most people of the pre-modern world. He visited his friend and former pupil Ecgbert at York in 733 and also visited Lindisfarne at some point as well as a couple of monasteries.

Bede left much to posterity, even if much of it is rarely read by his descendants here in Britain. Nonetheless, his life is a testament to what God can produce in someone with a keen mind and diligent work.

Huzzah for Bede and prolific scholars everywhere! May they continue to enlighten the world!