Sunday, March 27, 2016

52 Saints ~ Week 13 ~ Saint Maybe?

I've been thinking about who might be a good saint to appear on Easter Sunday, and what came to mind were several people who were involved in the Passion, who have been thought to be, or who might actually saints. We see them as static characters in a drama, but all of their lives continued after Easter, and they had to have been changed in some way. There isn't a whole lot know about any of them, and there's a good bit of disagreement about all of them, so here we go.

Disclaimer: Due to the harried circumstances of my life at present, this is going to be a very un-academic, unsubstantiated post. I am just looking around to see what I can find. At best it's all speculation, but I find it interesting and worth thinking a bit about.

The first is Pontius Pilate. St. Pilate? The history of Pilate seems to be quite muddled from what I can tell by looking around the internet. There are stories, though, that he repented and became Christian. There even seems to have been one that he was martyred by crucifixion. The Catholic Encyclopedia says that the Abyssinian Church considers him a saint and that his feast day is October 25 (along with that of his wife). I've also seen statements that he is recognized as a saint by the Ethiopian and Coptic Churches.

Whether or not he is a saint, and how can we ever know in this life, we know that he knew that Jesus was not worthy of crucifixion. I have spent a great deal of time formatting the Passion readings for this week to make booklets for our lectors, and I have read the scriptures over and over to over to make sure everything ended up in the right place. It really struck me how hard Pilate tried to keep from having Our Lord crucified. We don't know why he did not do the right thing, presumably it was some fear of the crowd or losing his job or reputation. I'm not sure we can know that we would have done any better. I kept being reminded of a scene in Man for All Season where St. Thomas More is being questioned and doing everything he can to answer the questions, and refute the accusations without either condemning himself or lying. He, of course, made the right decision in the end, while Pilate did not. I think, however, that Pilate must have been troubled by his decision for a long time, and it's not beyond belief that he might have repented.

Earlier I mentioned that he is venerated in the Abyssinian Church along with his wife, Claudia Procula, who in the gospel of Matthew tells Pilate, "Have thou nothing to do with that just man: for I have suffered many things this day in a dream because of him." The Catholic Encyclopedia (hereafter referred to as CE) says that the story that she became a Christian can be found in Origen and that she is venerated by the Greek Orthodox Church on October 27.

Then there is Veronica, the woman who wiped the face of Christ and found his image on her veil.
The veil which is considered to be St. Veronica's is displayed
 in a ceremony at the Vatican on the Fifth Sunday of Lent.
We know nothing else about her, really, but there are legends one of which is:
In Italy Veronica comes to Rome at the summons of the Emperor Tiberius, whom she cures by making him touch the sacred image. She thenceforth remains in the capitol of the empire, living there at the same time as Sts. Peter and Paul, and at her death bequeaths the precious image to Pope Clement and his successors. CE
It seems unlikely that Veronica is her real name. The CE says that there were [and are] many miraculous images floating around, and that to distinguish this one as the real one it was referred to as vera icon, that is true image, and speculates that this may have been mistakenly taken as the woman's name. There are also references that name this woman as the woman with an issue of blood whom Jesus healed.

  Longinus was the soldier who pierced the side of Christ and who said, "Truly this man was the Son of God!" I believe this makes him the first post-crucifixion witness to the divinity of Jesus. Again, we don't know if that is his real name, although the word LOGINOS is found over the head of the soldier in an illuminated 6th century manuscript. (CE) His feast day is on March 15 on the Roman calendar, although I cannot be sure whether this is the old or new calendar or both, and on October 16 on the Orthodox calendar. I found the following information in more than one place, but the quote below was found here.
While particular cause may be contended, the subsequent effect, the conversion, seems clear. St. Longinus left the Roman guard, sought instruction from the Apostles and retreated to Caesarea of Cappadocia to become a monk who preached and converted many. It was here that he lived until times of persecution intensified. St. Longinus was called before the governor, ordered to make sacrifice to idols, but stubbornly refused. The governor then had his teeth and tongue cut out. However, upon recovering, still in the torturing presence of the governor, his guard, and the idols, St. Longinus rose, grabbing a near-by ax and shattered the idols, miraculously crying out (despite lacking a tongue), “Now we shall see whether they are gods.” He was then beheaded and martyred.
There is, of course, also the Good Thief. The name which has come down to us through tradition is Dismas, which comes from the Greek word for sunset, and through association with the end of the day, death. We know nothing about him except what we hear in the Gospel of Luke; we can only speculate as to what his crime might have been. But, the one thing we do know for certain is the most important thing there is, and that is that he is a Saint.

The feast day of St. Dismas is, interestingly enough, on March 25, which this year was both the Feast of the Annunciation, and Good Friday. Good Friday, of course, would be most appropriate because it is the day that he entered into Heaven, but it is rare for those two days to coincide. It won't happen again in our lifetimes. Every year, though, it does fall on the Feast of the Annunciation, and on the day traditionally assigned to Creation, and by Jewish tradition the day of Abraham's intended sacrifice. (There's a good article about this here.)

Artwork by Shirley Oxborough
The final person I want to talk about is my favorite, Simon of Cyrene. As far as I can see, Simon has never been recognized as a saint by the Catholic Church, although there may have been places here-and-there where he was recognized locally. I do see that there are many Episcopal churches named St. Simon of Cyrene, which is curious. If the Episcopal Church didn't bring this devotion forward from its Catholic roots, where did it begin? There are also some Orthodox churches with that name, and that may be the answer to my question.

Throughout the history of the Church, there seems to have been a debate about whether Simon just carried the cross grudgingly under compulsion, or whether he was converted by his experience. I said this was going to be an un-academic post, but I did read one academic paper, Gregory the Great on Simon of Cyrene: a Critique of Tradition by Mark DelCagliano, which I found here. DelCagliano says that Gregory, and Bernard of Clairvaux were of the grudging school, while Bede and St. Isidor of Seville thought that Simon was converted, Isidor saying that Simon symbolized the Gentiles who converted to Christianity.

One thing that I never noticed about the story of Simon before I stared do a bit of research here is that Mark tells us that Simon was the father of Rufus and Alexander. Rufus is a saint. He is listed in the Roman Martyrology with his feast day on November 21. The Catholic Encyclopedia  says this in the entry about St. Rufus.
Rufus the disciple of the Apostles, who lived at Rome and to whom St. Paul sent a greeting, as well as he did also to the mother of Rufus (Romans 16:13). St. Mark says in his Gospel (xv, 21) that Simon of Cyrene was the father of Rufus, and as Mark wrote his Gospel for the Roman Christians, this Rufus is probably the same as the one to whom Paul sent a salutation.
St. Paul also includes Rufus's mother, "Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord, and his mother and mine." (Romans 16:13)

I can only say that if Simon's originally carrying the cross begrudgingly indicates that he was not eventually converted, I am in a lot of trouble, because the very reason that I identify with him so strongly is that it has been in carrying crosses that I originally rejected that I have grown to know and love the Lord. I'm very much like the son in Matthew 21 who says "I will not," but then changes his mind. It seems to me that Simon very likely resembled him, too.

I really like the picture above because while it is not technically perfect, it captures so much in the look which Simon and Jesus exchange. Jesus seems to be pleading with Simon for help in his suffering, and if saints like St. Faustina are correct, he pleads with us in very much the same way. It is really overwhelming to sit and comtemplate what it would be like to be in Simon's position in that picture. And Simon seems to me to be at a point of decision, trying to figure out what Jesus is asking beyond mere physical help, and what this moment in his life will mean for his future.

Janet Cupo is the proprietor of this blog.

If you want to see all of the posts in this series, click HERE.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

52 Saints ~ Week 12 ~ St. Minias

The stout guidebook I bought as a college student mentions Saint Minias in only one sentence. In less-than-perfectly-proofread English, we learn, “The Church (fig. 184) was built in the XI century on the old Oratory (erected by San Miniato the first Florentine Christian martyr), and is the most notable example of Florentine Romanesque architecture.”

(Note: although it sounds strange to me, I will refer to the man as St. Minias throughout, because in Florence the church is often called simply San Miniato rather than its full name San Miniato al Monte. Perhaps this will result in greater clarity, if only in my own mind.)

It’s not surprising that my little guidebook says less about St. Minias than about some other saints associated with Florence. Without doubt, more information is available about the construction of the basilica known as San Miniato al Monte, which began in 1013, than about the life of the saint for whom it is named, who died over 700 years before construction began. In fact, the main reason I know anything about this saint is that while I was a student, I met an art history professor who was writing a book about the construction of the church. I’ve spent a lot of time musing on (and in) the church itself over the years. Recently I began to wonder what can be known about the man for whom the church is named.

My limited search has revealed what might be expected regarding a person who lived so long ago: we don’t know much, and what we are told is impossible to verify according to today’s historical standards.

According to the stories passed down. Minias was an Armenian—either a merchant, a soldier, or a prince, depending on which story you hear. If a merchant, he came to Italy originally for trade. If a soldier, he came on command. If a prince, the account is that he left his kingdom for the faith of Christ, to do penance and to be far away from his kingdom, [and] went over seas to gain pardon at Rome,” (Villani, 36) then moved to the area near Florence.

That he came from Armenia is undisputed, and the name Minias is still found among Armenians today. As an early Christian civilization, Armenia could certainly have provided the nurturing for a man whose faith would make him strong enough live the life we are told he lived. Whether merchant, a soldier, or a prince, most accounts agree that Minias’ faith eventually led him to live as a hermit in the woods near Florence. According to some, a small community of disciples developed around him, though this is debated.

The wooded area behind the church where St. Minias is said to have lived as a hermit.
By all accounts, he was brought on trial during the persecution of the emperor Decius—
according to some, brought before the emperor himself—and commanded to deny Christ and sacrifice to the Roman gods. When he refused, he “endured divers martyrdoms,” according to the Chroniche Fiorentine di Giovanni Villani. Or, as reported elsewhere in more detail, he was “thrown into a furnace, was lapidated, and was thrown to a lion or a panther at an amphitheater—from which he emerged unharmed.” Finally, as all accounts agree, he was beheaded.

An account of what happened after that, the one part of his story that remained in my memory from those student days, does not appear anywhere until around the time of the construction of the church in the eleventh century. When Bishop Ildebrando decided to build a new basilica, the building of which seems to have had significant political motivation, he needed a religious reason for doing it. The cult of St. Minias by that time had become somewhat neglected. Oratories dedicated to him dotted the landscape of Tuscany, but his story had apparently become a faint memory.

The bishop had a new account of his life and death (a passio) written, and this is the first time the most-remembered component of the story appears. In this new passio, the abbot Drogone, commissioned by Idebrando, wrote that after his decapitation, Minias rose up from death, picked up his head, crossed the Arno river (which had no bridge at that point in place or time), and was led by angels up the mountain to a site near the woods where he had lived. This intentional resurrection of the saint’s story, with a bit of elaboration, was successful. It reminded the people of their patron saint and inspired them to consent to the huge effort of building a new basilica.

The bishop’s new twist on Minias’ death also took care of a troubling part of the story. Evidence exists that Bishop Theodoric of Metz (France) had removed Minias’ relics from the oratory in 967 and taken them to Metz. Bishop Ildebrando, disputing the veracity of this story, claimed that the bones of Saint Minias had been found at the site in Florence, along with remains of some of his community, though evidence of this appears nowhere. The story provided the evidence needed, because in it, Drogone wrote that by taking his head, with angelic accompaniment, to the top of the mountain, “with clear and admirable intention he proved that he wished to await the Day of Judgment here” (Santing et al, 89).

Well, I suppose there was no way to argue with the story, to prove anything one way or another about the location or state of the bones. Bones of someone reportedly lie in the crypt, and the story of the cephalophoric ascent is told to this day.

Which brings me back to the professor I mentioned at the beginning. I was in the church with some of my college friends and was trying to read a Latin inscription. A kind, British voice very courteously interrupted and asked if we would like some help. This led to my meeting Professor Fred Gettings and to a conversation about his researching the church for a book he was writing about its symbolism. San Miniato is one of the medieval churches that has a full zodiac in the floor, and he explained to us how the zodiac fit with other symbols in the church, and how the sun coming in at certain times and on certain days was key to understanding how it all fit together. It was fascinating; our conversation led to his coming to lecture to our college group in exchange for some research grunt work we did for him.

An article about this zodiac can be found here.
The professor told me that the sun, Pisces, and Taurus, and the foot of Christ all play key parts in way the church was oriented and constructed. We might also say “decorated,” but the images and symbols are much more than decoration. Everything carries meaning beyond aesthetics, so I’m not sure what word to use.

The time of construction has meaning, too. For one thing, according to an inscription in the church, the zodiac was installed and the church was dedicated at sunrise on May 28, 1207. At sunrise during that time of year, the sun’s light from one window falls directly on the foot of Christ in the apse mosaic, and his foot points down to the crypt believed to contain the bones of St. Minias.

And the year is significant. Professor Gettings believed that one reason for the design of the church, was to combat a heresy that had been gaining ground in Italy at that time. Joachim de Fiore (1135-1202) had taught things that led some who followed him to de-emphasize the importance of Christ, scripture, and the church; and to overemphasize and distort the role of Holy Spirit in their teachings, leading eventually to a form of Gnosticism and sexual immorality.

Obviously, the church’s construction began before Joachim was born, and major parts of the church would have already been in place. But several of the smaller details that connect to the themes could easily have been added in the later years, as work continued up until the time of the dedication. It is also true that heresies are not born overnight, generally. Movements were in place before Joachim came along that influenced both his teaching and the distortions that his followers brought into play.

Gettings believed that the emphasis the church’s art gives to Christ’s supremacy and to the importance of the eucharist—a very physical act that shows belief that body and spirit are one—were a way of saying clearly through symbols to a largely illiterate people that the truth would be taught and practiced here in its fullness. (Though Joachim was never condemned, some of his teachings were condemned in 1215, just eight years after the zodiac was installed.)

Gettings pointed out that at the time of the dedication, the planets would have been grouped in such a way that five appeared within the constellation of Taurus, a very rare occurrence, which astronomers of that time would have been anticipating. The emphasis on Taurus would connect in medieval imagery with the bull’s symbolism of head, neck, and throat. This without doubt in Christian symbolism stood for Christ as the Word, and perhaps in this case also connected with the story of St. Minias. Taurus is also associated with sacrifice, which Christians came to connect to Christ, and perhaps in this case also to the martyred saint. The pisces image is used in several places in the church. In addition to being an acrostic for “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior,” it also symbolized resurrection in astrological symbolism.

Gettings’ theory about the church’s very structure combatting Gnosticism fits well with the complex history of the stories about St. Minias. The whole set of beliefs related to relics, which led to the cephalophoric addition to his story, are grounded in the Christian beliefs of the goodness of creation and the body, the incarnation of Jesus Christ, and the reality of resurrection. Though the inclusion of a zodiac may seem strange to us, one writer has pointed out that the symbol of the sun at the center of it places “emphasis on Christ as the Sun, giver of life and light . . . lord of the universe and time.”  St. Minias proved with his willingness to die that he saw Jesus, and not Emperor Decius, as the true Lord. And he trusted him for eternal life.

Thebasilica and monastery website begins one of its pages with these words:

To believe in the God of Jesus Christ means to believe in a God who reveals himself in stories, and this gives a very strong quality to our experience of time. With this perspective, our memories take on a special significance, with which we can save up in the heart the traces of the Lord’s passing through our days, and the hope with which we train ourselves to look toward the future as the ultimate dwelling of our life in Christ. 

San Miniato, the church, has had a special place in my memories ever since that day in spring of 1987. Learning more about its history and the stories of the man behind the church has been a blessing. Remembering Professor Gettings, who wrote that the cathedral possessed “an almost palpable feeling of ancient healing power,” has had special significance. In the course of writing this, I learned that Professor Gettings died a couple of years ago. He was a kind and brilliant man, and may perpetual light shine upon him.

General Sources without links:

Brand, Benjamin David. Holy Treasure and Sacred Song: Relic Cults and Their Liturgies in Medieval Tuscany. Oxford University Press, 2014.

Gettings, Fred. The Secret Zodiac: The Hidden Art of Medieval Astronomy. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1987.

Santing, Catrien, Barbara Baert, and Anita Traninger, editors. Disembodied Heads in Medieval and Early Modern Culture. Brill Publishers, 2013.

Villani, Giovanni. Villani’s Chronicle: Being Selections from the First Nine Books. Translated by Rose Self. New York: E.P. Dutton and Company, 1907.

Sheila Vamplin is a local friend whom I met quite a while ago in ROFTers meetings, but whom I only got to know well fairly about a year ago through conversations on Facebook, which only goes to show what a strange world we live in. She has her own lovely blog here. She wrote about St. Francis in this series here.

If you want to see all of the posts in this series, click HERE.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

52 Saints ~ Week 11 ~ St. Henrik

A short digressive introduction on why I plan for my contributions to this series to be on saints of Northern Europe:

I’ve always had an interest in the Nordic countries and felt some kind of kinship with what I imagine to be their spirit, or their spirit in former times. I speculate that there may be a genetic connection: as far as I know my ancestry is entirely English and Scottish, but which of the various strains that came together in those countries I don’t know, and it’s certainly possible, perhaps likely, that there is some Scandinavian blood in there. At any rate, the attraction has existed. And moreover the only significant time I’ve ever spent outside the USA was in northern Europe: one summer comprising two weeks in rural Denmark, a few days in Sweden, six or eight weeks in rural Finland, and ending with in London. It’s a long story, irrelevant to this topic, but suffice to say I was young and that summer made a big impression.

These lands came late to the Catholic Church and left early, jumping to Lutheranism and other forms of Protestantism at the first opportunity. Thus there are relatively few Swedes, Danes, etc. among canonized saints, and they tend to be less well-known compared to those of more southern regions. My sympathy for the northern temperament inclines me toward interest in them. And for the same reason I regret the loss of these lands and cultures to the Church. Although their re-evangelization seems a pretty distant possibility, I don’t want their place in the Catholic heritage forgotten.

End of introduction.

Of all the countries we refer to as Nordic, Finland was probably the least Catholic, now and historically, and that of course makes it not very Catholic at all. And Finland, as you may or may not know, is not a Scandinavian country. Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and Iceland share the ethnic and linguistic heritage that we know as Scandinavian. Finland does not. Nor is it Russian, as its proximity to Russia might suggest (Helsinki is only 150 miles or so from St. Petersburg). The near relatives of Finns are to the south, across the Gulf of Finland, in some of the other regions around the Baltic, particularly Estonia.

The Finnish language has very little relationship to any other widely spoken European language. By way of illustration, count to ten in Swedish:

en, två, tre, fyra, fem, sex, sju, åtta, nio, tio

You can see at least some connection with many other European languages. But in Finnish:

yksi, kaksi, kolme, neljä, viisi, kuusi, seitsemän, kahdeksan, yhdeksän, kymmenen

I have to start my account of St. Henrik by noting that he is one of those saints whose very existence has little or no contemporary historical support, nor is he among the formally canonized. Yet his legend and devotion to him are deeply rooted, and there seems no reason to think that they aren’t based on fact.

First, like St. Patrick of Ireland, St. Henrik , or Henry, of Finland was an Englishman. In 1153 he was sent to Sweden and became bishop of Uppsala (Sweden). The Swedes know him as St. Henrik of Uppsala. From there he was sent to evangelize Finland, which was still mostly pagan. And there he was murdered. I don’t think his death really constitutes martyrdom in the sense that he was killed directly because of his faith. But it was his faith that put him where he was, so maybe it qualifies.

The traditional story is that the murderer was named Lalli, although Lalli’s wife Kerttu was the instigator. Henry is said to have been travelling by sledge in winter, in southwestern Finland near Lake Köyliö. The location is plausible, as it’s fifty miles or so from the coastal town of Turku, a seacoast town and the oldest town in Finland, where a visitor from Sweden would likely have arrived. He stopped at the home of Lalli, who was not there, bought some provisions from Kerttu, and continued across a frozen lake. Lalli, returning home shortly thereafter, was told by Kerttu that Henrik had stolen the goods. No reason for this lie is given. We might speculate that Kerttu’s having received a male visitor provoked Lalli’s jealousy, and that she lied to say that she was coerced. At any rate, Lalli, enraged, followed Henry across the lake and killed him with an ax-blow.

The legends dwell to a great extent on the rather severe punishments received by Lalli. He is said to have taken Henrik’s mitre and placed it on his own head. But when he tried to remove it, his scalp came with it. Other stories describe a similar misadventure with the bishop’s ring, which caused the flesh to fall from the finger on which it was placed. And Lalli is said to be skiing in hell while Henrik sings in the heavenly choir.

Unfortunately there is literally nothing to say about Henrik’s theology or spirituality, no specific lessons to be learned from any words he left behind, nothing except what might be surmised from the bare facts, if indeed they are facts. If nothing else, these make him a pretty determined evangelist: sledding around Finland in winter instead of staying warm and well-fed, as would certainly have been a bishop’s prerogative.

Henrik is the patron of the Turku Cathedral, which was originally built in the 13th century, and was then and still is “the most important religious building in Finland”, though of course it’s now Lutheran. Turku, was the original seat of Christianity in Finland. The cathedral in Helsinki is named for St. Henrik, but as it was built in the 19th century doesn’t look a great deal like what we generally think of when we hear the word “cathedral.” Even in very-predominantly-Protestant Alabama there are many parish churches that are larger.

How small is the Catholic Church in Finland? Around 9,000 people in a population of over 5 million. (That figure is from Wikipedia; I also ran across a news story that put the figure at 12,000.) In contrast, very-predominantly-Protestant Alabama, with roughly a million fewer people, has somewhere around 165,000 Catholics.

How weak is the Catholic Church in Finland? So small that the ordination of a Finnish-born priest in 2014 was only the sixth since the Reformation. And even he is not ethnically Finnish: his name is Hamberg, and he is part of the Swedish-speaking minority in Finland which is the product of the intermittent domination of Finland by Sweden over the centuries. (Russia has also ruled Finland for long periods, and the Orthodox Church in Finland, while also a small minority, is larger than the Catholic.)

As it happens, just this past January, on the occasion of the traditional feast day of St. Henrik, Pope Francis received a delegation of Finnish Christians—Lutheran, Orthodox, and Catholic. Here is a video of part of the event. In addition to referring to “Helinski”, the reporter says that there are 120,000 Catholics in Finland, which makes me think he misread the 12,000 number. Neither the video nor the photo at the Vatican site identify most of the participants, and I really wonder about those apparent women religious on the left. I think it’s safe to say that both the Catholic and Lutheran bishops are ethnically Finnish.

Maclin Horton is the proprietor of his own blog Light on Dark Water from which sprang this series. You might want to check out the current series there, 52 Movies or last year's 52 Authors.

St. Henrik, pray for the conversion of Finland, and all the lands of Northern Europe.

If you want to see all of the posts in this series, click HERE.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

52 Saints ~ Week 10 ~ St. Cuthbert

Farne Islands
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.

Once his work as prior was done, he resigned and went to live on Farne as a hermit. Like Elijah (and St Paul the Hermit), he communicated with ravens; although in his case the ravens did not bring him food, but stole his thatch to line their nest, repenting when he rebuked them. The best known story about St Cuthbert is that after he had gone at night to pray in the sea, singing the psalms with the waves coming up to his neck, otters came and warmed his feet. We have become too used to bathing in the sea for fun to appreciate at first glance how much courage it took to go into unpredictable waters at night in the early Middle Ages — throwing oneself entirely on the goodness of Providence. A medieval illustration of the story is above, and a modern version can be found here. Otters also brought him food, inspiring this poem.

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.). 

  If you want to see all of the posts in this series, click HERE.