Abbot Eata took Cuthbert and some of the other monks from Melrose south, to the newly-built monastery at Ripon, leaving Boisil in charge. at Melrose At this stage they were still following the Irish monastic tradition, rather than the Roman (that was to change after the Synod of Whitby in 664). Cuthbert is given the role of guestmaster, the public face of the monastery. The practices of hospitality related in the story are humbling in the way they are taken for granted by Bede. But on one particular occasion a young guest turns out to something unexpected.
Category: Prayer through Lent
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Having been contemplating his future path for some time, Cuthbert decides to take the plunge. He trades in his spear for a pruning hook, his sword for a ploughshare, and his horse for a family. He is drawn to his local monastery of Melrose, rather than the renowned community on Holy Island, by the reputation for holiness of the prior, Boisil, with whom he was to form a firm bond of friendship and respect. So begins his life as a monastic in the Irish tradition.
Jesus, driven out of his home town of Nazareth in the hills, heads north, up to the top end of the Sea of Galilee, to the fishing village of Capernaum, where he settles for a while. From there he gathers his first disciples.
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Researching family trees has become a widespread pastime in recent decades, as folk seek to discover the characters behind their ancestral past. We never read Jesus’ family tree in the liturgical calendar – its considered too tedious and of little more than academic interest. Yet two Gospel writers thought it important enough to include the two versions. Today we listen to the names of each of Jesus’ forebears in Luke’s list who have lived, all the way back into the mists of time. Most of them had not a clue that they would ever be remembered, let alone be counted in the lineage of the God-man, the Christ, himself. Perhaps there’s something just in that fact for us.
In our story of Cuthbert, we have Bede feeling the need to explain why some people fast on Fridays – the day of the Crucifixion. And this sets the scene for an extraordinary Eucharistic story with the breaking of the bread. This provides the first of our insights, not just into Cuthbert’s sensitivity to the animal kingdom, but of his understanding that they are co-recipients with us of God’s grace and blessing, and are to be treated with corresponding dignity. Perhaps another lesson we could learn…
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As a young lad, Cuthbert was a hill shepherd. Like David in the days of King Saul, the Judean hill shepherds in Palestine on the night Jesus was born, and the Transylvanian hill shepherds of today, that meant staying with the sheep at night out on the hills to protect them from lions (in Palestine) and wolves (in Europe). It was dangerous work.
While Cuthbert keeps vigil as the other shepherds sleep, probably in the Lammermuir Hills, he sees a sight that will change his life for ever – angels carrying the soul, as he was later to discover, of the great Aidan, bishop of Holy Island, bringer of Christianity to the northern Saxons.
In the gospel, Jesus, as a young lad, but now in the first year of his Jewish manhood, exercises his new adult independence, and perplexes his parents in the process – three days in the Temple in Jerusalem, a foreshadowing of the three days in the womb of the Earth. Then we move on to “the voice of one crying in the wilderness”, where we, in our Lenten walk, are now metaphorically venturing.
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Some monks are in trouble at sea – and the Tynesiders jeer at them. But Cuthbert, as a young man, shows incredible strength of character, speaking out against the crowd and facing their taunts. Not sure I could have done what he did, but, interestingly, his reasoning has to do with what it means to be human.
In our Gospel, Christ is born. The shepherds watching their sheep on the hill see a vision of angels that changes their lives, just as Cuthbert, watching his sheep on the hill, will tomorrow (day 4). With Mary and Joseph we then visit the Temple and meet the Spirit-filled older generation of Simeon and Anna – the older we are, the higher up the stairs we have hopefully climbed (none of this nonsense of being ‘over the hill’). Simeon and Anna are now ready to enter Glory.
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We learn that Cuthbert, as a young lad, lived in a household with servants, and his family therefore had some status. Later in the story, as a young man, we find he had a horse and spear, so may have been one of the king’s warriors. But he was also a shepherd, spending nights out on the Cheviots looking after the sheep, which we will come to on Day 4.
However, in this episode Cuthbert is in excruciating pain from a knee injury, no longer able to walk – perhaps the result of an ACL injury from his boisterous games. While lying in the fresh air under a tree, he is approached by a stranger who asks for hospitality. Of course Cuthbert isn’t in a position to give it and makes his excuses. But then the stranger turns the tables and offers hospitality instead – the hospitality of God.
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The first of our series of 15-20 minute times of morning prayer through Lent to start the day with readings from the psalms, the Gospel of Luke, a chapter from Bede’s Life of Cuthbert, and some prayers. The pace is deliberately slow, to allow for contemplation, reflection, and supplication.
Bede begins his ‘Life’ with a quote from the prophet Jeremiah, encouraging in its monastic call to contemplation and silence, something that was to become a powerful theme later in Cuthbert’s life. Interestingly, the Anglo-Saxons saw infancy extending to eight years of age, with ‘boyhood’ beginning after that. The Cuthbert we discover is full of energy, competitive, boisterous, good natured and kind. Bede, rather understandably, feels the need to explain and justify the actions of the four-year-old in the story, setting it alongside the tale of Balaam’s donkey!
Alongside this, we begin the Gospel of Luke with the two angelic visitations, so different in their reception.
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Thank you for signing up to join us for a series of 15-20 minute times of morning prayer each day throughout Lent. My hope and prayer is that, as we undertake this journey through Lent, in the company of St Luke and St Cuthbert, we do so in the knowledge that, while we may listen and pray on our own, we are actually doing this together, bound by the Holy Spirit, in the presence of the hosts of angels, the great crowd of witnesses who have gone before us, including Luke and Cuthbert, each other, and, of course, Christ himself. We are, therefore, never alone, even in the stillness and the silence. This post is by way of an introduction, and a little background on Cuthbert.
Beginning on Ash Wednesday, we start the day with readings from the psalms, the Gospel of Luke, a chapter from Bede’s Life of Cuthbert, and some prayers. At various points we remember some of the pre-Norman saints whose ‘days’ take place during Lent. The pace is deliberately slow, to allow for contemplation, reflection, and supplication. If you are looking for something quick and amusing, you won’t find it here…
St Cuthbert is the Anglo-Saxon saint of northern England who lived in the 7th Century and died in 687AD. He is renowned for his love of God, and his care for, and kindness towards, people and creation, especially animals, and wandered across the north of England from Lindisfarne and Jarrow to Carlisle and the Lakes as monk, abbot, and then bishop, before returning to his life of solitude on the island of Inner Farne, where he died at the age of 53.
Bede wrote his ‘Life’ (or ‘Vita’) of Cuthbert, not as a biography, but as a hagiography, firstly to show us why we should revere Cuthbert as a saint, and secondly, more prosaically, to show us what a life in Christ’s footsteps looks like in his time and place, and to encourage others, especially monks, to follow where Cuthbert had led. There are 46 chapters in Bede’s story of his life and so there are 46 morning prayers in the series. Bede was a master of numerology and there is no coincidence in the fact that his hagiography is written in 46 chapters and that is the same as the number of days in Lent, which had recently been extended to this length (40 days of fasting, excluding the Sundays). He almost certainly wrote it as an early form of ‘Lectio Divina‘, that is, for monastic contemplation each day through Lent. In other words, exactly the way we are using it in these times of morning prayer.
There is no record of Bede ever having met Cuthbert. He was about 15 when Cuthbert died, but Bede was placed by his parents into Jarrow monastery at the age of seven, Cuthbert was his bishop, and the latter made it his business to visit every monastic house in his see when Bede was already a teenager, so it is highly likely he did. However, Bede did know many monks who knew Cuthbert well, and his stories are drawn from their recollections of him, as we discover through the course of the Vita. Both Cuthbert and Bede are buried in Durham Cathedral (where I was ordained, both as deacon and priest), one at either end.
There is much we can learn from our pre-Norman Christian ancestors on this island – they had an immense respect for creation (not fear, as some claim). They saw themselves as part of the whole, but with a special responsibility to care for creation. This shines through in Cuthbert’s life. For example, when Cuthbert was hungry, he shared his food with the animals around him; when he was cold they warmed him; and when they were a nuisance he reprimanded them! In fact, the way in which animals and nature responded to the Anglo-Saxon saints, such as Cuthbert and Guthlac, was one of the main ways of telling that this was a true follower of Christ and blessed by God. But the saints also understood that the animals were equal inheritors of Christ’s work on the Cross. We see the same idea on the carved faces (iconography) of the Anglo-Saxon stone crosses of Bewcastle and Ruthwell on what is called ‘inhabited vinescroll’, where the beasts and birds share in the fruit of the vine (which is, of course, Christ, the Church, and the Eucharist – remember Jesus saying ‘I am divine, you are de branches…’?).
Remember, if you would like to share your thoughts and reflections at any point with others on the same journey, this page is available to do so. Please check up on it occasionally to join in any conversation that may be taking place.
Follow Cuthbert’s story here, and allow it’s slow pace to sink into your spirit…
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