St Cuthbert's Day

St Cuthbert's 'Journey'
Cuthbert is one of the most popular saints of Britain. Today is St Cuthbert's Day. Cuthbert travelled a lot - mostly by boat or on foot. In this image of a bronze statue in Millenium Square, Durham, his body is being carried by monks on one of several post-mortem journeys, before his mortal remains finally came to rest and stay in Durham.

Cuthbert was born around 640 in the Scottish lowlands (then part of the Northumbrian Kingdom). As a child he had a vision and decided to dedicate his life to God. He became a monk at Melrose Abbey. From there he began missionary work, which he continued from Lindisfarne where he became abbot. He became a bishop in 685 and continued travelling and preaching, walking all over the rough hills of his diocese, spending time as a hermit on Farne Island in between. On 20 March 687 he died in his hermit cell on Inner Farne Island and was buried in Lindisfarne. Due to Viking invasions and threats, his remains were removed and reburied several times over the following 200 years, being eventually laid to rest in Durham.

There are many stories about him. Here’s one, written by Bede:

Cuthbert had gone out on one of his long journeys to preach, taking with him a boy for company. The day was long and the road steep, and they were tired and hungry. The boy grew worried. 'Learn to have constant faith and hope in the Lord' said Cuthbert. 'Whoever serves God shall never die of hunger.' They saw an eagle in the sky and Cuthbert said: 'God can send us food by that eagle.' Soon, by the river bank, they saw it settling on a rock. 'There is the servant I was telling you about. Run and see what God has sent and bring it quickly.' The boy returned with a big fish that the bird had caught. 'What?' said Cuthbert: 'Didn't you give the servant his own share? Cut it in two, and give half to the bird.' After a good meal of cooked fish with villagers nearby, Cuthbert praised God for his provision and said: 'Happy the one whose hope is in the Lord'.  

For Cuthbert, to be human was to live in dependence on God, aware of his constant presence. You could call this simplicity, being pure in heart and poor in spirit. Bede describes his character like this: “like a good teacher he taught others to do only what he first practised himself. Above all else he was afire with heavenly love, unassumingly patient, devoted to unceasing prayer, and kindly to all who came to him for comfort…”

In his youth Cuthbert had cared for sheep, either as a shepherd boy, or more likely as a military guard for the flock. For Cuthbert, the image that inspired his ministry was the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep, or who goes to look for the one sheep in 100 that is lost - a picture of of God, to whom every life is precious and valued. This was how Cuthbert was in his dependence on God and care for others.

3 years ago I visited St Cuthbert’s shrine in Durham Cathedral for the first time.
St Cuthbert's tomb
I had not expected to be moved by it, but I was. I had an overwhelmingly powerful sense of God's presence and a feeling of joy that made me cry. Perhaps that had something to do with the fact that Christians have approached that place prayerfully for more than a thousand years and now silence is encouraged in that part of the cathedral. Or that there are those who pray daily for visiting pilgrims. 

The medieval riches of Cuthbert's shrine were removed under Henry VIII. Now there’s a simple stone slab with one Latin word ‘Cuthbertus’. Among the weighty symbols of power of that massive cathedral, that simplicity reminded me of Jesus' words, 'Whoever would be great among you, let them be your servant'. It isn’t status, wealth or achievement that matter, but becoming among the least by turning away from sin and being faithful to Christ, walking with him in the way of the cross.



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