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.

Permanent link to this article: https://www.bewcastlehouseofprayer.org.uk/lenten-prayer-with-st-cuthbert-day-42/

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