The View from the Vicarage: Light in the Darkness – St Cuthbert

Welcome to a View from the Vicarage, as we walk through these days of darkness and lockdown together yet apart I want to share with you some of the brightest lights of the history of our own region, our Northern Saints and the way they coped with the darkness and looked to the light that is Jesus Christ as an inspiration to us all, today we look to St Cuthbert.

Our most Venerated and well known Northern Saint is St Cuthbert, Confessor and Bishop of Lindisfarne. Cuthbert is intrinsically linked to St Aidan the subject of my last blog, it was a vision of Aidan himself that was the beginning of  St Cuthbert’s vocational journey and mission to this region.

Aidan not only founded the monastery of Lindisfarne but also that of Mailros on the bank of the Tweed, both lived life under the same rule. Born not far from Mailros Cuthbert knew the monks in the order at the monastery and tried to imitate their teachings and faith as he worked in solitude tending his father’s sheep.  One night as Cuthbert watched the flock and was in prayer Cuthbert saw the soul of Aidan carried up to heaven by angels, this was the very night of the death of Bishop Aidan. Cuthbert reflected on the happiness and joy within this death and felt he too must join the monastery, going to study at Mailros.

Cuthbert then went to Ripon where he was given the responsibility of welcome, washing the feet of others as his saviour had done, he returned to Mailros and was made Prior in 664. In this role Cuthbert went out to preach to those who lived nearby, St Cuthbert drew great crowds, had a persuasive eloquence and it is written “an angelic brightness of face.”

Cuthbert was made Prior of Lindisfarne monastery, he was known for his prayers, he often went without sleep to pray and if sleep tempted him would go outside and walk while he prayed. After 7 years as prior he retired to the island of Farne with his abbot’s permission. Cuthbert desired a deeper union with his God moving to this uninhabited Island where he would live in his cell. It was with some significant reluctance that Cuthbert accepted the episcopal see of Lindisfarne and became Bishop of that place. He went back to preaching, feeding and caring for the poor.

Known for miracles of foresight and prophecy as well as healing Cuthbert maintained that prayer was always at his centre and it was that closeness with God which we should all attend to.  Seeing his death nearing  Cuthbert retired his see and moved back to Farne Island where he died two months later in March 687. His body was buried in St Peter’s on Lindisfarne and Bede writes of the very many miracles at his tomb. Cuthbert’s body was said never to decay, on opening the coffin 11 years later and indeed 450 years later at Durham.

The Monks Carrying Cuthbert’s Coffin

Upon the Viking invasion the body of Cuthbert was taken by the monks as they tried to protect their saint and after many journeys rested on a mound high above the river Wear, that which we know and love as our very own Durham Cathedral a place of prayer for the region.

St Cuthbert brought light into the darkness because his life was almost a continual prayer, from those hilltops looking after his fathers flock through to those last two months on Farne Island Cuthbert prayed continuously.  He never missed an opportunity to pray, even admonishing monks for complaining for being awoken at night as this for him was an invitation to prayer. Prayer was Cuthbert’s inner light but one he used to shine outwards into the people and place he served, a light which still shines to this day.

Our prayers can too bring light to our darkness and to the darkness of others, that is why in this month of lockdown we are called to a month of uninterrupted prayer – but perhaps like St Cuthbert we too should be considering a life of continual prayer, prayers that light our own world to enable us to light the worlds of others.

Alcuin of York wrote his beautiful hymn, Eternal Light, Shine in My Heart in 780 and could not only have been writing of St Cuthbert but wrote a hymn that we could all aspire to as we pray to bring light to the darkness.

Eternal light, shine in my heart;
eternal hope, lift up my eyes:
eternal power, be my support;
eternal wisdom, make me wise.

Eternal life, raise me from death;
eternal brightness, make me see:
eternal Spirit, give me breath;
eternal Saviour, come to me:

Until by your most costly grace,
invited by your holy word,
at last I come before your face
to know you, my eternal God.

I finish with the Collect (Prayer) for St Cuthbert

Almighty God, who called your servant Cuthbert from following the flock to follow your Son and be a shepherd of your people: in your mercy, grant that we, following his example, may bring those who are lost home to your fold; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God now and forever. Amen

Your Friend and Vicar


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