The Sixth of October is the Feast Day of St Bruno, founder of the Carthusian Order, perhaps the most austere within the Catholic Church*. Inspired by him, I thought I would take a look at one of the most important and austere* saints of the Anglo-Saxon period: St Cuthbert of Lindisfarne. The Venerable Bede dedicates three chapters of his Ecclesiastical History to Cuthbert so we have no shortage of information.
Cuthbert lived in the seventh century. According to Bede, the saint ‘longed to enter the religious life’ from childhood. He did not have long to wait as he was given his habit then made his profession as a monk while still a ‘youth’. Cuthbert must have had pious parents for all this to happen. Unfortunately, though, Bede says nothing about them.
Cuthbert’s first monastic home was in Melrose, in the Scottish Borders. There, he received spiritual direction from its prior, Boisil, who also gave the young man ‘instruction in the Scriptures and showed him an example of holy life’.
When Boisil died, Melrose’s Abbot, Eata, appointed Cuthbert to replace him. According to Wikipedia, this happened in the early 660s when Cuthbert was around 28. A priorship is a big responsibility for a young man to have. I doubt, however, that Eata thought in terms of Cuthbert’s age and experience when deciding if he was the man for the job. Rather, his first concern was to appoint someone who was holy. If this is correct, Eata definitely made the right choice. As prior, Cuthbert ‘trained many men in the monastic life with masterly authority and by his personal example’.
Nowadays, when a man enters a monastery, he tends to stay there. Secular priests live in the world, monks apart from it. But this was not at all the case in Cuthbert’s day. Following Boisil’s example, he travelled far and wide to preach the Gospel. He could be away from Melrose for weeks at a time, taking the Word of God to people who lived even in ‘high and inaccessible mountains’.
I suspect that Cuthbert’s work was born of necessity – there were simply not enough secular priests to go around. That this was the case is indicated when Bede says that ‘whenever a clerk or priest visited a town, English folk always used to gather at his call to hear the Word’.
As for Cuthbert, his preaching made a deep impression on those he met. It inspired men and women alike to ‘openly [confess] their wrong-doing’. I wonder, does this mean Anglo-Saxon Catholics did not make a private confession as Catholics do now?
Cuthbert had been at Melrose for ‘many years’ when Abbot Eata*** sent him to Lindisfarne to become its new prior. Wikipedia says this happened around 665. I wonder if the monks there had become lax in their discipline as Bede says one of Cuthbert’s duties was ‘to instruct the brethren there in the observance of regular discipline’.
Whatever the reason for his arrival, Cuthbert remained at Lindisfarne until 685 when King Egfrid appointed him Bishop of Lindisfarne. Nowadays, of course, the Vatican has the final say in who fills this role.
Bede also refers to another then-and-now difference when he says that ‘in ancient times, the bishop used to reside at Lindisfarne with his clergy and the abbot with his monks’.
Today, the two are much more likely to live apart; certainly, I have never heard of secular priests living in a monastery. To be sure, I can only think of one example of a monk being made a bishop – Basil Hume who was appointed Archbishop of Westminster by Pope Paul VI in 1976. Upon his appointment, Hume moved from the Benedictine Monastery at Ampleforth to Archbishop’s House behind Westminster Cathedral in London.
Why did Egfrid appoint Cuthbert bishop? I am sure it was for just the same reason as Eata appointed him prior of Melrose. If so, it was an easy choice for him to make as by then, Cuthbert was living in seclusion on the island of Farne where he had gained ‘self-mastery of mind and body’.
* If you would like to know more about the Carthusian Order today I highly recommend Into Great Silence – a film documentary of a year in the life of the monks of the Grande Chartreuse, the Order’s mother house which Bruno himself founded
** The Lindisfarne Gospels says that Cuthbert “lived a life of intense poverty and physical hardship”
*** Eata had authority to do this as he was also the Abbot of Lindisfarne
The above picture of St Cuthbert (Durham Cathedral) comes from Wikipedia