St Cuthbert

St Cuthbert was born in 634, in Northumbria. He was educated at Melrose Abbey, in the Scottish borders. Much of what we know about him came from the book written about him by Bede, often known as the Venerable Bede. [1] It is from Bede that we have received much information regarding the Church around that time. It was also from Bede that we first heard of St Ninian, although it would be another five hundred years before St Aelred would write the Life of St Ninian. [2] Bede wrote the Life of Cuthbert around the year 721.

St Cuthbert became a monk at Lindisfarne (Holy Isle), where he eventually became the Prior. Later, in a search for greater solitude in which to give himself totally to prayer, he moved to a nearby island and lived alone as a hermit. That lasted until 685 when he was called out of solitude to be a bishop. However, his time as a bishop lasted only two years — he died in 687. [3]

In these few lines it is not my intention to offer a considered account of the life of St Cuthbert, but merely to present some of the observations made by Bede. Bede shows us how Cuthbert desired the life of prayer above all else. He knew what it was to live in God’s presence, and the need to search for a fuller appreciation of that presence. This was what he delighted in. [4]

Yet, Bede also enables us to see that Cuthbert did this in order to live fully his vocation; it was not personal preference; therefore, when he was later called upon to leave his solitude and become a bishop, he did so. During the part of his life in which he was active in the pastoral ministry it was said that he would be away from his monastery for weeks, preaching and teaching people all around. [5] In fact, the way in which Bede expressed it may be helpful for us at St Cuthbert’s and St Ninian’s –

he strove to convert people for miles around from their foolish ways to a delight in the promised joys of heaven. [6]

Sometimes I wonder if we are perhaps so serious about the Faith that we forget to be joyful. Let Cuthbert be our example.

[1]  There is an ikon of Bede, as well Cuthbert, in the ikon niche at St Ninian’s church.  5
[2]  A copy is available in St Ninian’s parish library
[3] D.H.Farmer, The Age of Bede (London: Penguin Books, 1965, rev.d1998) pp.9-10
[4] Bede, Life of Cuthbert, in The Age of Bede, ch.1, p.45
[5] Ibid., ch. 9, p.57
[6] Ibid., p.56

Of course, taking Cuthbert as our example does not mean that we ought to do everything in exactly the same way as he did. Bede recounts the occasion when it was said that Cuthbert spent the whole night in prayer ‘up to his arms and neck in deep water’. [7] When morning came he came out from the water, knelt down and prayed. You could argue that his being in the water was not actually the prayer, but preparation for it, and that the prayer was what followed this night-time penance. I do not think that matters. To consider it all as prayer is, it seems to me, better. The story says that when he came out from the water two otters also came out from the water and attempted to dry his feet with their fur. It is interesting to note at this point that the statue of St Cuthbert, in our church of St Cuthbert, depicts this event. For Cuthbert ‘Night after night was spent in prayer’. [8] (Prayer suggestion: if you find that you are awake for some part of the night, or if you find it difficult to sleep, see it as an opportunity for prayer.)

[7] Ibid., ch. 10, p.58
[8] Ibid., ch.11, p.59

Do not, however, let this heroic approach to prayer lead you into thinking that Cuthbert was so other-worldly that he was unmoved by the needs of those around him. Bede tells us that sometimes when he was hearing people’s confessions he would be moved to tears, so great was his sorrow for their sin and his desire that he might almost do the penance for them. [9] Therefore, when he reached the point in his life where he felt the need to give himself wholly to the life of prayer, it was not because he required some form of spiritual rest. Such an idea would see prayer as an escape. That is not what prayer is. To pray is to focus your attention on God, or as the Catechism says, the raising of the mind and heart to God. Therefore, we cannot really focus our attention on God and at the same time ignore his presence in the world around us. Cuthbert knew that by devoting himself to prayer he was not neglecting those under his care. [10] (Prayer suggestion: never give up praying for those who are under your care. The prayer will always be beneficial.) But remember — we need to prepare the ground for our prayer. This may be knowing the time at which we will pray, and the place. And, as we saw above, with Cuthbert in the water, the preparation can itself become a part of the prayer. Bede shows us that Cuthbert understood the need in his life for prayer, good works and simple living. [11] Brother Roger of Taizé said that when the Church becomes a land [place] of simplicity and reconciliation, people will come running from the ends of the earth.

Towards the end of his Life of Cuthbert Bede quotes the words of Herefrith (at the time of his writing he was the abbot of the monastery at Lindisfarne) relating to the death of St Cuthbert. Herefrith himself quotes Cuthbert:

Preserve amongst yourselves unfailing divine charity, and when you have to hold council about your common affairs let your principal aim be to reach a unanimous decision. Live in mutual concord with all other servants of Christ. [12]

In addition to this encouragement from St Cuthbert perhaps we might notice that St Cuthbert’s monks committed themselves to prayer, following his example. Herefrith said:

I went out at once and announced his death to the brothers, who were themselves spending the night in prayer and vigil. [13]

[9] Ibid. ch.16, p.67
[10] Ibid. ch.17, p.67
[11],p.79 12
[12] Ibid. ch.39,p.95
[13]  Ibid. ch.40, p.96

May we have the courage of faith, like Cuthbert, to live in God’s presence, to find that presence in each other, and to keep searching for the fullness of his presence. May Our Lady, St Cuthbert, and all the saints pray for us.

Icon artwork by permission of Aidan Hart Icons

 Text from ‘We are Cuthbert, We are Ninian’ written by Fr. Gerard Bogan (Former parish priest of St. Ninian’s and St. Cuthbert’s Parish)