By the year 600, Christianity had spread from Palestine to parts of northern Europe. The zeal for Christ was very much present in the people of the British Isles, despite their distance from the Holy Land. Many holy people dwelled in what is now modern day England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland. One such person was Saint Cuthbert.
Cuthbert was born in 634 in the kingdom of Northumbria to an Anglo-Saxon family. He tended sheep in the southern uplands but also reveled in youthful pranks and games with his fellows. Such games were in play when one day a three-year old child foresaw the young Cuthbert’s saintly destiny. Upon witnessing the eight year old Cuthbert’s foolish behavior the lad proclaimed, “O holy bishop and priest Cuthbert, these unseemly stunts in order to show off your athletic ability do not become you or the dignity of your office.” Cuthbert did not fully understand the prophetic words but accepted them and amended his life in earnest, spending more time in prayer and solitude.
This and other moments seemed to point the way forward. Such as the day Cuthbert, still in his teens, walked along the River Tyne and observed several monks on a raft being dangerously swept out to sea. Cuthbert knelt in prayer until a strong gust of wind pushed the raft safely ashore, the rabble of onlookers wrapped in astonishment.
A few years later, Cuthbert kept watch over his flock at night amid the Lammermuir Hills when suddenly he beheld the vision of a stream of light in the sky, with angels rising to heaven and carrying aloft a globe of fire. No doubt, he thought, the soul of a holy man or bishop is now departing. True, for at that same moment, as he later learned, the holy Bishop Aidan of Lindisfarne had fallen asleep in the Lord.
This revelation stirred Cuthbert and sealed his decision to become a monk. He visited the monastery of Mailros, which lay on a bend in the River Tweed and, like the monastery at Lindisfarne, was based on the Celtic model. Inspired by eastern monasticism and the desert fathers, Celtic monks embraced prayer, simplicity, fasting, and spiritual warfare. They also embraced the surrounding community by evangelizing those who had yet to meet Christ.
At Mailros, there dwelled two who eventually became saints, the abbot Eata and the prior Boisil. Boisil possessed great foresight and, upon seeing Cuthbert for the first time, remarked, “Behold, a servant of the Lord.” Cuthbert excelled at Mailros, being zealous in learning and prayer, remaining ever vigilant and obedient for seven years.
In 659, Eata, now bishop, asked Cuthbert to assist him in establishing a monastery at Ripon. He appointed Cuthbert as guest master, where it is said that Cuthbert once even entertained in the guesthouse an angel of the Lord who was sent to test his devotion.
Cuthbert also accompanied Bishop Eata on missionary journeys meant to encourage the faithful and to preach the Gospel to those still in darkness. Upon entering a town they drew many unto the Lord, speaking against the arcane and profane ways of the past, against amulets, incantations, and assorted superstitions and instead preached faith in Christ.
Despite the growth of Celtic monasticism, there were also monks in the kingdom who followed the practices of Rome. One such monk was St. Wilfrid, who arrived at Ripon in 660 and imposed the Rule of St. Benedict. Eata, Cuthbert, and several other monks preferred to remain under the Celtic rule and thus returned to Mailros.
Soon after Cuthbert’s return to Mailros, Boisil foresaw his own death due to the plague. He asked Cuthbert to spend seven days with him in the study of the Gospel of John. Here, they spoke simply about the scriptures even while Boisil revealed to Cuthbert things to come, including Cuthbert’s appointment as bishop which occurred over twenty years later. After Boisil’s passing, Cuthbert replaced him as the abbot of Mailros.
Now in his thirties, Cuthbert doubled his ascetic efforts in an effort to draw closer to God. He slept very little, prayed often, and sang psalms while working in order to stave off weariness. He continued his missionary journeys as well. One such trip saw him travel to the double monastery of Coldingham upon the request of the Abbess. He visited and opened up to them the path of righteousness, as much by his deeds as by his words. In the evening, Cuthbert descended the cliffs and headed toward the ocean, although not alone. A curious monk followed and observed Cuthbert wadding into the sea until the waves rose up to his neck. He spent the night in vigil, singing praises to the sound of the waves. At dawn, he walked ashore and knelt in prayer, while two otters came from the sea and fell prostrate at his feet, warming and drying them before once again slipping into the sea. Cuthbert then returned to the monastery just in time to begin singing the hymns of Matins. When the monk later confessed to Cuthbert what he witnessed, Cuthbert remarked, “I forgive you for watching on the sole condition that you please tell no one what you witnessed until after my death.”
Cuthbert also displayed remarkable foresight, like the time he journeyed with his attendant who worried aloud that they were without food at such a late hour. “Learn, my dear son,” Cuthbert remarked, “always to have faith and trust in the Lord; for he who serves God faithfully never perishes of hunger.” He then pointed to an eagle and said that it was even possible for such a bird to refresh them if God wills it. Later, as they walked along the river they were met by an eagle who, having caught a large fish from the river, left it at their feet.
In 664, the debate over whether the kingdom would follow Celtic or Roman practices was settled at the Synod of Whitby. The Bishops decided that the church would calculate the date of Easter and perform monastic tonsure in the manner of the Roman practice. Cuthbert, seeking peace and uniformity, encouraged the Celtic monks to accept the decision and won many through his modesty and patience.
In 669, Eata appointed Cuthbert as the Prior of Lindisfarne. Cuthbert taught the monks through his virtuous example, inspiring many with his love for Christ. He often wept during the liturgy and even while hearing confession, thus by his example showing the penitent what they ought to do without having to tell them.
Despite Cuthbert’s modesty, the people recognized him as a wonder worker and genuine holy man. Saint Bede recorded many of these wonders in his biography of Cuthbert. Such as how, through Cuthbert’s prayer a strong wind diverted a fire that was about to burn down a friend’s house. Or how, when a reeve of King Ecgfirth summoned Cuthbert to heal his demon possessed wife, the mere approach of the holy monk caused the demon to flee.
He cured the diseased servant of a nobleman by blessing water and giving it to the servant to drink. The man, whose limbs were deadened, fell asleep only to awake later fully healed. Through his foresight, Cuthbert even predicted the death of King Ecgfirth and indicated who would be his successor.
Yet after such a blameless active life, Cuthbert yearned for the solitary life of divine contemplation. In 676, he retired to the remote island of Inner Farne and built a small cell and guest house. He remained on these stony rocks in near solitude for nine years, often spending whole nights in prayer. When he did receive visitors, he cured them of their afflictions. His very countenance also excited them to a love of virtue. Yet he always remembered the prophetic words of Boisil and knew that he couldn’t remain in solitude forever.
And so it was that in 684, Cuthbert was elected bishop. Letters and messengers were sent to inform him of the synod’s decision, but he refused to leave the island. Only after a visit from the king and bishop begging him in the name of Christ to accept did he submit to the will of the synod. As bishop, Cuthbert remained humble and avoided any excesses in his office. He devoted himself to his diocese, preaching and working wonders among the people.
After two years as bishop, Cuthbert sensed the time of his death approaching. He laid aside his arch pastoral duties and retired to the solitude of his cell on Inner Farne shortly after Christmas in 686. He prepared his flock for their time without him, encouraging them to welcome visitors and offer hospitality, and warning them to avoid heretics. He also encouraged them to learn the teachings of the Fathers and to put them into practice. After passing the evening of March 20th, 687 in prayer, Cuthbert sat up and received Holy Communion for the last time and then surrendered his soul to God. The monks buried his body at Lindisfarne Monastery.
Ten years later, they opened Cuthbert’s tomb and discovered his relics to be incorrupt, a sign of his sanctity. Yet while they knew him to be a fervent intercessor in heaven, his earthly remains were yet to find a final place of rest. Viking invaders destroyed the Lindisfarne monastery a century later save for the tomb of St. Cuthbert. The monks moved his body to sites throughout Northumbria over the next hundred years in order to shield it from invaders, eventually settling in Durham in the late 900s where it rested with many other saints of his time. The tomb was opened again on August 24, 1104, and the incorrupt and fragrant relics were placed in a newly-completed cathedral.
By the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, reports spread about Saint Cuthbert curing nobles and paupers, lay and religious, from across England and Scotland. A collection of treasures is displayed in the museum of Durham Cathedral, including his iconic pectoral cross. Cuthbert’s image and symbols are displayed in the British Isles even today. Many schools are named after him, and several Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant churches have taken him as their patron saint. Because of his love for God’s creation, there is even a species of duck known as the Cuddy Duck named after him.
Saint Cuthbert is not well known outside of the United Kingdom, but those who have heard his story cannot help but be inspired by his love for and dedication to God. Saint Cuthbert provides us the perfect example of a man who took seriously God’s calling and who devoted himself toward the service of God, his flock, and his fellow man.
Video produced by Efstratios Papageorgiou
Written by Christopher Hansard and Michael Gavalas