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.

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Some Benedictines

St Benedict by Fra Angelico

Now, if you’re excited about the Rule of St Benedict, besides applying the lessons about prayer, community, and humility to your own life, you may be wondering where to turn next. After all, RB is pretty short. Where else within that tradition might one go? Well, of course, the fountainhead of all Christian tradition is never to be neglected; that is — read your Bible! (Like a Benedictine?1) Another alternative that I heartily endorse is to read St Benedict’s reading list and contemporaries — so John Cassian, The Rule of the Master, St Basil of Caesarea, as well as the likes of St Columba, Boethius, Cassiodorus, Julianus Pomerius.

The alternative I propose today, however, is to consider the tradition that flows forth from RB and those who live according to the Rule. This embraces more than those with O.S.B. (Ordo Sancti Benedicti) after their name, but also those who pre-date the organised congregations of Benedictine monachism as well as the other orders, such as Cistercians, who follow St Benedict’s Rule.

So, some Benedictines:

The Venerable St Bede (672-735). Bede was a monk here in the Northeast of England, at the monasteries of Wearmouth and Jarrow, spending the last five decades of his life at Jarrow. Most famously, he wrote the Ecclesiastical History of the English People; well worth a read. In Penguin’s The Age of Bede, you can also read his Lives of the Abbots and his Lives of St Cuthbert (besides an unrelated text, The Voyage of Brendan!). If Benedictine biblical reading is your desire, he compiled/composed various commentaries, such as on Genesis,  Revelation; from Cistercian Publications, you can get the following in English: the catholic epistles, the Gospels, the letters of St Paul, and Acts. He wrote other biblical studies as well as a range of writings on computus and chronology. He is a Benedictine worth knowing.

Blessed Alcuin of York (735-804). The great Carolingian scholar from England wrote widely and helped revise the text of the Vulgate Bible. I’ve read a number of his prayers in Sister Benedicta’s anthology Christ Beside Me, as well as some of his verse. I’d like to read more, such as his letters.

St Anselm of Canterbury and Bec (1033-1109). St Anselm, from Aosta in Italy, spent his monastic career at Bec in Normandy before being elected Archbishop of Canterbury in 1093. He is a towering figure of medieval theology whose devotional work reveals the spiritual heart of all he does. My acquaintance with his writings is from The Prayers and Meditations of Saint Anselm, which you can read in a translation by Sister Benedicta Ward, and Anselm of Canterbury: The Major Works, including his MonologionProslogionWhy God Became a Man (or, Why the God-Man? — Cur Deus Homo), and others of penetrating philosophical and theological insight.

St Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179). St Hildegard is a famous mystic and female writer of the Latin Middle Ages. She was an abbess who had episcopal authorisation to preach and who corresponded with the famous churchmen of her age. She had visions from a young age which are recorded in her Scivias; she also wrote abundantly on a great many other topics and composed some beautiful music. The Scivias and the music are my main encounters with St Hildegard. Look her up on Spotify.

Cistercians! A great entryway into High Medieval spirituality is The Cistercian World: Monastic Writings of the Twelfth Century, translated for Penguin by Pauline Matarasso. This includes selections from Stephen Harding, Bernard of Clairvaux, Aelred of Rievaulx, William of St Thierry, Guerric of Igny, and more. Worth your time.

St Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153). St Bernard is considered by Cistercians as the Last of the Fathers. Besides the anthology above, I’ve read from his Homilies on the Song of Songs. So much of St Bernard is so good, and so much exists, it is hard to know where else to point.

Jean Leclercq (1911-1993). Dom Jean Leclercq OSB was a scholar-monk, like de Vogué, of the highest calibre. I cannot recommend too highly The Love of Learning and the Desire for God.

Thomas Merton (1915-1968). Trappists are Cistercians of the Strict Observance, and Thomas Merton is probably the most famous of them. His posthumous The Inner Experience from early this millennium had a strong impact on me, and many speak highly of New Seeds of Contemplation. I also found some random selections from his memoir, The Seven Storey Mountain challenging and inspiring (I found a copy lying around my parents’ house while in undergrad and dipped in and out unsystematically).

Adalbert de Vogué (1924-2011). Dom Adalbert de Vogué OSB was an academic scholar-monk who wrote extensively on the monastic tradition. For our purposes, I recommend the English translation of The Rule of Saint Benedict: A Doctrinal and Spiritual Commentary.

Important Benedictines of one order or another whose works I’ve not read: Benedict of Aniane (the second Benedict; I skimmed his list of monastic rules once), Hrabanus Maurus  St Peter Damian, St Odo of Cluny, Blessed Peter the Venerable, Gilbert of Hoyland, John of Ford, Gertrud the Great of Helfta. Once I’ve read some of his theology, Lanfranc of Bec/Canterbury may also be recommended on this blog.

In closing, one reason why we should concern ourselves with St Benedict’s Rule is not, perhaps, that it is the greatest or the most original monastic text. It probably is not. However, a rich tradition of theology and spirituality flows from it to our own day. This is reason enough to get to know it.


1. Personally, I’ve not read any books devoted solely to Lectio divina, but Enzo Bianchi, Lectio Divina: From God’s Word to Our Lives has been recommended, and I like the look of Duncan Robertson, Lectio Divina: The Medieval Experience of Reading

Blood: Agony & Allegory 2: Christological exegesis

The goal of this series is to consider the Christological reading of Isaiah 63, which sees the blood from the wine-press as the blood of Christ, inspired by Malcolm Guite’s reading of George Herbert’s ‘The Agony’. The verse in question, Isaiah 63:3:

I have trodden the winepress alone; and of the people there was none with me: for I will tread them in mine anger, and trample them in my fury; and their blood shall be sprinkled upon my garments, and I will stain all my raiment.

According to Guite, the Fathers see Christ’s blood as the blood ‘sprinkled upon my garments’. Before turning to the Fathers, it is always worth thinking about their mindset and method. How do they come to such a reading?

In short: All the Scriptures are about Jesus Christ. We don’t even need to look to the Fathers to see this:

And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he [Jesus] expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself. (Luke 24:27)

For all the promises of God in him are yea, and in him Amen, unto the glory of God by us. (2 Cor. 1:20)

The typological approach is used in Romans 5, 1 Corinthians 15, and the vast majority of the book of Hebrews. Various Scriptural passages are taken by the writers of the New Testament to refer to Christ as well, from Matthew onwards, even if they seem to a modern(ist) eye to refer to something else. But, of course, is Jesus not God the Word? Might there not be, as a result, some special relationship between God the Word and God’s word written?

Whether you can reconcile yourself to the spiritual reading of Scripture or not, centuries of tradition, East and West, have read the Bible this way, taking their cue from the apostles. I have found myself recently beguiled by Henri de Lubac on this matter, so I present to you his words from the second volume of Medieval Exegesis, translated by E. M. Macierowski.

All the patristic and medieval discussions of allegory

come together in the concrete definition of allegoria such as one reads, for example, in Bede,[note 21] or in many others after him: [note 22] “Allegory exists when the present sacraments of Christ and the Church are signed by means of mystical words or things.” (p. 91)

In Christian exegesis, there is no longer myth on the one hand; there is no longer naturalistic thought or philosophical abstraction, on the other. What it proposes is to ‘introduce by figures’ the events and the laws of the old Covenant ‘to the sight of the Truth,’ which is nothing but ‘the fullness of the Christ.'[n. 26] So thereby one is clearly going, at least in a first step, from history to history — though assuredly not to mere history, or not to what is merely beyond history.[n. 27] One is led by a series of singular facts up to one other singular Fact; one series of divine interventions, whose reality itself is significant, leads to another sort of divine intervention, equally real, but deeper and more decisive. Everything culminates in one great Fact, which, in its unique singularity, has multiple repercussions; which dominates history and which is the bearer of all light as well as of all spiritual fecundity: the Fact of Christ. As Cassiodorus puts it, a bit crudely perhaps but forcefully, there is not any one theory or one invention of a philosopher, ‘which is formed in our hearts with a fantastic imagination’; this is not one idea, itself fitting, happy and fruitful even: this is a reality ‘which grasps an existing person,’ a reality inserted at a certain moment in our history and which blossoms in the Church, a ‘gathering of all the holy faithful, one in heart and soul, the bride of Christ, the Jerusalem of the age to come.'[n. 28], p. 101

No more than life in Christ is the knowledge of Christ drawn from Scripture accessible to the natural man, the one who confines himself to mere appearances even in his deepest reflections. Interior and spiritual, the object of allegory is by that very fact a ‘hidden’ object: mysticus occultus. It conceals itself from carnal eyes. Pagans do not perceive it, nor do unbelieving Jews, nor those ‘carnal’ Christians who see in Christ nothing but a human being. It is like a fire hidden in a rock: so long as one holds it in one’s hand to observe its surface, it stays cold; but when one strikes it with iron, at that point the spark flashes forth. As it is for Christ, so it is for the Scriptures: with a glance piercing like fire, their secret ought, so to speak, to be wrenched free from them — and it is the same secret: for it si with regard to the written word of God as it is with the incarnate word of God. The letter is his flesh; the spirit is his divinity. Letter and flesh are like milk, the nourishment of children and the weak; spirit and divinity are the bread, the solid nourishment. p.107

As I say, Henri de Lubac here beguiles me. I feel like I am truly discovering how to read the Bible as a Christian — as one baptised into Christ, adopted by the Father, indwelt by the Spirit. It is rich, it is beautiful. This is the kind of religion I want and crave, not dry modern(ist) scholarship on the Scripture (interesting as it is, it only goes so far), but access to the living fountain of Jesus Christ.

Lubac’s Endnotes:

21: De tab., Bk. I, c. vi; c. ix.

26: Cf. Or., In Jo., Bk. VI, c. iii, n. 14-5 (109).

27: Thus it is insufficient to define the contrast between Christianity and paganism in the time of Diocletian, or any other epoch, by saying with F. C. Burkitt that it is “the contrast between an historical account and a philosophical account, or rather … between an annalistic and a systematic account” (Church and Gnosis, 1932, 127; cf. 138, 139, 145).

28: In ps. IV (PL 70, 47C)

‘it has always been my delight to learn or to to teach or to write’

Job applications and fatherhood make you think about what kind of person you want to be and are. Earlier today, I was reminded of — and struck personally by — this passage from the Venerable Bede’s autobiography that he appended to The Ecclesiastical History of the English People:

I have spent all my life in this monastery, applying myself entirely to the study of the Scriptures; and, amid the observance of the discipline of the Rule and the daily task of singing in the church, it has always been my delight to learn or to teach or to write. (HE v.24, trans. McClure and Collins, p.293)

It is that final clause that gets me: it has always been my delight to learn or to teach or to write.

I am no Bede, certainly, but this is what delights me. Learning history, learning theology, learning philosophy, learning about poetry, learning from books, learning from conversation, learning from documentaries, learning from lectures. Teaching — I’ve done less of this! — teaching from pulpits, teaching in lecture halls, teaching undergraduates, ‘teaching’ informally around a table with friends, teaching through small group study. Writing this blog, writing academic articles, re-writing my thesis so it becomes a book, writing journals. Formerly — writing poems, writing stories.

I am no Bede, but here I find a consonance with that monk buried 5 minutes away in Durham Cathedral. This is what I want to spend my life doing, both for the delight it brings and for the greater glory of God.

“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?

Further thoughts on missionary monks

Reflecting on my most recent post, the question arising is: What did Gregory’s missionary monks do, what did they look like? According to the Venerable St Bede (672-735, saint of the week here):

As soon as they entered the dwelling-place assigned to them, they began to imitate the Apostolic manner of life in the primitive Church; applying themselves to constant prayer, watchings, and fastings; preaching the Word of life to as many as they could; despising all worldly things, as in nowise concerning them; receiving only their necessary food from those they taught; living themselves in all respects conformably to what they taught, and being always ready to suffer any adversity, and even to die for that truth which they preached. In brief, some believed and were baptized, admiring the simplicity of their blameless life, and the sweetness of their heavenly doctrine. There was on the east side of the city, a church dedicated of old to the honour of St. Martin, built whilst the Romans were still in the island, wherein the queen, who, as has been said before, was a Christian, was wont to pray. In this they also first began to come together, to chant the Psalms, to pray, to celebrate Mass, to preach, and to baptize, till when the king had been converted to the faith, they obtained greater liberty to preach everywhere and build or repair churches.

When he, among the rest, believed and was baptized, attracted by the pure life of these holy men and their gracious promises, the truth of which they established by many miracles, greater numbers began daily to flock together to hear the Word, and, forsaking their heathen rites, to have fellowship, through faith, in the unity of Christ’s Holy Church. It is told that the king, while he rejoiced at their conversion and their faith, yet compelled none to embrace Christianity, but only showed more affection to the believers, as to his fellow citizens in the kingdom of Heaven. For he had learned from those who had instructed him and guided him to salvation, that the service of Christ ought to be voluntary, not by compulsion. Nor was it long before he gave his teachers a settled residence suited to their degree in his metropolis of Canterbury, with such possessions of divers sorts as were necessary for them. (Ecclesiastical History of the English People, 1.26 trans. Sellar)

These two paragraphs likely cover a longer period of time than it seems.1  Nonetheless, we see here the evangelistic or ‘missional’ outworkings of the contemplative life upon the Kentish court. The life of the missionary monks resembles in many ways that of a monastery whether we look to Benedict, Columbanus, Cassian, or Basil. It also looks a lot like Acts 2:

42 And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.43 And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. 44 And all who believed were together and had all things in common. 45 And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46 And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42-47 ESV)

It is typified, according to Bede by:

  • prayer
  • watchings (or vigils)
  • preaching to as many as they could
  • despising all worldly things
  • receiving only what they truly needed from the disciples
  • submitting themselves to suffering
  • gathering together
  • chanting the Psalms
  • celebrating Mass

If we are being inspired by the contemplative missionary, the two most controversial are likely to be despising worldly things and receiving from those they taught. Concerning the latter, I believe the idea is not that they are seeking material gain but rather the opposite. Unlike Jim and Tammy Bakker, Augustine and his companions accepted only what they needed to survive. This is in accord with what St Paul says of evangelists as well as The Didache. We pay our pastors, after all. But it does mean that this aspect does not apply to any of us laypersons who wish to start emulating the monastic mission in our own lives.

Despising worldly things has always been a hang-up for the affluent. I have no easy way around it, honestly. In our culture, especially, we should probably be seeking the Freedom of Simplicity and endeavouring to be Dethroning Mammon.

I hope and pray we can take their example seriously in our lives as individuals, families, and church communities. Perhaps we can see similar results, with the conversion not of kings but of colleagues, bosses, friends, parents, siblings, or — to look higher — CEOs, judges, politicians. Imagine true disciples of Jesus Christ being made in our midst at every turn by contemplative activists?


1. Markus, Gregory the Great and His World, argues that the process described by Bede may have taken years. I am not a Bede scholar, so I leave the question as to duration open. 

Saint of the Week: St Willibrord, Apostle to Frisia

Willibrord, in Paris lat. 10510
Willibrord, in Paris lat. 10510

St Willibrord (658-739; Feast: 7 November) is one of the various missionary saints from the Anglo-Saxon world to the European continent such as his younger contemporary St Boniface (saint of the week here); his mission field was Frisia and parts of the modern Netherlands and Luxembourg, reaching into (pre-Viking) Denmark.

Willibrord was born in Yorkshire, the son of a certain Wilgils who at some point after Willibrord’s birth became a hermit. Willibrord was educated by St Wilfrid at Ripon and, in 678, went into exile in Ireland when Wilfrid lost his episcopacy in York and took his appeal to Rome (the first English bishop to use Rome as a court of appeal). Of note concerning Wilfrid is that he spent some time preaching in Frisia, also an Anglo-Saxon first, and no doubt later to inspire his disciple Willibrord.

Willibrord spent twelve years in self-imposed exile in Ireland where he spent time in study and was ordained priest. According to the Venerable Bede (saint of the week here), Egbert had long wanted to engage in continental mission, and the earlier mission of a certain Wictbert had availed nothing. After Willibrord’s return to England in 690, he and twelve companions went as missionaries to Frisia to fulfil Egbert’s vision. The choice of Frisia/Friesland makes sense, given the linguistic similarities between Old English and Frisian. I also believe that it is one of the parts of the Continent whence came Britain’s post-Roman Germanic invaders (ultimately ‘Anglo-Saxons’ to us).

Willibrord had the support of the Carolingian dux Pippin II, and his continental mission, like that of Boniface shortly thereafter, was both episcopal and apostolic. As Archbishop of Utrecht, he organised and reformed the existing Christian communities as well as engaging in evangelism of the non-Christian inhabitants of his Metropolitan area.*

Anglo-Saxon bishops (and Carolingians) tended to hold the Bishop of Rome in very high regard, not simply as the Patriarch of Western Christendom, but also as the person (in particular, Gregory the Great, saint of the week here) who first organised the Anglo-Saxon mission of Augustine of Canterbury (saint of the week here). As a result of this esteem in which the papacy was held, Willibrord visited Pope Sergius in Rome early in his mission. In 695 he again visited Rome, this time for his consecration as Bishop of Utrecht.

In 698, he founded his first monastery at Echternach. Monasticism and mission go hand in hand for insular evangelism.

Christianity, of course, can be a politically and socially de-stabilising creed. While Pippin II may have supported Willibrord, Radbod, a Frisian king who practised traditional religion, did not. In 714, Radbod drove Willibrord out of Utrecht, destroyed churches, and killed some priests. In 719, Radbod died, and Willibrord returned to Achiepiscopal see. It was after this that St Boniface joined Willibrord for a time before going East for his own missionary activity.

Like most missionaries of his day, Willibrord literally killed some sacred cows and destroyed some idols. Unlike the less fortunate ones, he and his companions survived. He died at the monastery in Echternach in 739.

He is an example of how early mediaeval prelates combined asceticism with evangelistic zeal. We would do well to imitate, I think.

Read more about Willibrod!

I got most of this information from:

Also available online is Alcuin’s Life of Willibrord.

*Quick note on church organisation: Local bishops have the pastoral and administrative care of cities and their surrounding area, today called a Diocese. These are further organised into Provinces, each of which has a Metropolitan. In the early mediaeval church, above the Metropolitans was the Pope.