Category: Prayer through Lent

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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Lenten Prayer with St Cuthbert – Day 26

Jesus certainly doesn’t opt for the quiet life or avoid confrontation. No ‘softly, softly’ here. He won’t let conformity or ‘tradition’ stand in the way of the coming of the Kingdom of God. “This daughter of Abraham”. Jesus heart-wrenching compassion, and anger, are palpable. Who wouldn’t want to follow him? Come, let the mustard seed in you grow.

The only reason Cuthbert bows to the pressure of everyone requesting him to take the episcopal yoke is because of Boisil’s prophesy on his death bed, and the fact that Cuthbert so respected him as a man of God. Although we might read Bede’s account of Cuthbert’s life as a bishop as a somewhat formulaic recapitulation of Jesus’ commands, yet, knowing what we do about his character prior to his appointment, it just doesn’t seem out of keeping. We can see him clothing the poor and feeding the hungry, healing the sick and comforting the downcast. And I don’t recall the same every being said of his contemporary, Wilfrid, in his hagiography.

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Lenten Prayer with St Cuthbert – Day 25

It’s an age old question, ‘why do bad things happen to good people?’ Or in a more modern setting, ‘if there was a God, why do innocent people suffer?’ The stock answer was, ‘they must have deserved it.’ But Jesus will have none of it. Instead, once again, he uses it in exactly the same way as he does the parables of the thief in the night and the master returning home – be ready each day for you never know when your end will come. Or paraphrasing the 17thC Anglican Divine, Jeremy Taylor, you can’t live a holy life until you are ready for a holy death; only when death has lost its power over you will you be truly free to live.

Cuthbert and Eata had a long and close relationship. Eata was Abbot of Melrose when Cuthbert first came in from the world. When he founded the monastery at Ripon, he took Cuthbert with him as his guestmaster. When they were kicked out (to make way for Wilfrid) they went back to Melrose together. On his way back to Farne from a visit to Eata, now his bishop, in Melrose, one of Ecgfrith’s close warrior companions, a gesith who had probably travelled to Farne with Ecgfrith to persuade Cuthbert to become bishop, asks him to come and heal his gangrenous servant, under the guise of asking for a blessing on his household. Another eyewitness story.

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Lenten Prayer with St Cuthbert – Day 24

“Two thousand years and he ain’t showed yet” runs a 10cc song. Jesus’ warnings about being ready in the middle of the night seem to have anticipated precisely this waiting. Down through the centuries these words have rung. The devastating familial breakdown at the end of the reading is a direct quote from Micah 7. It relates to non-complicity in ‘wickedness’, waiting for the Day of the Lord. The answer, of course, is not to speculate, but to live each day as a holy day, aware of Christ’s presence with us at all times through his Holy Spirit. So our task, then, is to cultivate this good soil.

Now recovered from her illness, Aelfflaed meets her dear Cuthbert at the mouth of the Coquet river on the Northumberland coast. She draws from him the prophecy of her brother’s death, King Ecgfrith, which must have been playing on her mind, knowing his combative temperament. Going further, she elicits the name of his successor, her bastard half-brother, Aldfrith, then in exile studying theology in the Irish monasteries. But she knows, too, that her brother wants Cuthbert as his bishop in preference to Wilfrid (of Whitby Synod fame), with whom he (and many others) had fallen out. Wilfrid was the opposite of Cuthbert, loving the pomp and ostentation of the office, travelling to Rome to get papal backing every time he lost his position. The synod, held later that year, unanimously appointed Cuthbert as bishop, but there can be few bishops in the history of the church as reluctant as Cuthbert. He rejects all the letters and messengers sent to him, until even the king had to sail to Farne and get on his knees, begging him to agree. Eventually Cuthbert acquiesces, but in tears, and is consecrated the following Easter. So different to Wilfrid.

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Lenten Prayer with St Cuthbert – Day 23

Aelfflaed, daughter of King Oswiu, sister of King Ecgfrith, half-sister of King Aldfrith, was some 20 years younger than Cuthbert. She had been given to Abbess Hilda of Hartlepool at the age of one by her father in thanksgiving for a victory in battle. She was known for her skill in surgery and care for her patients. She had a special affection for Cuthbert, as he appears to have had for her – like spiritual father and daughter. In this story, Cuthbert has her in mind while praying on his solitary Farne, and senses her severe pain and need in response to her unspoken prayers. He sends his cincture, the rope girdle from around his waist, and through this gracious communication and listening to the Spirit, God’s healing is wrought. This is the Body of Christ at work.

“Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give to the needy.” Jesus’ words ring out down the centuries, posing an ever greater challenge that rinses the ear. Monasticism was, of course, the Christian community’s response to this call from the earliest days in the opening chapters of the Book of Acts. Perhaps it still is.

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Lenten Prayer with St Cuthbert – Day 22

Solitary life turns out not to be so solitary after all. Here we catch a glimpse into the constant stream of visitors travelling by small boats across the waters to land on Cuthbert’s shore. Folk suffering from distress, despondency, depression, despair, illness. And he has time for them all. Each one listened to, each one treated with careful attention, and each leaving with a unique word or touch, and a healed spirit, soul, or body. We are beyond politics here. This is the Kingdom of God.

Jesus is, once again, calling out the hypocrisy of those who, in positions of leadership, should be guiding by example and with compassion. Instead, there is arrogance and pride. If we place ourselves as the Pharisees in these stories they become, once again, terrifying. They are the astringent food of the Lenten desert.

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Lenten Prayer with St Cuthbert – Day 21

The disciples ask Jesus to teach them a prayer. After all, that’s what wandering rabbis do for their disciples, like John the Baptist. So he teaches them the prayer we say every day. But right at the beginning is this enigmatic request, ‘Give us today our daily bread.’ Later, of course, at the Last Supper, Jesus breaks the daily bread and says ‘This is my body given for you’. And all this calls to mind the first temptation Jesus faced in the wilderness, when he, the Bread, was tempted to make bread, but responded, ‘man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.’ But the Broken Daily Bread is also the Word that proceeds from the mouth of God. There’s a lot to chew on in this prayer.

Very practically, Cuthbert wants somewhere sheltered to go to the toilet each day. But the monks bringing his weekly supplies totally forget the necessary floorboards. Not to worry, though, when the sea obliges by throwing up a plank of the right size next morning. It may not seem much to us, but clearly it served a much needed purpose! The point is, though, that, where we perhaps tend to see coincidence, they have different eyes, seeing the wonder of creation in a way we seem to have lost.

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Lenten Prayer with St Cuthbert – Day 20

Another story about ravens, the first birds named in the Bible. Corvids are renowned for their intelligence and their ability to form relationships with humans. They still exhibit this kind of behaviour in bringing gifts. But this story has more to it than just gifts – there is a special relationship established between two of God’s servants.

Once again, Jesus scandalises his hearers. A parable in which a priest, one who intercedes of behalf of the people before God, and a Levite from the holy tribe of Israel, both fail to love their neighbour, and therefore fail to love God. But a Samaritan, considered a foreigner or Gentile, does. Once again, its the outsiders, those who put compassion above all, who refract the image of God.

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Lenten Prayer with St Cuthbert – Day 19

Cuthbert has a go at self-sufficiency. He tries growing wheat, but that doesn’t work, so tries barley instead. And then the corvids come. Again. I do know this feeling – had exactly the same problem with the corvids stealing all the barley seed I planted. Tried telling them off like Cuthbert, but it didn’t work – they were just back again next morning. So I’m with Bede on this one!

Jesus sends out the 72 as 36 pairs (all sorts of interpretations in those numbers). But something extraordinary is afoot – the world is changing as the Kingdom of God draws near. But its still too controversial for some, and prejudice blinds many to see what is before their eyes. We need to be so careful and constantly challenge our own assumptions lest we miss the Spirit of God.

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Lenten Prayer with St Cuthbert – Day 18

How do we do it? How do we turn the world on its head? ‘The greatest is the least’, ‘Lord, shall we call down fire from heaven on these insolent people?’ It just doesn’t sink in through their thick skulls. Or mine. But I am convinced that the closest person to a saint in my parishes is a quiet 92-year-old widow with a gentle smile and a sparkle in her eyes, who says her prayers every day and holds the world before her Lord. And mine. She has become that child.

Cuthbert is still building his ‘city’. The well of everlasting life is dug in its centre and blessed by God. But the grim realities of the hard life he has chosen are not spared from us. The story of Cuthbert’s chiropody is gruesome.

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