Cuthbert (634 - 687)
The story of Cuthbert has everything you could ever wish for in a good yarn about the ancient Celts; magical healings, angels and demons, pre-modern friends of the earth with a touchy-feely side, asceticism, bravery, Danish raiding parties, leaders in touch with the heaving poor, unwavering friendship, gruesome drawn out deaths, bodies and bones, and the growth of a cult!
Cuthbert was born around the year 634 and died in 687. Within a few years of his death he was venerated as the foremost saint of Northumbria. He was an ordinary guy, possibly of princely stock, who had a vision of a heap of angels one night while out with his sheep. This experience propelled him into the religious life, first as a brother at Melrose and Ripon under the oversight of the Irish monks Boisil and Eata and then as he rose in the ranks as a Prior and then as Bishop of Lindisfarne.
Initially I was drawn to Cuthbert by the stories of his downright moody reluctance when he was offered the position of Bishop by the King. Here, I felt, was someone right at the centre of the organisation of the church who was so not into power. Apparently when ribbed by his fellow monks by Boisil’s constant assertions that he would make Bishop one day he said: ‘Even if I could possibly hide myself in a tiny dwelling on a rock, where the waves of the swelling ocean surround me on all sides… even there I would fear lest the love of wealth should tempt me and somehow or other should snatch me away’. As I read more of the story I learnt that Cuthbert kept well out of the tribal and ecclesiastical bickerings which surrounded the dispute of power between the Roman and Celtic church. These eventually culminated in the Synod of Whitby in 664. I found that whatever it was in his personality and upbringing that gave him this attitude also motivated him to stick with a lifestyle of stable prayer and sociability. Even as a Bishop Cuthbert was to be found trotting round the country, visiting folk and spending time with people.
A year of being a Bishop did for Cuthbert. Immediately after Christmas 686 he resigned his see and returned to the little hermitage on the Farne Islands he had built. Up until this point Cuthbert, it appears, had been torn between his desire to be among people and his desire to be alone with God. Somehow he had muggled through but eventually he made his decision and acted on it. For the final few months of his life he got the solitude and peace he had longed for.
The stories of Cuthbert’s life continually develop this impression of a person who manages somehow to stand in between two dichotomies and not only remain sane but to act effectively. He was loved by his fellow monks and by ordinary people in the wilds of Celtic Northumbria. He was a friend of ordinary villagers and nobility. He longed to be with people and he longed to be alone. He had every sympathy with the Celtic way of doing church and yet saw the benefits of going Roman. Cool huh?!
Cuthbert is a wildly accessible hero, role model and saint. Bede has mapped his history in a rather dense way but if you want to get to know the guy as a friend go to Northumbria and get to know how the land has mapped history! The more I have learnt about Cuthbert the more I have spent time at places associated with him - his tomb in Durham Cathedral, Lindisfarne and the cave where the monks carrying his body to Durham after the invasion of Lindisfarne spent the night. I find these places to be “thin places”, places where heaven and earth almost touch.