Cuthbert the Hermit

Bede_AthelstanPart 2
Book IV Chapter 28

Yesterday, we saw how Cuthbert became a monk at Melrose in Scotland before being appointed Prior of the Benedictine monastery in Lindisfarne, Northumbria. Today, we will see how he withdrew from the world only to receive a very unwelcome promotion that brought him right back into it.

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In 676* Cuthbert came to the realisation that God was calling him to live as a hermit.

We already know that he was a spiritual man, now we find that he was realistic, too; before leaving for the Holy Island where he intended to live, Cuthbert told his fellow monks that ”If God’s grace will enable me to live in this place by the labour of my own hands, I shall gladly remain there; but if it proves otherwise, then, God willing, I will soon return to you.”

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Upon his arrival on the island, Cuthbert drove out the ‘evil spirits’ that dwelt there. And when his corn crop failed to grow, despite that it was out of season, he sowed barley instead. Nevertheless, a bumper crop quickly followed.

Orthodox Christians believe that the Devil is real and that miracles happen. They believe this today as they have always believed it. Cuthbert’s actions on the Holy Island, therefore, will come as no surprise to them.

For non-believers, however, it will be quite a different matter, and I suspect that they would see Bede’s account of the demons and barley as placing the story very firmly in the past, when such things were believed to occur.

If that is the case, another aspect of Cuthbert’s spiritual journey may sound more familiar to them – the length of time between his arrival at Lindisfarne and realisation that he had a vocation to be a hermit. It took twelve years**. This accords with the fact that today, it can take (many) years for a man to discern whether he has a vocation to be a priest or religious.

To be sure, it might well have taken a man in the Anglo-Saxon or Mediaeval period a similar length of time to do likewise but when one reads accounts of Saints’ lives things do sometimes appear to happen rather quicker.

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Once the evil spirits had departed, Cuthbert built a simple hermitage. It contained ‘a tiny dwelling… an oratory and a communal shelter.’

Bede says that Cuthbert’s hut was surrounded by both a ditch and ’embankment so high that he could see nothing but the heavens for which he longed so ardently’. Obviously, the embankment had a spiritual purpose; I wonder, though, if the ditch was designed to keep wild animals out.

People were a little more welcome. In the first place, Cuthbert did not build his hermitage by himself – his fellow monks helped him. And in the years that followed, they continued to visit him (something which he obviously catered for – hence the communal shelter). Bede does not represent either the monks help or visits as being in any way unusual. Can we surmise, therefore, that in the eighth century to be a hermit did not necessarily mean a total abandonment of the world?

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In 685, King Egfrid appointed Cuthbert bishop of Lindisfarne… at least, that’s what Bede said in Chapter 27. In Chapter 28, he states ‘that a great synod’ held at Twyford ‘unanimously elected’ Cuthbert to the position. Perhaps Egfrid’s appointment came out of that ‘election’.

At first, Cuthbert declined the bishopric. But when Egfrid, ‘the most holy Bishop Trumwine and other devout and distinguished men’, and even some of the Lindisfarne monks, came to the island, and ‘knelt before him’ begging him in God’s name to accept the appointment he reluctantly gave way.

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As mentioned above Bede states that Cuthbert was appointed Bishop of Lindisfarne. He now says that Cuthbert went to Hexham. What appears to have happened is that he did indeed go first to Hexham but swapped Sees with Eata and then took over Lindisfarne.

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Cuthbert the Bishop continued the work of Cuthbert the monk. ‘[H]oly actions’, ‘constant prayer’, and ‘salutary teachings’ were the order of the day. And people listened because ‘he taught others to do only what he first practised himself’.

The Benedictine Order is associated with the motto Ora et Labore ‘Prayer and Work’. Cuthbert applied this to his episcopal ministry, regarding ‘as equivalent to prayer the labour of helping the weaker brethren with advice’. In short, ‘he was afire with heavenly love’ and it is easy to see why he became such a popular saint.

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Two final points – right at the end of the chapter, Bede mentions that when Cuthbert said Mass, ‘he offered his prayers to God not in a loud voice but with tears welling up from the depths of his heart’. I am interested in the fact that Bede associates speaking loudly with Mass. The Rite that Cuthbert would have used would have been closer in form to what Catholics today call the ‘Extra Ordinary Form’ of the Mass which is either whispered or spoken very quietly.

Secondly, in the last post, I conjectured that a reason for Cuthbert being sent to Lindisfarne was to restore the discipline of the monks. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, he went after the Synod of Whitby to oversee its adoption of Roman Catholicism as opposed to Celtic Catholicism.

* Bede doesn’t give any dates. Rather than use Wikipedia, which can sometimes be a little unreliable, I turned to the Catholic Encyclopedia

** Meaning that Cuthbert became Prior of Lindisfarne in 664 (according to the Catholic Encyclopedia) rather than ‘around 665’ (according to Wikipedia

The picture above comes from Wikipedia and shows King Athelstan presenting a copy of Bede’s Life of St Cuthbert to Cuthbert himself.

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