Off the North Sea coast of northeastern England lie the Farne Islands, tiny places inhabited for only a few months each year by National Trust rangers, and formerly by lighthouse keepers. Gulls, terns, cormorants, oyster-catchers, puffins and seals abound. A lot of the time, the only sounds to be heard are wind and waves and birds. I was taken there as a child, and hope soon to be able to take my own children there. The earliest known human inhabitants of the islands were hermits in the Irish monastic tradition, spiritual warriors who left their homelands to do battle with the devil and with their own base desires. Their wilderness was not the desert of the Syrian and Egyptian hermits who inspired them, but wet and windy outcrops around the British Isles. An important aspect of this spirituality was closeness to nature, as mentioned in the comments on my piece about St Anthony, when a philosopher asked him how he managed without books, he replied “My book is nature, and I can read God’s words at any time”.
This was the Christian tradition in which St Cuthbert was raised, at an Irish monastery in what is now Scotland. He had a conversion experience while playing a childish game at the age of eight, when an unfamiliar three-year-old told him tearfully that he was too old for such frivolity. He went home and asked his father to ‘put him to learning’, and while still a child he became a monk. When a man, he was sent from Scotland to England, as prior of the monastery on the tidal island of Lindisfarne (or Holy Island) off the Northumbrian coast.
The Britain in which Cuthbert was born was a mission field. The Britons themselves had become Christian during the last century or so of Roman rule, and had (most famously in the person of St Patrick) converted the Irish. The Picts, in what is now Scotland, had remained pagan, while what is now England had been conquered by pagan Angles and Saxons. The conquered Britons, left in control of the western and south-western parts of the island of Britain (Cumbria, Wales, Cornwall), had no interest in saving English souls, and the English had no interest in the rites or beliefs of a defeated people. Christianity was brought to the English from over the sea, in two movements: from the north, by way of Scotland, by wandering Irish monks, and from the south by Roman monastic missionaries, sent by Gregory the Great.
Northumbria was where the two uses, the Irish and the Roman, overlapped. Irish monasticism was more heroic than Roman, based less on communal discipline and more, like the ancient desert monasticism, on individual feats of superhuman asceticism. It was Irish monastic practice that gave rise to private confession as the main means of receiving the sacrament of reconciliation (more public rituals of reintegration having been part of the reconciliation of sinners in the early Church).
Early in the Middle Ages the diocese of Rome had adopted a new method of calculating Easter that could, from time to time, put the feast a week later than the old method of calculation — a method that by Cuthbert’s time had fallen out of use in all the Western churches except the Irish. St Ambrose of Milan, when asked whether one should stick to Milanese liturgical practices when in Rome, famously replied, ‘When in Rome, do as Rome does.’ What were the Northumbrians to do, with both Irish and Roman missionaries among them? The King of Northumbria, Oswy, had himself been raised a Christian in exile among Irish monks. His queen was a Kentish princess, whose entourage followed Roman use. When the king’s chaplains began the Easter celebrations while the queen’s were still observing Lent, it was clear that the Northumbrian church could not muddle along with two Easters but would have to adopt either one or the other. The decision was made at the Synod of Whitby in 664, where the Roman date was chosen. Many of the leading Irish missionaries withdrew from Northumbria.
Cuthbert, as prior of Lindisfarne, a monastery in the Irish tradition, found himself faced with the task of getting the community to change their ways. Anybody who has lived through liturgical change knows how controversial it can be. Cuthbert summoned the chapter of the monastery, told them what had been decided, and allowed those so inclined to rail and berate him. Then he adjourned the chapter, and reconvoked it again the next day, patiently continuing in this pattern until the anger of the affronted was spent and the community agreed to abide by the changes. I don’t know whether there is a patron saint of meetings, but if not Cuthbert should perhaps be called upon.
After nine years on Farne, Cuthbert was called from this solitary life to be bishop, and the Venerable Bede says that in this public function:
he protected the people committed to his care with frequent prayers, and invited them to heavenly things by most wholesome admonitions, and followed that system which most facilitates teaching, by first doing himself what he taught to others. He saved the needy man from the hand of the stronger, and the poor and destitute from those who would oppress them. He comforted the weak and sorrowful; but he took care to recall those who were sinfully rejoicing to that sorrow which is according to godliness. Desiring still to exercise his usual frugality, he did not cease to observe the severity of a monastic life, amid the turmoil by which he was surrounded. He gave food to the hungry, raiment to the shivering, and his course was marked by all the other particulars which adorn the life of a pontiff.Bede’s Life of Cuthbert can be read online in translation, or even from scans of an illuminated Latin version (from which the picture above is lifted).
Cuthbert is one of England’s great saints, but I think little known elsewhere (except perhaps for the otter story). There is a magnificent medieval stained-glass window in York Minster, showing scenes from his life. His tomb lies in Durham Cathedral. It is, in a sense, the foundation of Durham. There was little there before monks arrived, driven from Lindisfarne by Viking raids, seeking a safe place to house Cuthbert’s remains. An Anglo-Saxon copy of John’s Gospel had been placed in his coffin with him. It was removed from the tomb in 1104 and housed in its own reliquary. After the Reformation it found its way into the library of the exiled English Jesuits in Liège. The Jesuits recently sold it to the British Library for £9 million, where it is regarded as one of the library’s treasures — not because it is a second-class relic, but because it is the oldest intact book in Europe. Scans of the book, and of the Anglo-Saxon binding, can be seen online.
Paul Arblaster is my second oldest internet acquaintance (The oldest is Mary who also comments on this blog.).
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