Cuthbert: monk, prior, bishop, hermit, miracle-worker, and saint (20 March)

In the Uniting Church’s resource provided for worship leaders, Uniting in Worship, there is a Calendar of Commemorations, based on the cycle of annual feast days for saints in the Anglican, Catholic, and Orthodox churches—but broadened out to be much wider than this. Many days of the year are designated to remember specific people. Today (20 March) is the day to remember three Celtic pioneers, Cuthbert, Aidan, and Bede. Cuthbert of Lindisfarne is remembered as monk, prior, bishop, hermit, and miracle-worker—and, eventually, as saint.

Born in Northumbria into a noble family in the mid-630s, Cuthbert was raised in a Christian society, as King Edwin of Northumbria had recently converted to Christianity and (as was the way) brought that faith across the society. Accounts of the life of Cuthbert, written in the later medieval period, claim that there were miracles taking place even in his childhood. The historicity of these claims is highly dubious.

We do know that Cuthbert had quite a career: he was, in turn, monk, prior, bishop, and hermit, before his death. Matching the miracles claimed during his childhood and into his adult life, there are many claims of multiple miracles which allegedly took place after the death of Cuthbert on 20 March 687.

We can’t, of course, substantiate those miracles—the most striking of which relates to Alfred the Great, King of Wessex, further to the south (Wessex was the southernmost part of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom). Alfred was apparently inspired by a vision of Cuthbert, encouraging in his struggles against the invading Danes. (A saint supporting military action … hmmmm.) He won, of course! The fact that a southern king admired a northern cleric meant that Cuthbert came to be regarded as a focus of reconciliation across the kingdom.

We do know that the body of Cuthbert, originally buried at Lindisfarne on the day that died, was removed and placed into a decorated oak coffin, and reburied in 698. The eleven-year-old corpse was, it was claimed, completely preserved-the first of the post-mortem miracles associated with Cuthbert. We know this from the 8th century account of Cuthbert written by the Venerable Bede, a scholar-monk at Jarrow, who wrote extensively covering science, history, biography, scriptural commentaries, and theology. (Bede is also remembered today in the UCA Calendar of Commemorations.)

Three centuries after his reburial at Lindisfarne, the body of Cuthbert was taken by wagon to Durham, where it was buried again. However, before that, it had been exhumed when Danes overtook the monastery at Lindisfarne in 875, and taken by the monks with them as they wandered the northern countryside. It is now located in Durham Cathedral, where it is said that it is buried (bizzarely) with the head of Oswald, King of Northumbria, who died some decades before Cuthbert’s life.

The life of Cuthbert included various phases. Although raised in a noble household, Cuthbert was attracted to the ascetic life. He had a period of military life, but then in 651 he joined the monastery at Melrose Abbey, an offshoot of Lindisfarne Priory, where Boisil was Prior. Lindisfarne had been founded in 634 by Aidan (who is also remembered today in the UCA Calendar of Commemorations). When Boisil died in 661, Cuthbert was appointed as Prior. He was subsequently invited to become guest master at a new monastery at Ripon, but soon he returned to Melrose as a monk. He became Prior once again in 664.

Cuthbert participated in the Synod of Whitby in that year; this was the Synod that decided to leave behind the Celtic form of Christianity that had been prevalent in much of Northumbria, led from the Abbey at Iona. The specific issue was the way that the date of Easter was calculated. The Synod adopted the Roman custom of dating, and looked to Rome, rather than Iona, for leadership. Cuthbert adhered to this decision and introduced Roman practices at Lindisfarne, where he became Prior in 665, the year after the Synod of Whitby.

Cuthbert continued his ascetic lifestyle as Prior through the ensuing decades, preaching as he travelled through towns and villages; it is said that he preached also to nobles and to royalty, and also that he performed various miracles during this period, as a result of which he later became known as “the wonder worker of Britain”. He maintained his simple lifestyle, with few material needs, as he travelled, and on into the next phases of his life.

Cuthbert moved to what today is called St Cuthbert’s Island, near Lindisfarne, and then soon after to Inner Farne Island, further south, wher he established his abode in a cell in a cave. Elizabeth and I have visited the Farne Islands, as well as Lindisfarne. The northeast coast of Britain is exposed to strong, icy winds blowing across from the Arctic; “living rough”, as we might describe the conditions of Cuthbert’s life, required a strong constitution and a determined mindset. Cuthbert obviously had this.

On this island, Cuthbert befriended the eider ducks and instituted laws to protect the ducks and other seabirds that made their nests on the Farne Islands. As well as his strong environmental credentials, for which we give thanks, Cuthbert is also remembered for his strong misogynistic attitude, for which we lament.

At the west end of Durham Cathedral, a thick black line, made of marble, has been inserted into the flooring. The line (still visible when we were there in 1997) marked the furthest into the Cathedral that women were permitted to step. The reason for this was the belief that Cuthbert would be offended if women came too close to him. This was deduced on the basis of the rules that he introduced in the monastery at Coldingham, where the “improper familiarity” of monks and nuns led to the monastery being consumed by fire—a result interpreted as an act of God!

When Bishop, Cuthbert ensured that there was rigorous separation of the genders in all places where monks and nuns lived throughout the diocese. This meant that women (nuns) were unable to visit the holy sites at Lindisfarne, Inner Farne, and Durham Cathedral. Subsequent to his earthly life, Cuthbert was believed to have acted to punish females who transgressed relevant boundaries—some struck dead, one other driven to dementia and killing herself. And that is the basis for the story (fact? or fiction?) about the line in the floor at Durham Cathedral.

Cuthbert was elected as Bishop of Hexham in 684, but was reluctant to leave his hermit’s cave; he was persuaded to take up the appointment as Bishop of Lindisfarne instead. He was consecrated in March 685 but late the next year, he resigned from his episcopal office and returned to his hermitage. This short tenure as Bishop of Lindisfarne explains why he is remembered as “Cuthbert of Lindisfarne”. He died two decades later, in March 687, aged in his mid 50s.

As already noted, numerous miracles after the death of Cuthbert are attributed to his intercessory powers; accordingly, he is honoured as a Saint. He became closely associated with the powerful Bishop of Durham from the 11th century onwards; the people of the region were known as “the people of the saint” (that is, Cuthbert). In the Battle of Neville’s Cross (just up the hill from where we lived in Durham in 1997), a vision of the saint inspired the Prior of Durham Abbey to raise the banner of Cuthbert, thereby ensuring their protection and victory in that battle.

That same banner was carried by Northumbrians in their battles against the Scots, and the shrine of Cuthbert behind the altar in Durham Cathedral (where the body was interred in 1104) was a pilgrimage site through the medieval period (for males—but not, as explained, for females).

So, to the above list—Cuthbert of Lindisfarne, monk, prior, bishop, hermit, miracle-worker, and saint—we add environmentalist, and misogynist. And we remember him, today.

The resting place of Cuthbert in Durham Cathedral