Cuthbert spent two years as a bishop before returning to the Holy Island to resume his eremitical life. Was the bishopric too much for him? No. Bede tells us that Cuthbert returned to his hermitage after God ‘made known to him that the day of his death was drawing near’. Cuthbert returned to Farne Island in order to prepare for it.
We saw in the previous post how being a hermit did not mean that Cuthbert was completely isolated from the world – his fellow monks helped him to build his new home and on occasion came to visit him thereafter. Bede now tells us of another visitor to Cuthbert’s home – Herebert.
Herebert (or Herbert) was also a hermit. He lived on an island in a lake* ‘which is the source of the river Derwent’ (in the Lake District). Every year, he came ‘to visit Cuthbert… to seek his advice on matters of eternal salvation’. After Cuthbert returned to his island, he paid a visit to Carlisle – Lugubalia to Bede – where Herbert met him.
Their meeting took its usual form with Herebert seeking Cuthbert’s wisdom and the two regaling each other ‘with exhilarating draughts of heavenly life’. Upon a moment, however, Cuthbert warned his friend to say all that he needed to say ‘because we shall not see one another again in this world. For I know that the day of my death is approaching, and I shall soon put of this earthly tabernacle’.
I mention this particular passage not so much because of its importance to the narrative but because of Cuthbert’s use of the word ‘tabernacle’. When St John wrote his gospel he said that the Word (Jesus) ‘dwelt among us’. If I recall correctly, what the Greek says is that the Word ‘tabernacled’ among us – a tabernacle being a tent. I speak under correction here so if I am wrong, do let me know in the comments, but if I am right, we see here a case of Bede, or Cuthbert, referencing John’s gospel very directly.
Poor Herebert is deeply distressed by Cuthbert’s words. He ‘fell at [Cuthbert’s] feet with sighs and tears’ and begged his friend to ask God to permit him to die at the same time as Cuthbert so that they might enter to heaven together.
It was a touching request, which Cuthbert took to the Lord in prayer. Not long later he ‘received inward intimation’ that God had granted it. Here is a moment where my view of the Anglo-Saxon period is challenged. Sometimes, I am tempted to buy into the idea of it as a Dark Age, afflicted with intellectual simplicity. Bede’s ability to represent God speaking to Cuthbert inwardly speaks against that. It showed that Bede had a developed sense of how God spoke to His people.
Herebert’s story ends on a bittersweet note. He died on the same day as Cuthbert (20th March) but only after ‘a long illness’. Bede speculates that God permitted this to happen in order to make up for whatever merit Herebert lacked. I think you could see it as a case of Herebert being cleansed in life of the stain that would otherwise have been taken away from him in Purgatory.
So, that is Herebert’s story. Cuthbert’s, however, despite his death was – in a way – only just beginning; or rather, beginning another chapter as a Saint. It would commence eleven years later, in 698, when his body was exhumed.
The above picture comes from Wikipedia is of Bede and is by J. D. Penrose. Apropos of my mention of St John, Penrose represents Bede as translating the his the Evangelist’s gospel
* Derwent Water