Category: Prayer through Lent

Lenten Prayer with St Cuthbert – Day 36

Jesus has just cleansed the Temple. Now comes the challenge of authority. But in good rabbinic tradition, he answers the question with a question. The marvel of the interaction is the utter inability of the chief priests and scribes to see the hypocrisy of their position. But as in all these stories, we can never see ourselves as uninvolved bystanders. We, too, are so often in their position, blind, or at least inattentive, to the presence and work of God around us. So then comes yet another parable of vineyards, tenants, and a landlord. They, and everyone listening, know exactly what the parable is about.

The battle of wits – one of the Pharisees great games. But they picked the wrong fight. Their question, of course, was designed to be impossible to answer. If Jesus said ‘yes’ to paying taxes to Caesar, he clearly wasn’t the Messiah, as everyone knew the Messiah would come to restore Israel to its place of independence and glory by expelling the Romans, and his support would evaporate as the morning mist. If he said ‘no’, he would be guilty of inciting insurrection and imprisonment. His answer is literally stunning – they are silenced. But Jesus’ challenge remains to us.

Cuthbert at last lays down his shepherd’s crook and retreats to the solitary life on Farne that, again, isn’t quite so solitary as he would like. Monastic obedience, to those of us outside the ‘religious’ life, can appear restrictive and claustrophobic. But it is designed to overcome the stubborn wilfulness in each of us that is called ‘pride’ and ‘independence’. We tend to value our independence as our freedom. But the paradox is that freedom is not found in independence: it is found in service to the Creator, for only here, as we learn to love, can our beings truly flourish and become all that the Creator intended us to be. The hanging goose is merely the foil for the lesson.

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Lenten Prayer with St Cuthbert – Day 35

“Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord!”

“Teacher, rebuke your disciples”

“I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out.”

Indeed they would. The very fabric of creation shudders at the presence of her creator. This is the most explicit claim Jesus allows to be made of his real identity, hidden for so long . Perhaps he allows it, knowing that it will so upset the religious elite that it will precipitate his arrest and execution. In any case, the king of his parables returns home and weeps over his people. His pain is tangible. The spiritual desensitisation of God’s chosen people happens while still thinking they are God’s chosen people, as they split hairs over the meaning of ‘the law’. So they think its okay to sell Temple money (at a profit) in the Temple to use for buying the animals acceptable for sacrificing in the Temple, exploiting the poor in the process – in the very place where the poor should be safest. No wonder he is angry. But where do the poor and destitute come today?

Cuthbert continues his final rounds of the diocese. He has come down river to the mouth of the Tyne, likely to the monastery at South Shields, just downstream of the Jarrow monastery (where Bede lived when he wrote this Vita). It was probably the previous monks of this monastery for whom Cuthbert prayed as a young lad when they got into trouble floating their logs back down the river, before he entered the religious life (Day 3). Abess Verca, who governed the monastery, also gave Cuthbert the shroud, which he kept, and in which he was wrapped after he died. This story of water into the most exquisite wine is clearly intended to remind us of Jesus’ similar miracle, although not quite on the same scale. Nevertheless, here, as in John’s Gospel, it is also a story of preparation for the forthcoming wedding feast (his death).

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Lenten Prayer with St Cuthbert – Day 34

Cuthbert, now in his early fifties, senses his body beginning to feel the strain of his years of asceticism. He wants to spend his last remaining days in prayer and praise on his beloved Farne, so after just two years as bishop, he decides to retire. He takes one final tour around the diocese, visiting monasteries and other places, giving words of encouragement and exhortation. In the course of which he comes to one of Aelfflaed’s houses on the Tyne at her invitation. This is possibly the last time he meets his spiritual daughter and they dine together. The story that follows was related by Aelfflaed, herself, to the author of the Anonymous ‘Life’ of Cuthbert, but Bede, while adding some amusing detail, has also softened its drama as he retells it, and supplied some unnecessary commentary relating to her behaviour. Nevertheless, it is another incident where Cuthbert sees, or senses, someone’s death. In this case, a simple shepherd out on the hills, where Cuthbert, himself, started his life.

There was clearly something going on in Zacchaeus’ heart before Jesus arrived in Jericho on his way to Jerusalem. Being extremely wealthy, and despised by everyone except others in his profession, wasn’t the life he wanted; he was looking for a way out. He will have heard how Jesus touches lepers, welcomes children, talks to Samaritans, walks with prostitutes, eats with tax collectors, and castigates the religious elite. Here is a man who lives on the edge of society, yet exhibits the presence of God. So this dignified little man runs ahead and climbs a tree in order to see the wandering, healing rabbi. The story is so well known and equally as comical. But every time we hear it, Jesus’ pronouncement of salvation never fails to fill the heart with joy.

And then comes another parable about Israel failing to share the gift of God, which was designed to multiply his blessing to the whole of his creation, in the same way that a single smile can spread through a room and change the world. Now it applies to us as well…

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Lenten Prayer with St Cuthbert – Day 33

People have speculated for years what it is about children that belongs to the kingdom of God. Personally, I think its a bit like children and Christmas – that sense of uncontainable excitement and the exuberant thrill of expected joy and delight. Everything else goes along with this – trust, simplicity, and a sense of wonder; and a lack of baggage – greed, prejudice and anxiety, you know, all the things that us grown-ups tend to accumulate. The sort of stuff that led us to nailing Jesus to the cross.

Like Jesus insisting on letting the children come, and being unafraid of touching lepers, Cuthbert, in the midst of the plague, approaches a young mother, already bereaved, cradling her dying baby, and kisses him. These are the dangerous outsiders, the ones for whom (anti)social distancing was invented. But personal safety was of no interest to Cuthbert – he was unafraid of death. In fact, he was looking forward to passing through the door to meet Eternal Life. So he was free to live and to love.

Reminds me of a short poem by the American poet, Emily Dickinson:

The Blunder is in estimate.
Eternity is there
We say, as of a Station —
Meanwhile he is so near

He joins me in my Ramble —
Divides abode with me —
No Friend have I that so persists
As this Eternity. 

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Lenten Prayer with St Cuthbert – Day 32

This story of the healing of a young lad brought to Cuthbert on a stretcher reminds us of the paralytic lowered through the roof in front of Jesus. Here the story happens in a remote and mountainous region that has never been identified. However, further details from the Anonymous Life of Cuthbert (an earlier ‘Life’ from which Bede draws) tell us it happened half way between Hexham and Carlisle, and that the bishop and his retinue accessed the area by a Via, probably a Roman Road. Bede tells us booths were made as shelters from branches cut from the local woods for Cuthbert’s stay. Bewcastle is a remote mountainous area, with a ruined Roman fort, that lies at the end of a Roman Road to the north of Hadrian’s Wall, half way between Hexham and Carlisle. ‘Bewcastle’ means ‘booths in the Roman fort’. Its church is dedicated to St Cuthbert.

Jesus keeps repeating these warnings about ‘being ready’, and his coming at ‘an unexpected hour’. Ordinary, everyday life just continues as it always has done, as it always will, one day followed by the next. Up in the morning, dress, breakfast, the routine of the day… And then it happens, without any warning. And when it happens, we move straight towards it without hesitation, without looking back, without saying ‘but what if…’ What will ‘it’ look like? Who knows? Only that we’ll know it when we see it. And so we persist, learning how to pray, how to ‘live’ in the knowledge of God’s presence with us. And as we do so, we begin to discover joy, deep as the dark salt sea, silent as the cool mountain rock. As one of the Prayer Book morning collects says, ‘in knowledge of whom standeth our eternal life, whose service is perfect freedom.’

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Lenten Prayer with St Cuthbert – Day 31

Another of Jesus’ parables about Israel failing to share the wealth of God’s rich blessing on his people. The rich man is not named, but the one from outside the gate is given a name, Lazarus, and is therefore known by God. He ends up standing by Abraham’s side, where Israel expected to find itself. The shock in the story, however, is not that the rich man is punished, or that the poor man is shown mercy, for that was commonly accepted and anticipated. It was that the request of the rich man to send messengers of warning back to his brothers was NOT granted. The warnings are already there for those who will see. But the failure to listen and understand is frightening. Prejudice, pre-judging, keeps us from seeing the human being before our eyes, and our complicity, as individuals and nations, in failing to share the blessing of our abundance. So who is Lazarus for us?

On the significance of the story of the ten lepers, see here.

Cuthbert had blessed some bread and given it to a fellow, who put it in his bag (or pocket?), as you do. The fellow then forgets about it. Some time later he and some friends visit another ailing friend, Hildmer, who was well known to, and beloved by, Cuthbert. He had asked Cuthbert to send a priest to pray for his wife when she was ill, but Cuthbert had come himself after a prompting by the Holy Spirit (Day 15). While sitting around his bed trying to console the suffering man, our fellow suddenly remembers the bit of bread in his pocket, digs it out, tells his friends, and then they pray. They dunk it in some water and give it to Hildmer to drink, who then recovers. Although on one level the story can seem amusing, on another, it is about the participation of the wider body of Christ (‘they were all laymen’) exercising faith in the sacrament of healing. Cuthbert’s only involvement was to bless some bread. If the faithful hadn’t exercised faith, the healing wouldn’t have happened.

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Lenten Prayer with St Cuthbert – Day 30

The parable of the unrighteous manager always throws folk. But its a parable, not a story. The key is in v9 : ‘And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.’ They may receive you? Who? Eternal dwellings? Really? How does that work? The parable is about God and Israel. The master’s property, in the hands of his manager, is God’s blessing promised to the world through his people that they never gave. Unrighteous wealth is unmerited wealth. Remember Abraham’s faith? It was credited to him as ‘righteousness’ because he believed God. But this is ‘unrighteous’ because it is not ‘credited’ to Israel. It was given as a blessing to be given as a blessing. Faced with the judgement of God the manager, at last, starts to give it away. So, at last, the angels might welcome the people of God to their eternal dwellings. The warning is clear. But so is the gracious mercy of the master, and therefore hope.

Nuns fleeing the barbarian army. Some things never change. Cuthbert finds them a home, but one of them, a relative of one of Cuthbert’s priests, Aethelwald, has a severe illness. It’s a simple story of prayer and anointing, the sort of thing that goes on in the Church all the time, and has done since her earliest days. Sometimes the healing takes place this side of the curtain, as here, sometimes the other, but always the healing happens. Remember Easter? We now see through the torn curtain into the other side.

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Lenten Prayer with St Cuthbert – Day 29

While the parable of the Prodigal Son, so familiar to many of us, is perhaps meant to tell of the relationship between God, Israel and the Gentile world, its sheer humanity works on many levels, not least the personal. It is difficult not to feel the intense and desperate love the father has towards both his children. Who could fail to be moved by it? This is our God.

Cuthbert is both a pastoral and a monastic bishop. In this, he follows in the footsteps of one of his, and Bede’s, favourite Fathers of the Church, St Gregory the Great – the first Pope from a monastic background. Despite having a diocese that stretches from the East coast to the West, and travelling generally by foot, he still finds time to visit individual parishioners. In this story, Bede deliberately draws the parallel with Jesus’ healing of Peter’s mother-in-law in Matthew’s Gospel. Bede is telling us this is what it looks like to be a true disciple of Christ in Anglo-Saxon Northumbria.

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Lenten Prayer with St Cuthbert – Day 28

Cuthbert again travels to Carlisle on administrative purposes. While there, word reaches his old friend, Hereberht, who lived as a hermit on the most isolated of the islands in Derwent Water in the Lake District. It remains uninhabited to this day (apart from occasional wild campers!), and is still known as St Herbert’s Isle. The conversation between them is so foreign to most of us in this day and age, yet it derives directly from a life of lived prayer and praise. So, too, with Bede’s tentative explanation of Herbert’s final, fatal, painful illness. There is no talk of ‘fighting the illness’ here. Instead, it all has to do with joining with Christ, taking up our cross, carrying the pain and fallenness of the world in our own bodies, and persisting through in prayer as a form of intercession on behalf of the world.

Which is precisely what Jesus is talking about to the crowds that follow him. Count the cost, for cost there will be. Carry the cross, the symbol of brutal and painful death through the persecution of the world. For in some way, our suffering with Christ as his bride and body, brings wholeness and holiness into the world. That is the point of talking about salt.

In the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin, Jesus presents himself as both a shepherd and a housewife. But what astonishes is the extraordinary joy and delight, beyond any ridiculous measure of comparative value, of the return of one who was lost – the whole of heaven celebrates. Over even just one of us. Something to ponder there, and allow it to sink in.

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Lenten Prayer with St Cuthbert – Day 27

St Cuthbert’s Day

Cuthbert is aware that the hour of fulfilment of his prophecy to Aelfflaed concerning her brother, King Ecgfrith, is drawing near. So he goes to Carlisle to be with the queen, to be with her when it happens. As it happens, he is on a tourist trip round the city (still worth a visit, incidentally), when the event takes place. What is especially interesting here, though, is the manner in which he senses the battle and the king’s death: the whole of creation shudders, although only Cuthbert can feel it, being so close to it through his life of prayer. It brings to mind St Paul’s description in Romans 8 of creation groaning, waiting for the redemption of the children of God.

Healing on the Sabbath (again), weddings and banquets. But who is invited? It turns out, everyone. But who will come? Only those who know their need. Reminds me of RS Thomas wonderful little poem, The Kingdom:

It’s a long way off but inside it
There are quite different things going on:
Festivals at which the poor man
Is king and the consumptive is
Healed; mirrors in which the blind look
At themselves and love looks at them
Back; and industry is for mending
The bent bones and the minds fractured
By life. It’s a long way off, but to get
There takes no time and admission
Is free, if you will purge yourself
Of desire, and present yourself with
Your need only and the simple offering
Of your faith, green as a leaf.

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