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?
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:
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
chanting the Psalms
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 Simplicityand 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. ↩
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:
David Farmer, The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, 5th ed., Revised (2011)
*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.
Today, I was leading a tutorial discussion about Clement of Alexandria (150-215; saint of the week here) and Origen (185-254; on whose importance, see here), and my students were discussing the usefulness of allegory, of which Origen is a highly famed practicioner. How useful is it? How legitimate is it? And, in a colleague’s group, can we use it of the New as well as Old Testament? Origen says that we can use it of the New, although never neglecting the literal truth.
The Venerable Bede (672-735; saint of the week here) certainly thought you could allegorise the New Testament, and Mark Armitage over at Enlarging the Heart has helpfully given us a beautiful example of allegory expertly used in Bede’s discussion of Luke 17:11-19; it has been broken into three parts (first, second, third) on his blog. You should read them; each is pretty short.
For me, what resonates most strongly in Bede’s exegesis is the image of leprosy as heresy. Perhaps this is because I still self-identify as Anglican and see the Anglican churches of the West as deeply marred by heresy at this moment of history. Perhaps it’s also because I see the Fathers and their concern about heresy time and again being miscast as struggles for power, whereas my reading of Leo vs. the heretics (here) is not a power struggle, but a pastoral concern.
If heresy is like leprosy, this means it is a disease. It is something that you can acquire against your will. And, as Bede points out, as leprous skin is always mingled with healthy skin, heresy is always mixed with truth. The image is of a sick person, a sick world, a sick idea, that needs healing and restoration, not a bad person who needs condemning. Sometimes when we (I) get fired up about unorthodox persons in our (my) midst, we (I) lose sight of the need for healing by Christ in their lives.
And, if we admit it, we may be a little unorthodox (heretical) ourselves, in need of that healing as well.
I like that this allegory puts Christ at the centre of the cure for heresy.
I also like Bede’s commentary on the nine who do not thank him. This is a warning to those of us who have it all together — I believe Nicaea and Chalcedon (indeed, all Seven Ecumenical Councils!), I believe in the Bible, I actually believe the 39 Articles of Religion. So my heresy is washed away. Well done.
Do we remember to thank Christ in humility, acknowledging that He is the source of any orthodox thought we have, the source of all spiritual health in us, doctrinal, moral, dogmatical, ethical?
So I approve of Bede’s use of allegory here. It follows Augustine’s exhortation in On Christian Teaching that a reading of Scripture that draws people further into love of God cannot be really wrong.
As I travel through the messiness that is church history from Constantine to the Reformation, hunting for those whom the institutional church hunted, I would like to branch off on the cusp of the big issues of the Middle Ages to bring to you …
The Synod of Whitby
Why is the Synod of Whitby worth bold letters in the centre of the page? Because the popular myth that surrounds Whitby, one that is intimately linked with modern visions of the ‘Celtic Church’, is that in 664, when King Oswiu and Northumberland chose to follow the current Roman calculations for Easter, they became ‘aligned’ with the Roman Church against the ‘Celtic’ Church in a clash of civilisations and worldviews. It was free-spirited Celt vs bureaucratic, legalistic Roman. Many people call 664 the end of Celtic Christianity. If you’re interested in Celtic spirituality, don’t look any later than this.
So, especially since the gathering was called by the King of Northumberland, it seems the perfect fit for the nastiness that is the official church and its organisms after Constantine ruined everything by daring to give bishops tax-free status.
I just read Benedicta Ward’s little booklet A True Easter: The Synod of Whiby 664 AD, and, well, the truth is messier and, quite frankly, doesn’t support the above reading which draws more upon nineteenth-century nationalism and contemporary Protestant/agnostic searches for early (Christian) spirituality that doesn’t require the presence of a Bishop in Rome.
First, what was this gathering actually about? It was about two things: the date of Easter and how monks should shave their heads. True story. That is all it was about. The latter is not so important. The former, on the other hand, was a big deal all over the ancient and early mediaeval church.
Why is the date of Easter a big deal? Why does it matter whether people celebrate it at the same time? Well, as the Venerable Bede points out, when the King of Northumberland celebrated Easter on one date and his Queen another, one would be feasting while the other was fasting (this is how similar the two practices were; basically the date was the only difference). This is the general complaint about different dates of Easter from time immemorial. It also matters because almost the entire liturgical year is centred around Easter; it sets the dates for the fast of Lent as well as the baptisms which traditionally occur at Easter and Pentecost. It was important for the ancient and mediaeval Christians, who lived in an almost completely oral society for whom visible signs meant more than they do today, that those who are united internally — that is, doctrinally — be united visibly as well.
The dispute about Easter first pops up, according to tradition, in the late 100s when some Christians in Asia Minor were found to be always celebrating Easter on 14 Nisan, that is, Passover — they were accordingly called Quartodecimans. Some people call the Roman episcopus Victor who sent the letter on this issue to the eastern churches the first ‘Pope’. Whatever that’s worth, Quartodecimans were not the end of such disputes, since calculating Easter is a bit tricky. Constantine, who very often tried to help the church find unity and uniformity in various matters, ruled that everyone should follow the Bishop of Alexandria, since Egyptians are good at astronomy and stuff. This didn’t stop Pope Leo I a little over a hundred years later arguing with the Bishop of Alexandria about what the right date would be.
Around 457 (while a frustrated Leo was Bishop of Rome), the Church in Rome decided to follow the Easter tables by Victorius of Aquitaine. This usage spread to the whole western Church that was in communion with the Bishop of Rome, including the Church in Ireland, which was in the process of being evangelised by missionary-bishop-monks sent from Rome.
So how do the Rome-evangelised churches in the south of England, and the Ireland-evangelised churches in the north of England end up with different dates for Easter?
Well, in 525, everyone’s favourite short monk from Scythia, Dionysius Exiguus, came up with new tables for calculating the date of Easter that would run until 1063. These were a bit better at calculating the combined solar-lunar cycle that determines Easter (apparently a tricky thing to this day), so the Roman Church and those in communion with her on the continent adopted the new cycle.
Ireland and Wales (and, as a result, the missions in Scotland and England) did not. I imagine this is because there was not a lot of contact between them and Spain and Gaul (let alone Italy!), especially since Spain and Gaul were busy being consolidated into barbarian kingdoms at the time, with the occasional invasion by a neighbour. When Augustine of Canterbury turned up in 597, the Welsh Christians resisted his calculation of Easter; for them, it does seem to have been a mark of resistance and individuality.
Sixty-seven years later at Whitby, however, the Irish-Roman-trained Anglo-Saxons and Irish who favoured the old Roman dating of Easter, and the Kentish-Roman-trained Anglo-Saxons who favoured the new Roman dating, were all simply appealing to what they saw as the authentic tradition. They had all partnered in mission, and some of them were married to people from the other side of the debate. Theologically, they were in agreement. It was the thorny issue of Easter and how to shave a monk’s head over which they disagreed. As Benedicta Ward paints the scene, this was a meeting of friends, of Christians who loved one another who wanted to solve a problem.
Except possibly Oswiu, for whom this was also a matter of secular politicking.
Anyway, the new Roman position won. Although Colman resigned his bishopric and monastery, his replacements in Lindisfarne were still Irish-trained; the only difference was the fact that they would follow the new date of Easter. When he left, some of the English monks followed him to Iona.
Ward points out that Bede speaks highly of the Irish missionaries and monks, finding their obstinacy concerning dating Easter as the only general fault. Their devotion to the theological truths of Easter he praises.
Eventually, all of England, Ireland, Scotland, and the isles adopted the new Roman date of Easter. While this may sound like reading history backwards, it still strikes me as inevitable. The entire church on the continent followed this practice, as did the churches in southern England with a mix in Northumberland. The Church of Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages esteemed unity, and the celebration of the Church’s chiefest and principal feast was an important demonstration of that unity.
If you’re looking for a Roman church imposing its power over local practices, look not to the Synod of Whitby.
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.
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:
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:
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:
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:
Cuthbert seems to follow me. Or, rather, I seem to follow Cuthbert. I really should get down to Melrose soon …
Whilst in Paris, I visited three churches for Sunday morning services. While Notre-Dame’s Messe Gregorienne would be most in keeping with the overall theme and tenor of this blog, the one that has got me thinking most was, of all things, Hillsong Paris.
Hillsong Paris is a plant of the famous Hillsong Church in Australia. It meets in a theatre thrice on a Sunday, and at least fills the 12:15 service. As one would expect the music is upbeat and loud, with a seemingly ‘professional’ quality to it. The musicians jumped around on the stage and ran and sang loudly. The songs were all in French save one, but the original English was projected at the bottom of the screen.
The Sunday I visited Hillsong Paris, Brian Houston, le pasteur principal of Hillsong was visiting from Australia. He gave the message with a very, very good interpreter who immediately fired off rapid-fire French after each of his sentences and even sought to mimic his gestures.
Say what you will about anything at Hillsong, Brian Houston is a man of passion. He has zeal for God and for seeing people come to a living, vibrant faith in the risen Jesus. As he preached about us seeking to find that glorious obsession which God has implanted into us, this passion, this zeal for God came through.
To be zealous you don’t have to be high-energy, of course. To have a passion for Christ and His mission you don’t have to be an electrifying speaker. But if you are high-energy, whatever it is that is your glorious obsession will be apparent to everyone around.
Whilst in Paris, I read from several books. I read most of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People during my Parisian month, and finished it a few days ago. If we wish to discuss zeal for the Lord and His mission, we need look no further than the tales of these early British bishops.
In Bede’s most famous work, the reader meets many of the big names from the Christianisation of early mediaeval Britain — Columba, Aidan, Wilfrid, Willibrord, Paulinus, Edwin, Oswald, Augustine, Germanus of Auxerre, Hild, Caedmon, Cuthbert, Benedict Biscop.
Most of these names are bishops. Augustine and other early bishops in southern England came over from the continent to bring the light of the Gospel to the ends of the world. They, and then their local successors such as Wilfrid and Cuthbert, laboured to see the English people receive the truth of Jesus and transform their world for the better. Joining these continental and English missionaries were the Irish, such as Columba and Aidan, approaching the island from the North and West.
Sometimes, due to the ire of a king, the missions would not go as planned. Thus Wilfrid found himself in exile for many years. Rather than sitting about moaning, he engaged in mission where he was, whether in England or Frisia. Sometimes, the kings helped the bishops, such as Edwin and Oswald. These men and women had a zeal for seeing the people of Britain — Anglo-Saxon and Pict — come to saving faith in Jesus.
But I? Where is my zeal for the Lord? Sure, I blog big. And I enjoy Christian literature such as Bede or Miroslav Volf or saints’ lives or Leo. But I go days and days without reading the Scriptures, without really praying. Church, regardless of denomination or preaching or ‘style of worship’ I find tiresome. Where is my zeal? And where can I get some?