Our series of morning prayer focusses on the life of Cuthbert, an Anglo-Saxon monk who lived in the second half of the 7th Century in what was then the Kingdom of Northumbria. But I have been asked, why should this be included as part of morning prayer at all? Shouldn’t morning prayer just focus on Christ and the Bible? These are legitimate questions, so this is a short note to answer them.
Bede’s Life of Cuthbert is what is known as a hagiography. That is, it is an account of the life of a saint, and was written about 30-40 years after Cuthbert’s death. The word comes from a combination of two Greek words, ‘hagios’ (ἅγιος), meaning ‘holy’, and ‘-graphia’ (-γραφία), meaning ‘writing’. This is fundamental to understanding its purpose. A hagiography is not a biography, neither is it intended to be, although it does share elements with a biography.
So, what is a hagiography?
A hagiography describes the life of a (local) saint with a particular purpose in mind. The primary purpose of a hagiography is to act as a contemplative text, used in the context of prayer, to illuminate what a disciple of Christ looks like in a world familiar to the listener. In technical language, it acts as a hermeneutic for the Gospel. Of course, it is based on historic events, and much historical and cultural information can be gleaned by careful reading. But it must be understood this is incidental to its intended purpose.
There are occasions in Bede’s ‘Life of Cuthbert’ where this intent rises to the surface, for example where he explicitly relates a story about Cuthbert to a biblical text, or where he states that Cuthbert emulates some other recognised saint in the miracles he performs. At other times, the demonstration is much more subtle, but if you know your Gospel stories you can see the direct parallels.
A good example of this is on Day 15 of our series, where the Gospel reading, which is about Jesus healing Jairus’ daughter, and the woman with incurable haemorrhaging, is reflected in the day’s reading from Cuthbert’s life. Bede tells how a local sheriff goes in search of Cuthbert to cure his wife who has become ill with what we would now diagnose as a form of epilepsy. When they reach the house, she is healed when she touches the reins of Cuthbert’s horse, just as the haemorrhaging woman was healed when she touched the hem of Jesus’ garment.
Likewise, the wilderness in the biblical world becomes the sea in the insular (=island) world of the Anglo-Saxon (and Irish and Scottish Celts). So when Cuthbert goes out into the sea at night to pray, he is entering the desert. When he comes to shore in the morning, the sea-otters recognise him and come to dry him, just as Jesus was with the wild animals of the desert during his forty days in the wilderness (Mark 1:13). This identification is made explicit in words carved onto the Ruthwell Cross. So this is what a disciple of Jesus looks like in the Anglo-Saxon world.
Each chapter in the ‘Life’, then, is a self-contained, bite-sized story, beautifully crafted to compliment the story of Jesus, act as a commentary on it, if you like, and contextualise it for the contemplative listener, as part of their daily life of prayer. In Bede’s world, a chapter would have been read out loud to the monks in a community, perhaps while they were eating a meal in silence, or in the oratory during one of the daily offices. In other words, it is written to be read precisely as we are using it in our series of morning prayer. This is the proper home of a hagiography.