02 April 2009

'Rejoice, Impregnable Bulwark of Durham'—St Cuthbert of Lindisfarne

Today, 20 March on the Church’s calendar, we celebrate the memory of St Cuthbert (c. 634-687), bishop of Lindisfarne. Fr Andrew Phillips has given a succinct account of St Cuthbert’s life in his wonderful article, ‘St Cuthbert of Lindisfarne: The English St Seraphim of Sarov’ (available here):

He was born in c. 634 in Northern England, in the area of the present Scottish Border. Of noble Anglian birth, at the age of eight he was taken in by a foster-mother Kenswith, a widow and nun. Aged seventeen he became a novice at the monastery of Melrose (now in southern Scotland). With other monks he followed his Abbot and moved to Ripon in Yorkshire to start a new monastery. Later he moved back to Melrose and then to Lindisfarne, an island off the north-east coast of England. On small islands nearby, called St Cuthbert's Isle and Inner Farne, he was to live as a hermit. Visitors noised his holiness abroad and in York on Easter Sunday 685, much against his will, he was consecrated bishop by the Greek St Theodore of Canterbury and six other bishops. He reposed two years later, aged about fifty-three, on 20 March 687.

Fortunately, we possess an extensive Life of St Cuthbert written by one whose life overlapped with that of the Saint—the Venerable Bede. St Bede recounts many stories of holy hierarch’s visions and miracles, such that the latter is known as ‘the Wonderworker of Britain’ (a good but unfortunately anti-Whitby Orthodox America article tells us that his ‘recorded miracles surpass those of any other saint in this period’). Among others, a number of stories are told of St Cuthbert’s rapport with beasts, and thanks to my discovery of Matushka Donna Farley’s Facebook group and blog about St Cuthbert (she is preparing to publish two books about him) I was reminded that the following story had unfortunately escaped my mind at the time of my big post on ravens (from St Bede, Chapt. 20):

I am here tempted to relate another miracle which he wrought in imitation of the aforesaid father St Benedict, in which the obedience and humility of birds are a warning to the perversity and pride of mankind. There were some crows [ravens] which had long been accustomed to build in the island. One day the man of God saw them, whilst making their nests, pull out the thatch of the hut which he had made to entertain the brethren in, and carry it away to build with. He immediately stretched out his hand, and warned them to do no harm to the brethren. As they neglected his command, he said to them, ‘In the name of Jesus Christ, depart as speedily as possible, and do not presume to remain any longer in the place, to which you are doing harm.’ He had scarcely uttered these words, when they flew away in sorrow. At the end of three days one of the two returned, and finding the man of God digging in the field, spread out its wings in a pitiable manner, and bending its head down before his feet, in a tone of humility asked pardon by the most expressive signs it could, and obtained from the reverend father permission to return. It then departed and fetched its companion; and when they had both arrived, they brought in their beaks a large piece of hog's lard, which the man of God used to show to the brethren who visited him, and kept to grease their shoes with; testifying to them how earnestly they should strive after humility, when a dumb bird that had acted so insolently, hastened by prayers, lamentation, and presents, to obliterate the injury which it had done to man. Lastly, as a pattern of reformation to the human race, these birds remained for many years and built their nests in the island, and did not dare to give annoyance to any one. But let no one think it absurd to learn virtue from birds; for Solomon says, ‘Go to the ant, thou sluggard, consider her ways, and be wise’ (Prov. 6:6).

One site tells us a bit more about St Cuthbert’s later miraculous reputation:

To day the fishermen in the islands say that the saint still sits at night on a rock and makes beads of little shells which are found only in those coasts, and which are are called St Cuthbert’s beads. . . . [St] Cuthbert is the patron of shepherds and sailors, and he is said to have appeared in the midst of violent ocean storms, sometimes using his crozier as an oar to save struggling seamen from shipwreck. Because he fearlessly entered the houses of those stricken by the plague, he is also invoked against plague and pestilence.

The story of the beads is mentioned in Sir Walter Scott’s narrative poem, ‘Marmion’, Canto II, xvi (The Poetical Works of Sir Walter Scott [Boston: James R. Osgood & Co., 1878], p. 56):

But fain Saint Hilda’s nuns would learn,
If, on a rock, by Lindisfarne,
Saint Cuthbert sits, and toils to frame
The sea-born beads that bear his name:
Such tales had Whitby’s fishers told,
And said they might his shape behold,
And hear his anvil sound;
A deadened clang,—a huge dim form,
Seen but, and heard, when gathering storm
And night was closing round.
But this, as tale of idle fame,
The nuns of Lindisfarne disclaim.

But perhaps the most famous miracle of all is that of the Saint’s own body after his death (see this brief summary of a few of the facts). St Cuthbert is one of the most famous incorruptibles, his relics having been found incorrupt when he was disinterred in 698, again in 1104 (when his relics were translated to Durham Cathedral), and once more—according to one account—by ‘commissioners of Henry VIII [who] were sent to destroy the tomb in 1537’. Although it seems the cathedral was plundered in 1542, it has been suggested (for instance, by the Catholic Encyclopedia) that the Saint’s relics had been hidden by that time, and the secret of their location entrusted to only a few Benedictine monks who pass it down. Again, Scott mentions this tradition in ‘Marmion’, Canto II, xiv (Poetical Works, p. 56):

. . .
He chose his lordly seat at last,
Where his cathedral, huge and vast,
Looks down upon the Wear:
There, deep in Durham’s Gothic shade,
His relics are in secret laid;
But none may know the place,
Save of his holiest servants three,
Deep sworn to solemn secrecy,
Who share that wondrous grace.

Lending support to this tradition, a few authorities argued that the skeletal remains found when a tomb allegedly belonging to St Cuthbert was opened in 1827 were not those of St Cuthbert (see the CE).

Interestingly, Durham—both the city and the cathedral’s ‘Gothic shade’—are the subject of the last poem composed in Old English, apart from philologists’ games and exercises. In The Anglo-Saxon World: An Anthology, trans. and ed. Kevin Crossley-Holland (Oxford: Oxford U, 1988), p. 196, the translator tells us it was 'composed soon after [St] Cuthbert’s uncorrupt body was translated in 1104 to the magnificent cathedral built in his honour. The Anglo-Saxon age was already over; William the Conqueror and William Rufus were already dead; with this short proud poem Old English poetry ends.'

Here is Crossley-Holland’s translation of the poem (pp. 204-5):

All Britain knows of this noble city,
its breathtaking site: buildings backed
by rocky slopes peer over a precipice.
Weirs hem and madden a headstrong river,
diverse fish dance in the foam.
A sprawling, tangled thicket has sprung up
there; those deep dales are the haunt
of many animals, countless wild beasts.
In that city, too, as men know,
lies the body of blessed Cuthbert,
and the head of Oswald, innocent king,
lion of the English; also Bishop Aidan
and Eadberch and Eadfrith, eminent men.
Aethelwold the Bishop sleeps beside them,
and the great scholar Bede, and Abbot Boisil
whose fortune it was to teach the saint,
then still a body; Cuthbert excelled
in his lessons. Innumerable relics are left
in the minster by the blessed man’s tomb,
scene of many miracles, as documents say.
The man of God awaits Domesday.

In this he is, as Peter Ackroyd says, ‘like the language and the civilisation themselves’ (Albion: The Origins of the English Imagination [NY: Anchor, 2002], p. 103).

In conclusion, I quote Butler’s account of the Saint (available here):

The life of St Cuthbert was almost a continual prayer. There was no business, no company, no place, how public soever, which did not afford him an opportunity, and even a fresh motive, to pray. Not content to pass the day in this exercise, he continued it constantly for-several hours of the night, which was to him a time of light and interior delights. Whatever he saw seemed to speak to him of God, and to invite him to his love. His conversation was on God, or heavenly things, and he would have regretted a single moment which had not been employed with God, or for his honour, as utterly lost.

I highly recommend that all read the wonderful Akathist to St Cuthbert on Fr Andrew Phillips’s site, from Ikos 12 of which the title of this post was taken.

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