Sunday 27 November 2016

St Cuthbert

I have a book, inherited from my great uncle, called The Book of Saints and Heroes by Mrs Lang who was the wife of Andrew Lang, the well known Victorian compiler of fairy tales. My copy was published in 1912 and it's the oldest book I have. It has twelve beautiful coloured plates and many more black and white illustrations, all by someone called H.J. Ford of whom I haven't heard but who was clearly a master of his art. I never met my great uncle as he was one of the generation killed in the 1st World War but I feel the book gives me a small link to him and I value it for that reason. But that's not the only reason I have kept it when so many other books have gone to the great library in the sky. The stories of the early saints are so inspiring and so beautiful, and they are told here in such a way that brings them vividly to life. The dedication of these saints to God is total and though that does put one's own efforts into rather sad perspective, it is also an encouragement to set your shoulder to the metaphorical plough.

One of the stories is called The Apostle of Northumbria and it's about St Cuthbert. It tells how in the 7th century the young Cuthbert, who was living in a monastery, though not yet a monk, had so damaged his knee that he could no longer walk. One morning as he was lying at the edge of a forest, trying to forget his pain, he saw a man dressed in white and riding on a white horse coming towards him. The man stopped and talked to Cuthbert, asking why he did not get up to greet him. Cuthbert explained the problem with his knee at which the stranger made some suggestions as to how it might be cured and then departed. The cure worked and Cuthbert was persuaded that he had been visited by an angel. This inspired him to become a monk and devote himself entirely to God. He then spent several years as a priest travelling around the north of the country doing missionary work and spreading the word of the Gospel which at that time was still fairly shallow rooted in those parts. He was much respected for his asceticism and much loved for his kindness to the sick and the poor. He even gained a reputation for healing to such a degree that he became known as the Wonder Worker of Britain.

The man on the white horse comes to heal Cuthbert
by H.J. Ford
At one time when Cuthbert was giving instruction to the nuns at a place called Coldingham he was seen going out at night. A monk, curious to know where he was going, followed him down to the seashore where, to his astonishment, he saw Cuthbert enter the water and walk out until it reached up to his neck. There he remained until dawn, chanting the praise of God. When he came out of the sea two seals swam towards him and breathed over his cold feet to warm them after which they rubbed him dry with their bodies. The monk confessed to Cuthbert that he had spied on him and told him what he had seen. But Cuthbert asked him to keep it secret because he did not want to be thought holier than he was. The fact the story has come down to us rather implies that the monk failed in this duty!

In 664 Cuthbert was sent to the island of Lindisfarne to teach the monks there the rules of the holy life for they had grown careless and each followed his own will. Although he was resisted at first his patience and example won the monks over and they eventually returned to proper practice. His work in Lindisfarne completed, Cuthbert yearned for the solitary life and with the consent of his Abbot he withdrew to Farne Island to dedicate himself to prayer and contemplation. However duty called again and in 684 he was made Bishop of Lindisfarne. He travelled far afield in that capacity, serving his flock tirelessly but eventually with advancing age he was allowed to resign his office and return to Farne Island where he eventually died, much loved and venerated by all. His body was brought back to Lindisfarne where for 11 years it was left in its coffin in the church so that the people might pay their respects. After that time the monks wished to transfer his bones to a specially built tomb near the high altar but when they opened the coffin they fell to their knees in astonishment. The saint lay as if asleep, his body uncorrupted, and all the funeral vestments in which he had been wrapped were still fresh.

Two hundred years later the monks at Lindisfarne had to flee from their island as Vikings attacked the northern coasts. They carried the body of Cuthbert and his relics with them and these they took first to Ripon and then to Durham where in 1104 Cuthbert's body was placed in the new cathedral where his relics are still kept today. According to Simeon the Chronicler, even though the saint had died more than four hundred years previously, his body still bore the semblance of life. There was also found in the coffin a copy of the Gospel of St John and this is supposed to be the oldest Western book that still keeps its original leather binding.

This is just one of twenty three stories in The Book of Saints and Heroes. There was a time when all children would have been brought up with tales about such inspiring figures as these, either in literary form or else told as stories by their grandmothers or other older relatives and teachers. It's a sad time when the young are denied access to examples of spiritual heroes whom they might be inspired to emulate or, if not that, then at least know that there are such people in the world.

P.S. My 11 year old son just looked at the picture here and commented "That looks like Gandalf", to which I thought "Maybe it was, or his equivalent."

P.P.S. Regarding the uncorrupted state of Cuthbert's body, if I was asked if I believed in that I would have to say yes. The resurrection of Christ proves that the inner spirit can master the outer body and I don't see why a soul of sufficient purity and holiness might not have a body that reflected that. There are too many accounts in spiritual history just to discount this as a pious fiction.


Bruce Charlton said...

@William - I am glad to see you talking of Cuthbert, who is a great favourite of mine too!

Insofar as it has meaning in a highly deChristianised society - Cuthbert remains a very lively figure in Newcastle and Northumberland even today; with many institutions and buildings named after him (as well as, apparently more British churches than any other British Saint).

Cuthbert's tomb in Durham Cathedral - at the opposite end from that of the other and extremely different great Northumbrian Saint - Bede - is frequently visited and venerated; as is the Holy Island of Lindisfarne.

William Wildblood said...

What I like about so many of the early saints, especially the ones coming from the Celtic tradition, as Cuthbert was though he later accepted the ways of the Roman church, is their closeness to the world of nature as shown here in the story of the seals. For them God was still present in creation as well as being the Creator, something that seemed to get lost later on.

ajb said...

Thanks for this - I was just reading Bede's Life of Cuthbert, so this is of particular interest.

Don said...

Is this the book by Mrs Lang?

William Wildblood said...

The Book of Saints and Heroes. Yes it is.