Category: Prayer through Lent

A Liturgy of The Rood

Good Friday 2024, 4pm, Bewcastle. Outside around the Bewcastle Cross (or in the church if the weather is inclement), a service of meditation listening to a reading of the ‘Dream of the Rood’. It will probably take around 15 mins to read, and will finish with a period of silence. The whole service will last about 30 minutes.  I’m not aware of this having been done before, but I’m sure it must have been.

For those who don’t know it, the Dream of the Rood has been described as ‘one of the greatest religious poems in English literature’ and is one of the earliest Anglo-Saxon poems in existence. A section of it is inscribed in runes on the Ruthwell Cross in south Dumfriesshire, not far from the Solway coast. In fact, these runes are the oldest Anglo-Saxon poetry anywhere in the world. The Ruthwell and Bewcastle crosses are closely-related sister crosses that both date from the early 8thC. It is likely that they were either inspired by the poem, or inspired the author(s) of the poem, as they are more or less contemporary with it – the close relation between them being evident through the runic engraving. The poem is about an elderly monk who dreams about the cross (the ‘rood’) in his sleep, and as he meditates the cross begins to speak to him about the events of that day. It is Anglo-Saxon Johannine theology, in that creation speaks of God’s presence to those who pray, and the colour, holiness, gore, majesty, wonder and awe flow back and forth through the poem as the warrior Christ climbs up to mount his victory throne, which is, of course, the rood.

We will be gathered, praying around perhaps the actual cross that ‘speaks’ in the poem. If you would like to be seated outside you will need to bring your own furniture.

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Lenten Prayer with St Cuthbert – Day 46

“And he shall be known in the breaking of the bread.” He, the Bread.

“Did not our hearts burn within us as he talked to us?” Yet still they did not recognise him.

I wonder how often that has happened to us? This ancient Gaelic Rune of Hospitality comes from the west Highlands of Scotland:

I saw a stranger yesterday.
I put food in the eating place -
Drink in the drinking place -
Music in the listening place -
And in the blessed name of the Triune
He blessed myself and my house,
My cattle and my dear ones.
And the lark said in her song,
Often, often, often goes the Christ
   in the stranger's guise.

Our final reading from Bede’s Life of Cuthbert. We discover, surely with a smile on Bede’s face, that Cuthbert was a useless builder, and the repairs made by Aethilwald, his successor on Farne, weren’t much better. Bede is circumspect about Cuthbert’s involvement in this last miracle; indeed, he is always careful, in every account, to ensure we understand that it is God who performs the miracle. The saints in heaven are merely the ones interceding on our behalf. Here we see the Church, of which Cuthbert was but a part, continuing, working, and praying. And, as Bede says in his closing sentence, “Almighty God, in this present age, is wont to heal many, and, in time to come, will heal all our diseases of mind and body; for he satisfies our desire with good things, and crowns us for ever with lovingkindness and tender mercies.”

Thank you for joining me in this Lenten journey. My prayer is that you have found it helpful in your walk with our Lord. It has been a labour of love. May God’s richest blessing rest on each one of you this Easter. Amen.

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Lenten Prayer with St Cuthbert – Day 45

The Resurrection.

It’s different in each of the Gospels. In Luke, Mary Magdalene and a group of at least four other women go to the tomb, enter it, and meet two angels, but no Jesus. In Matthew, two women, Mary Magdalene and another Mary, go to the tomb, experience an earthquake and meet a single angel sitting on the stone that used to seal the tomb, who invites them to go in and have a look. Then they meet Jesus on the way back. In Mark, three women reach the empty tomb, enter and find a single angel sitting at one end, and run away, terrified. In John’s Gospel, Mary Magdalene goes alone, finds the tomb empty, runs to tell Simon Peter and John, returns behind them, and after they’ve gone, the angels turn up and she then meets Jesus, mistaking him for the Gardener.

The utter confusion of what actually happened is the most compelling evidence that it actually did. How could it be any other way? Who remembers the details? Who was there? What was the order of events that morning? How many angels? Were there angels? The stone was rolled away! The tomb was empty! It was THE LORD!!! Nothing else matters. He is risen! Shock. Disbelief. No. It cannot be. It’s impossible. Yes, I know he said it, but he didn’t mean this. Did he?

The trees in the painting begin to move in the wind. Clothes on the static figures ripple in the breeze. Colours start to shift and change, as the painting comes to life, like the picture on the wall in chapter one of CS Lewis’ ‘Voyage of the Dawntreader.’ We are treading a new dawn into a new world. This is the 8th Day. The painter has arisen.

A young man develops paralysis that spreads from his feet, progressively moving upwards through his body, which weakens daily, causing him to struggle to breathe, until he is completely paralysed, able to move only his mouth. Sounds like Guillain-Barré syndrome, and in extreme cases patients need ventilation. After a few weeks or months patients usually start a gradual improvement, and within a year most people have fully recovered.

In this case, however, Cuthbert’s shoes are taken from his coffin and placed on the lad’s feet. His breathing instantly improves and he falls into a calm sleep. Those keeping watch over him that night observe the healing taking place, noticing first one, and then the other leg twitching. By the time of Lauds, in the early hours of the morning, he had regained sufficient strength to join the brethren in the chapel, standing for the whole service. This is no ordinary recovery. Extraordinary.

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Lenten Prayer with St Cuthbert – Day 44

The Crucifixion.

Begun with the visit of the angel to a young lass in Nazareth who said ‘yes’, the Incarnation of the composer into his composition culminates with this climactic moment. The cosmos cracks and fissures as the Temple curtain is rent in two. Red dwarfs shudder and black holes expirate across a billion trillion galaxies. The composer dies. The colossal terror of unheard dis-chord shatters the silence of icy darkness. The fabric of the space-time continuum ruptures, collapsing in to single point of historical particularity as spirit and matter are united in the agony of a moment of utter isolation. My God, my God, why have you forsaken me. All words end in silence. There is nothing that human speech can offer. The unbearable weight of darkness has descended. This is the nature of sin.

Matter and spirit are inseparable. The Creator breathed life into the soil. Cuthbert is dead, has been dead for over a decade, yet his body still retains a connection with his spirit while awaiting resurrection. In a similar way to an icon, it acts as a conduit between the material and spiritual worlds. Cuthbert is present, and can be greeted and talked to as a member of the same body of Christ. Like any fellow Christian, he can be asked to intercede on our behalf, ‘would you pray for me?’ This is what the clergyman of Bishop Willibrord Clement believed, what all the early church believed across the world. It seems his belief was vindicated and his request effective.

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Lenten Prayer with St Cuthbert – Day 43

A sorry tale of politics, power, and crowd rule, or is that otherwise known as democracy, with ‘social influencers’ doing their piece? Three times Pilate says he will release Jesus, three times he is beaten back by the increasing vehemence of the crowds. Of course, he could have called in the army to crush the rising riot, but it would not have helped his thankless task of trying to govern this brittle people. Capitulation. We may speak of miscarriages of justice, but the deep irony of it is, as Jesus already knew, our redemption could not have happened any other way. How could the Creator heal his own lover, other than by absorbing into himself the bitterness, violence, anger, insecurity, pride, arrogance, greed, and every other human darkness, all of which can ultimately be traced back to the terror of facing death and annihilation. Jesus’ passion and death is the ultimate Passover.

Cuthbert is barely mentioned in today’s short reading. Instead, we hear of Eadberht, bishop of Lindisfarne, who sang his paean of Cuthbert in yesterday’s chapter, becoming progressively more ill and dying. The Anglo-Saxon saints, along with the rest of the early Church, had a completely different view of Christian suffering to us. For them, pain and illness, although not to be sought, was participation in the suffering of Christ on the Cross, carrying their cross as Jesus commanded, in order to bring healing back into the world. A quick or sudden death, therefore, cheated them out of this privilege, meaning that they were somehow found to be unworthy of sharing in Christ’s work. The granting of Eadberht’s wish, to die through a ‘long and wearing illness’, gave him the right to be buried close to Cuthbert’s uncorrupted body, as he, too, had been found worthy of sharing in Christ’s redeeming work. Bede’s final comment says it all: ‘the very clothes worn by [Cuthbert], both in life and in death, have still the power to heal.’ Eadberht has found his healing.

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Lenten Prayer with St Cuthbert – Day 42

There is one poem for this Friday we call ‘good’.

The wounded surgeon plies the steel
That questions the distempered part;
Beneath the bleeding hands we feel
The sharp compassion of the healer’s art
Resolving the enigma of the fever chart.

Our only health is the disease
If we obey the dying nurse
Whose constant care is not to please
But to remind us of our, and Adam’s curse,
And that, to be restored, our sickness must grow worse.

The whole earth is our hospital
Endowed by the ruined millionaire,
Wherein, if we do well, we shall
Die of the absolute paternal care
That will not leave us, but prevents us everywhere.

The chill ascends from feet to knees,
The fever sings in mental wires.
If to be warmed, then I must freeze
And quake in frigid purgatorial fires
Of which the flame is roses, and the smoke is briars.

The dripping blood our only drink,
The bloody flesh our only food:
In spite of which we like to think
That we are sound, substantial flesh and blood-
Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday good.

– T.S. Eliot, East Coker IV, Four Quartets

Christ; the wounded surgeon, dying nurse. Adam; the ruined millionaire. Sin; the disease. Death; the Cross, our baptism.

The year is 698AD, eleven years after Cuthbert’s death, and time for his ‘Elevation’. His body has been in the ground sufficiently long for the worms to have done their work, such that his clean bones may now be translated to the church in a new casket. But, terrifyingly, the monks find his body untouched, looking as if asleep, and his clothes bright and fresh.

The ‘wooden casket’ they had prepared is the one still on display in the Museum at Durham Cathedral. It may be that the Lindisfarne Gospels, dedicated to St Cuthbert and created in this period, were to be blessed and read publicly for the first time at his Elevation.

Eadberht is carrying out his Lenten fast on the tiny St Cuthbert’s Isle just next to Lindisfarne. His paean is beautiful and poignant in its heartfelt wonder. In it, he links the preservation of Cuthbert’s body with the resurrection (Jonah in the fish), being called by God to be his own (Israel in the desert), protection through the fire of judgement (Meshach, Shadrach and Abednego), and Christ’s second coming. This is no disembodied existence – the inseparable but personal link between the saint’s material and spiritual existence acts as a conduit for the healing power of heaven to be made present. The saint, being in Christ’s presence, means Christ’s presence is also here.

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Lenten Prayer with St Cuthbert – Day 41

The Garden of Tears. The Garden of Eden. Things happen in gardens. Life begins in gardens. The soil gives rise to plants, and plants to all life. We are from the soil. Soil and spirit. The drops of agonising sweat fall back to the ground, the life blood of the Creator returns to the soil redeeming the earth, redeeming Eden, redeeming us. This is the agony of redemption. The betrayal by Judas. A man hangs from a rope on a tree (Matthew’s Gospel). Three betrayals by Peter. A cock crows. A man weeps bitterly. How much agony can one night stand?

Cuthbert may be dead, but his body, like that of Jesus, was integral to his life of holiness and, more than this, being made of the soil of the earth, again like that of Jesus, creation was being sanctified through it. Even after his death, his body retains a connection with his spirit, as it awaits resurrection. And through this connection God’s Holy Spirit works its healing power through soil and water on a poor lad suffering from some terrible mental illness. There is a profound integration of matter and spirit here.

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Lenten Prayer with St Cuthbert – Day 40

Blood. Plasma, platelets, red and white blood cells, haemoglobin, antibodies, clotting factors, hormones, cholesterol. Blood of the vine. The juice of life. Only life begets life. All humans and other animals must eat other life to live, be that plant or animal. We only live because we consume the life of another. So all food is holy and every meal a sacrament. Therefore blood is consumed to give new life, a new covenant. And the broken body shared. Death to give life. The Passover Lamb, whose blood is painted on the lintels and posts, whose body is eaten while standing. The narrow escape from death in the night, from the screams of the slayer. The new beginning. This is our Christ.

Cuthbert has died. News of his death is relayed from Farne to Lindisfarne by torches, as the monks on both islands are singing Psalm 59 at Lauds. (This is psalm 59 in the Vulgate version of the Bible, the version translated into Latin by Jerome in the fourth century, and used throughout the Western Church at that time. In our modern version of the Bible it is psalm 60.) But Cuthbert’s death results in the fragmentation of the community, dissension and division. It seems the peace and concord between the Iona and Roman groups embodied in Cuthbert, and for which he longed and prayed, was too fragile to last without his wise hand at the tiller, until another godly leader was found in Eadberht, a year later.

Although Bede doesn’t say it, perhaps out of deference, it was Wilfred who took over the episcopal mantle for the year after Cuthbert’s death, and as he demonstrated at the Synod of Whitby, he was vehemently opposed to any hint of the Irish practices that still lingered in the old Irish monasteries, of which Lindisfarne was the principle. Neither was he noted for his grace towards others.

Cuthbert was buried in the church on Lindisfarne.

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Lenten Prayer with St Cuthbert – Day 39

Preparing for the Pass-Over. The Passover lamb is to be sacrificed. This, the feast that defines the People of God. Lamb’s blood on the door lintels and pillars so the angel of death passes over. Tunics tucked into belts. Eat standing up. No time for the yeast to rise – bread unleavened. Bags packed. Flight. Be prepared. Go into the city. Look for a man carrying water. What? A man? An angel? Follow him. Find the master. Prepare. The past in the present. The present in the past. Time transcended. Each event a participation in the first. And Judas’ frustration boils over. But this time its different. A new lamb. A different lamb. A human lamb. But no-one sees it.

Not least Judas. Only God knows Judas’ heart. What went through his mind? When did the thrill of following Jesus turn sour? When did the soaring delight of seeing the lame leap, the blind ecstatic, the bereaved overjoyed, become ordinary for him? How had his ideas and dreams become so fixed and hardened that the Spirit couldn’t penetrate? Or was he just trying to force Jesus’ hand? He never intended the betrayal to end in execution. But after years of following Jesus, how had he not seen that reality lies in the realm of the spirit, that the political is a usurping echo of the real? But then again, neither had any of the other disciples Perhaps their vision just wasn’t as radical. A tortured soul. Only God, the lover, knows.

We have reached Cuthbert’s last night. This is the end. Or the beginning? Weak and frail, wracked with pain, struggling to breathe, to speak. Disintegrating and screaming muscles still under the command of an iron spirit, tempered by years of discipline. He spends his final, disease-ridden moments lying in the corner of his tiny oratory, opposite the altar. Herefrith is with him, and through the course of the day, coaxes some halting words as a final legacy. “Strive to ensure all your decisions are achieved with unanimity.” He receives the sacraments in the evening, and then, arms outstretched, releases his spirit. This is a holy death, in peace, pain, and virtual solitude, but with the unseen company of heaven present – Cuthbert is going home.

Medical examination of his remains in 1899 suggest his body was riddled with tuberculosis.

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Lenten Prayer with St Cuthbert – Day 38

Strange to think that, though an infinite qualitative difference and separation lies between Creator and Creation, as between artist and art, yet God’s presence runs through creation, as radio waves do a hand or a head. Which means that the turmoil and terror, the devastation and cataclysm of peoples and nations, of cities and homes, and the wrenching and twisting of the tortured creation in Jesus’ apocalyptic speech shudders through the being of God. This shuddering is the eternal presence of the Cross that unites heaven and earth, the eternally burning bridge by which salvation is wrought. It is the nature of Love to bear the pain that leads to healing and balm.

Which is what is going on in the Anglo-Saxon understanding of illness and disease. We may try and smugly say they had no other choice but to find an explanation to help them accept suffering and make sense of a God of love, but we have medicine and opiates now, so we can, generally, either heal the disease or ease the pain; we don’t need those sorts of explanations any more. Yet look beyond, and we will see the penetrating logic of their understanding – the whole of creation is one. Cuthbert, in his pathetic weakness, is still imbued with the Spirit of wholeness, health, and healing. Jesus’s words were just as true for Cuthbert as for us, ‘Not a hair of your head shall be harmed.’

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