Cuthbert was born in 634. Bede wrote much about Cuthbert, for although only fifteen when Cuthbert died, Bede had entered Jarrow monastery aged seven and served alongside an old monk, Sigfrid. Sigfrid had been a novice at Melrose when Cuthbert yielded his horse and spear, entered the church to pray, then approached Prior Boisil seeking holy orders.
A young Cuthbert, as an Anglo-Saxon minor noble, was armed guard for shepherds when on 31st August 651, in the Lammermuir Hills, he saw a shaft of light. Taking it as both a soul ascending to heaven and godly guidance that he should become a monk, he set off for Melrose, being accepted by Boisil who confirmed that it was Aiden who had died on 31st. Outstanding in study and work, Cuthbert was happiest when simply praying. Under Boisil, he developed a reputation for prayerful contemplation, then travelling on foot and evangelising (much like Aiden).
Abbot Eata, Cuthbert and others established a monastery at Ripon, but after two years they were ousted and forced to return by an ambitious monk named Wilfred who had studied at both Lindisfarne and Rome. Wilfred would go on to argue the case for the Church in Rome at the Synod of Whitby and pursue, largely unsuccessfully, high office.
After the Synod of Whitby, Cuthbert became Lindisfarne’s prior and set about healing a fractured community. He did so by praying on his own and with those who were on opposing sides, and by listening to them before finally offering his counsel. He meditated on the Lord’s Word before mediating on man’s word.
Lindisfarne’s prior for a decade, he then relinquished office and withdrew to a hermitage on Inner Farne. There he remained, occasionally visited and visiting, but constantly praying (including prolonged periods standing in the sea praying to help him focus). After another decade, he was reluctantly persuaded to become Bishop of Lindisfarne.
Again, Cuthbert governed by prayer and contemplation, by listening and discussing; not by authoritarian decree. Again, he travelled, preached and evangelised. He met to pray with Herbert, his Anam Cara who lived in Cumbria, and who died on the same day as him. After only 2 years as bishop, he returned to Inner Farne where he died in 687, being buried at Lindisfarne. His body suffered from a series of exhumations:
- 698 grave ‘elevated’ into a tomb (undecayed);
- 793 removed inland when Vikings threatened Lindisfarne (undecayed);
(Monks settled on Dunholm (brown hill) as his resting place when they saw a dun cow there, and built a simple church incorporating his tomb.)
- 1104 church rebuilt to become Durham Cathedral (undecayed);
- 1538 Dissolution of the Monasteries during the Reformation, body reinterred (undecayed);
- 1827 artefacts removed from the coffin for display (skeleton);
- 1899 formal post-mortem with findings ‘consistent’ with all that was known of Cuthbert’s life (skeleton).
Given the dun cow and Cuthbert, it is delicious irony that for many years the Edinburgh Co-op was St Cuthbert’s Dairy.
Cuthbert led by prayer; his leadership example was to follow the Holy Spirit and encourage those he met to know and act upon God’s will.
For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you. We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives. (Colossians 1:9)
[from Timothy Pitt]