Friday, March 20, 2015

Saint of the day: Cuthbert of Lindisfarne

The following comes from All Saints Parish:

It is not certain whether St. Cuthbert was born in England, Scotland or Ireland; all three countries claim him. Most accounts give his birth year as 634 or 635. One legend states he was born an Irishman named Mulloche, and that he was the great-grandson of the High King Muircertagh of Ireland. Another long-standing tradition says his mother was the Irish princess Saba, who left Cuthbert in the care of a poor widow named Kenswith while she went on pilgrimage to Rome, but she died during the journey and never saw him again. The Venerable Bede wrote two vitae of the saint and presumes his English birth, speculating that Cuthbert was born of lowly parentage in the neighborhood of Mailros (Melrose), because he used to tend sheep on the mountainside near that monastery.

Cuthbert's youth was spent in the Scottish lowlands with the widow Kenswith. He tended her sheep on the hills above Leader Water or the valley of the Tweed. He had difficulty walking because of an abscess on the knee (made worse by an attempted cure), but despite this he was high-spirited, and physically strong. When Cuthbert was 15, he had a vision of angels conducting the soul of St. Aidan to heaven. The next morning, he found that St. Aidan - founder of the Priory of Lindisfarne and a man of great holiness - had died at the very moment of his vision. Cuthbert was so moved by this that he decided to become a monk at the Mailros Abbey. But Cuthbert had some training as a soldier, and most of the available men in Northumbria were pressed into military service because of constant threats from its southern neighbor, King Penda of Mercia. Not until peace was restored to the land four years later was Cuthbert free to pursue the monastic life he had so long desired, studying at Mailros under St. Eata as abbot and St. Boisil (Basil) as prior.

Cuthbert was known for his piety and devotion to learning, and his life was marked by supernatural occurrences and miracles. Some say Cuthbert was asked to help found the monastery at Ripon, others say he was invited there as guest-master. Either way, Cuthbert left or was expelled from Ripon and returned to Mailros in 661 after Ripon adopted Roman practices for tonsure and calculating the date of Easter. Shortly after Cuthbert's return, St. Boisil was struck by the plague. (Cuthbert fell ill during the same epidemic; his life was preserved but he never fully recovered his health thereafter. ) Boisil died of the disease and Cuthbert was made prior of Mailros in his place. When the Synod of Whitby decided in favor of the Roman monastic traditions, Cuthbert accepted that decision despite his opposition at Ripon. Due to his stellar reputation, he was asked to teach the Roman customs to the great monastery at Lindisfarne. It was a difficult matter and needed all his gentle tact and patience, but the fact that one so renowned for sanctity, who had himself been brought up in the Celtic tradition, was loyally conforming to the Roman use, did much to persuade the monks at Lindisfarne to accept the change themselves. Cuthbert served as Prior of Lindisfarne for twelve years.

In 676, Cuthbert followed his solitary nature by removing himself from the island of Lindisfarne to an even more isolated part of the Farne Islands called the Inner Farne. He spent all of his time in prayer and contemplation with only the seals and sea birds for company. Cuthbert grew to love the wild rocks and sea. Birds and beasts came at his call. He built an oratory and a cell with only a single small window for outside communication. But the king of Northumberland repeatedly implored him to accept election as bishop of Hexham. After many prayers and tears, Cuthbert reluctantly agreed to serve as bishop, but let it be known that he would prefer Lindisfarne, so it was arranged for him to exchange his see with St. Eata. Eata became Bishop of Hexham, and Cuthbert was consecrated Bishop of Lindisfarne by the archbishop of Canterbury with six bishops in attendance at York. Cuthbert served as Bishop of Lindisfarne for two years.

The ample sources for Cuthbert's life and character show a man of extraordinary charm and practical ability, who attracted people deeply by the beauty of holiness. He was a disciplined administrator, cared for many who had been felled by the plague, and distributed alms liberally even while he maintained frugal personal habits. His days were filled with incessant activity in an attempt to keep the spirit of Christianity alive, and each night he kept vigil with God. Cuthbert is said to have had supernatural gifts of healing and insight, and people thronged to consult him. He performed so many miracles of healing that he was known in his lifetime as the "Wonder-Worker of Britain." Cuthbert was also called the "Apostle of the Lowlands." He visited the loneliest and most dangerous outposts from cottage to cottage from Berwick to Solway Firth to bring the Good News of Christ. On horseback and on foot, he ventured into the remotest territories between Berwick and Galloway. His task was not easy, for he covered a vast area, with widely scattered huts and hovels inhabited by a wild and heathen peasantry full of fear and superstition, haunted by terror of pagan gods. But the people accepted him -- he spoke their language and knew their ways, for he had lived like them in a peasant's home. Bede wrote of his preaching that "Cuthbert had such a light in his angelic face, and such a love for proclaiming his Good News, that none hid their innermost secrets from him." His devotion to the Mass was such that he could not celebrate without tears. He built the first oratory at Dull, Scotland, with a large stone cross before it and a little cell for himself. The monastery that arose there later became the site of Saint Andrews University.

At Christmas in the year 686, in failing health and knowing that his end was near, he retired as Bishop and returned to his Inner Farne hermitage. At first he was tended by his brethren from Lindisfarne, but as he became more seriously ill he refused all aid, suffering intensely but allowing none to nurse him. For two months he lay in his little cell, murmuring words of love and counsel to the monks who gathered round him. When they saw that death was very nigh, these monks arranged with the monks at Lindisfarne that they would light a torch for them when he died. At midnight they gave him the last Sacrament, and, as they were beginning the midnight psalm, Cuthbert raised up his hands and died. A brother took two torches to the seashore, and the monks at Lindisfarne saw the tiny gleam across the dark waters just as they had reached the verse--"Thou hast shewed thy people heavy things: thou hast given us a drink of deadly wine." Thus the sixtieth psalm is called the Dirge of St. Cuthbert.

Cuthbert's body was carried back to Lindisfarne and buried there, in accordance with his wishes. Many legends have arisen about the incorruptibility of his body. 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.

In art, Cuthbert may be shown in episcopal vestments, with pillars of light above him; with swans tending him; as a hermit being fed by an eagle; or praying by the sea. 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. Traces of the once universal devotion to Cuthbert still survive in numerous churches, monuments, crosses, and place names in his honor. He is one of the few Celtic saints included on the modern Episcopal calendar of feast days. More than 135 churches are dedicated to Cuthbert in England, and an additional 17 can be found in Scotland. St. Cuthbert died on March 20, 687.

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