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 …

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‘The Crucifixion’ by John Stainer

This evening, we went to a performance of John Stainer’s The Crucifixion at St. Cuthbert’s Church, performed by the Edinburgh Royal Choral Union. St. Cuthbert’s was an ideal setting for this triumphal oratorio of the greatness of Christ’s Victory over sin and death upon the Cross. The space is light and airy, with beautiful paintings on the ceiling of the half-dome of the apse behind the choir, as well as the beautiful frieze of the Last Supper, the magnificent pulpit, and the copy of a statue by Michelangelo atop the font. Somehow, whoever took this photo made the place look dark:

St. Cuthbert’s is worthy of a post itself. Yet as lovely as that place of worship is, we were there for Stainer’s choral masterpiece tonight.

The Crucifixion (libretto here) begins in the Garden of Gethsemane and takes us to Christ’s last (pre-Resurrection) breath. We move from a brief narration straight into The Agony. Here, the recitative was followed by the choir:

Jesu, Lord Jesu, bowed in bitter anguish, and bearing all the evil we have done, Oh, teach us, teach us how to love thee for thy love; Help us to pray, and watch, and mourn with thee.

This choral verse is minor and potent, carrying the weight of the words of that prayer, the weight of our souls witnessing the anguish Christ suffered on our behalf. And when Christ is led away to be crucified , the singer has a rest, and crucified lengthens syllable by syllable, with the final line, ‘And the soldiers led him away,’ notable for its ritardando.

Then there is a brief interlude while the organist plays music from Nintendo’s Dragon Warrior 4, suited for when Our Hero is in a village.

The Processional to Calvary follows this RPG Village Music, and it is triumphal, with the choir singing the refrain: ‘Fling wide the gates! Fling wide the gates!’ Indeed, Christ is seen as the king here and now. This is his true triumph, not Palm Sunday.

Soon, there is a hymn. Stainer and Sparrow-Simpson (the librettist) wrote hymns. We were encouraged to join the choir for the verses in bold. So we did in all of them, beginning with ‘Cross of Jesus, Cross of sorrow,’ which had a familiar tune that I’m used to accompanying a different hymn; my music memory is faulty, and it may have been the final hymn of the work. The second-last verse of this, one of those sung by choir alone, began with quiet organ (was it acapella??):

From the ‘Holy, Holy, Holy,
We adore thee, O most high,’

And then the full blast of the organ’s potency for:

Down to earth’s blaspheming voices
And the shout of ‘Cruficy!’

The oratorio took us from there, ‘The Mystery of the Divine Humiliation,’ to ‘The Majesty of the Divine Humiliation,’ both of which showed us the powerful Christological reality of what went on at Golgotha, to ‘God So Loved the World.’ John 3:16-17 were sung beautifully with a very full dynamic range from the very quiet to the loud, graced by lovely harmony. It was beautiful and regal, working from small to big. A far cry from banners at football games, but more fitting for the glorious truth of the Gospel.

Another powerful moment came during the Recitative immediately following the hymn ‘Holy Jesu, by Thy Passion.’ The tenor sang, ‘Jesus said,’ and then the men of the chorus, sans organ, sang out, ‘Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.’ The tenor and baritone proceeded from this moment to sing a duet about the wondrous fact of Christ seeking the forgiveness of his killers.

The solo thief who mocked Christ was given short, choppy rhythm, whereas Christ’s, ‘Verily I say unto thee, today shalt thou be with me in Paradise,’ was sung by the entire choir in flowing (legato) loveliness. The music, again, suited the words.

‘There was darkness,’ was preceded by a deep, minor organ prelude.

Once again, we had the men alone for the minor, ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’

Finally, after Christ ‘gave up the ghost,’ we sang ‘All for Jesus — all for Jesus’, a hymn I know, though I don’t recall having sung this verse before:

All for Jesus — at thine altar
Thou wilt give us sweet content;
There, dear Lord, we shall receive thee
In the solemn Sacrament.

This Victorian choral masterpiece was certainly the highlight of my day! I hope it is a precursor to a wondrous week, filled with the good blessings given by the Crucified.