Today is the feast day of Saint Cuthbert. Ora pro nobis.
St. Cuthbert was a Northumbrian, born about AD 634 in the Vale of the River Leader on what is now the Anglo-Scottish border. He was raised by his foster-mother, Kenswith, and, in childhood, he was the leader of all the sports and pastimes of his companions, excelling in them all. Yet, even then, his future lot as bishop was foretold by one of these play-fellows.
From here, Cuthbert passed to the rough life of a shepherd lad amongst the Scottish lowland hills. There, in the solitary nights and days passed on those wild uplands, he drank in the lessons which nature and solitude can teach so well. Cuthbert spent long hours in prayer, alone with God. (1)
While still a child living with his foster-mother Kenswith his future lot as bishop had been foretold by a little play-fellow, whose prophecy had a lasting effect on his character. He was influenced, too, by the holiness of the community of Mailros, where St. Eata was abbot and St. Basil prior. In the year 651, while watching his sheep, he saw in a vision the soul of St. Aidan carried to heaven by angels, and inspired by this became a monk at Mailros. Yet it would seem that the troubled state of the country hindered him from carrying out his resolution at once. Certain it is that at one part of his life he was a soldier, and the years which succeed the death of St. Aidan and Oswin of Deira seem to have been such as would call for the military service of most of the able-bodied men of Northumbria, which was constantly threatened at this time by the ambition of its southern neighbor, King Penda of Mercia. (3)
Cuthbert did not rush to his vocation, instead entering the army and serving to defend his homeland in a series of regional and territorial wars. During the battle, Cuthbert is reported to have been injured, visited by an unknown elderly man on a white horse, and miraculously healed. Upon their conclusion, he consecrated himself to the Lord, and entered the monastery. Cuthbert quickly impressed his brothers and superiors with his piety, diligence, and humility. He was admired for his gentle and sensitive nature, devotion, and the persuasive ability to model Christian virtues. Following a great sickness which struck the abbey, leading to the death of the prior, Cuthbert was appointed prior in his place. (2)
At length, therefore, Cuthbert’s mind was decided and, with a single attendant, he rode across the hills and presented himself, one morning, at the Abbey Church of Melrose, with the request that he might be taken in as a monk. There, he lived and laboured for many a long year and many a glimpse of his life is recorded in the pages of Bede. Cuthbert rose to the rank of Prior, in AD 661, after the death St. Boisil, but, six years later, transferred to a newly established monastery at Ripon. The little community there was broken up, however, upon the arrival of the Romanist, St. Wilfred, and the Scottish monks, with Cuthbert among them, wandered back to their Northern home. (1)
He was admired for his gentle and sensitive nature, devotion, and the persuasive ability to model Christian virtues. Following a great sickness which struck the abbey, leading to the death of the prior, Cuthbert was appointed prior in his place. At this time in the Church, there was strife regarding the differences in Roman Catholic Rite and Celtic Catholic Rite. In recognition of the seat of the Church in Rome, the monastery where Cuthbert served had accepted the Roman Rite. This was a difficult transition for many of the brothers, but through Cuthbert’s leadership, adopted the Rite and practices. Over time, Cuthbert would be asked to serve the same purpose at other monasteries and abbeys, gently persuading and teaching, leading to greater uniformity in the Church through patience and love.
As gifted as he was, Cuthbert desired a life of quite contemplation. He left the monastery after several years, retiring to (now referred to as) Saint Cuthbert’s Island, and then later to Farne Island. There he resided in seclusion in a cave, living an austere life of prayer and contemplation. His piety was such that he began to receive many visitors, and performed many miracles, recorded by Saint Bede. To stem the flow of visitors, he sealed himself into his cave, speaking to visitors only through the cracks in his door. He also established the first recorded rules of environmental protection, prohibiting the distrubance of ducks who nested along the shores of the island. As such, he is sometimes depicted holding a duck, or surrounded by wild birds or creatures, in religious iconography. During this time, he also befriended a hermit residing on the island, Saint Herberte, to whom he predicted the time of his death. (2)
Saint Cuthbert was persuaded to come out of retirement, reluctantly accepting an appointment as Bishop of Lindisfarne, a post he held for less than two years. Having predicted his own death, Saint Cuthbert resigned his position, and returned to Farne Island where he preferred to die. Surrounded by monks in his cell, his last words were encouragements of faithfulness to Catholic unity and the traditions of the Fathers. He died shortly after midnight in 687. His friend and companion, Saint Herberte died at exactly the same hour, as he had predicted. (2)
Cuthbert was buried in his beloved monastery on Lindisfarne, though Viking Raids later forced his brethren to move inland, taking his body with them. They travelled to Norham, Chester-le-Street and, finally, Durham, where he reposes to this day. (1)
Image: Athelstan, c.895-939. Illuminated manuscript from Bede’s Life of St Cuthbert, c.930. 29.2 x 20cm (11 1/2 x 7 7/8″). Originally from Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. (5)
Research by Ed Masters, REGINA Staff