Cuthbert the bishop: bringing out the composition

© British Library Board, Yates Thompson MS 26 fol. 253v. 
Used by permission.

This is the fourth of four talks I gave at the Seeing the Light retreat earlier this year at Shepherds Dene. Participants visited the Cuthbert sites and were encouraged to take photographs as a way of “seeing” and enabling reflection, with expert input from priest-photographer Steve Radley ( He and I have set up a Facebook page Seeing the Light in Life where such meditative images can be shared, which you are welcome to ask to join (via the page).

Let’s start with a rather glum picture: it’s poor old Cuthbert who’s been summoned from his cell and is being enthusiastically chosen to be a bishop at the Synod of Twyford – Alnmouth as we call it – when he doesn’t feel enthusiastic about it all. The Catch-22 is that the greatest mark of a calling to the episcopate is to want to say no; so yes meant yes, and no meant yes as well, and he was Bishop of Lindisfarne very soon afterwards. The little island where the Synod was held is between two fords as the name Twyford implies and has a later cross on it now to mark the spot. It’s the sort of marginal place – only reachable at low tide like Lindisfarne – that the early Christians of the North so loved.

Here’s Bede account of the Synod:

When no small synod had gathered together, in the presence of the most pious King Ecgfrith beloved of God over which Archbishop Theodore of blessed memory presided, Cuthbert was elected to the bishopric of the church at Lindisfarne with the unanimous consent of all. And when he could by no means be dragged from his place by the many messengers and letters that were sent to him, at length this same king himself, together with the most holy Bishop Trumwine, as well as many other religious and powerful men, sailed to the island; they all knelt down and adjured him in the name of the Lord, with tears and prayers, until at last they drew him, also shedding many tears, from his sweet retirement and led him to the synod. When he had come, in spite of his reluctance he was overcome by the unanimous will of them all and compelled to submit his neck to the yoke of the bishopric. 

Cuthbert did his best to stay in his island, but bishops were lords spiritual, the confidantes of kings and queens, and travelled their dioceses with retinues and robes. Here is Cuthbert visiting Carlisle where the wife of King Ecgfrith was awaiting news of his dangerous Scottish campaign, and being shown the sights by the local worthies – in this case the still-standing Roman walls and well – before dedicating a church. I find it amusingly odd that so many years later bishops are still wearing the same robes, doing the same duties, and getting treated in the same way.

© British Library Board, Yates Thompson MS 26 fol. 55v. 
Used by permission.

But the point of the story is that the campaign was not going well, and Cuthbert knew it. Bede tells us what happened:

Now when King Ecgfrith, rashly daring, had taken an army against the Picts and was devastating their kingdoms with cruel and savage ferocity, Cuthbert the man of God knew that the time was at hand concerning which he had prophesied a year before to the king’s sister, declaring when she asked him that he would not live more than another year. He came therefore to the town of Lugubalia [Carlisle], which the English people corruptly call Luel, to speak to the queen who had arranged to await the issue of the war there in her sister’s monastery. On the next day, while the citizens were conducting him to see the walls of the city and a marvellously constructed fountain of Roman workmanship, he was suddenly troubled in spirit, and as he stood leaning on his staff he turned his face sadly towards the ground; and again, standing upright and lifting his eyes towards heaven, he sighed deeply and said in a low voice: “Perhaps even now the issue of the battle is decided.” … immediately went to the queen, and secretly addressing her, it being Saturday, said: “See that you mount your chariot early on Monday—for it is not lawful to travel by chariot on the Lord’s Day—and go and enter the royal city quickly, lest perchance the king has been slain. But since I have been asked to go to-morrow to a neighbouring monastery to dedicate a church there, I will follow you at once, as soon as the dedication is completed.” And it was proved that on the very day and at the very hour when it was revealed to the man of God, standing by the fountain, the king was laid low by the sword of the enemy and his bodyguard slain around him.

© British Library Board, Yates Thompson MS 26 fol. 60r. 
Used by permission.

Amidst all this high-powered attention to the complicated power-brokers and politics of Northumbria, Cuthbert thankfully kept the common touch, and still made time to visit the local villages, so that Bede can also write:

While according to his custom he was going through all the villages teaching, he came to a certain village in which there were a few nuns to whom he, the man of God, had a short time before given a place of abode in that village, when they had fled from their own monastery through fear of the barbarian army. One of these, a kinswoman of the same priest Aethilwald, was afflicted by a very severe illness; for all through the year she had been troubled with an intolerable pain in the head and in the whole of one side, and had been entirely given up by the physicians. When those who had come with him told the man of God about her and prayed for her restoration, he had pity on her and anointed the wretched woman with holy oil. She began to get better from that very hour and after a few days was restored to complete health.

Cuthbert’s own health, though, was beginning to suffer, and after only two years he stepped down from active duties and retired to his cell on Farne. Now it would be his prayers that would minister to the region he had come to have so much in his heart.

So, having spent two years in episcopal rule, Cuthbert the man of God, knowing in his spirit that the day of his departure was at hand, threw aside the burden of his pastoral care and determined to return to the strife of a hermit’s life which he loved so well, and that as soon as possible, so that the flame of his old contrition might consume more easily the implanted thorns of worldly cares.

The end was not far away, and Bede – careful historian that he was – worked out that the Abbot of Lindisfarne at the time he was writing (a priest called Herefrith) was closely involved in what must have a carefully-planned response, rather like the plans for what happens when our present Queen passes away, when a secret code phrase “London Bridge is down” will launch mourning and memorials across the country. Oh whoops, I appear to have told you a state secret – but as it’s appeared in the national press I’ll probably escape the Tower. So Bede asked Herefrith to write up the story for him and quotes it verbatim:

© British Library Board, Yates Thompson MS 26 fol. 74v. 
Used by permission.

“I entered in to him about the ninth hour of the day and I found him lying in a corner of his oratory, opposite to the altar; so I sat down by him. He did not say much because the weight of his affliction had lessened his power of speech. But when I asked him very earnestly what words he would bequeath and what last farewell he would leave the brethren, he began to utter a few weighty words about peace and humility, and about being on our guard against those who would rather fight such things than delight in them. He said: ‘Always keep peace and divine charity amongst yourselves; and when necessity compels you to take counsel about your affairs, see to it most earnestly that you are unanimous in your counsels.  when the accustomed time of nightly prayer arrived, he received from me the sacraments of salvation and fortified himself for his death, which he knew had now come, by the communion of the Lord’s body and blood; and, raising his eyes to heaven and stretching out his hands aloft, he sent forth his spirit in the very act of praising God to the joys of the heavenly Kingdom.” I immediately went out and announced his death to the brethren who had passed the night in watching and prayers. Without delay one of them ran out and lit two torches: and holding one in each hand, he went on to some higher ground to show the brethren who were in the Lindisfarne monastery that his holy soul had gone to be with the Lord: for this was the sign they had agreed upon amongst themselves to notify his most holy death. We placed the body of the venerable father on the ship, and bore it to the island of Lindisfarne. It was received by a great company who came to meet it and by choirs of singers, and placed in a stone sarcophagus in the church of the blessed apostle Peter on the right side of the altar.” 

© British Library Board, Yates Thompson MS 26 fol. 77v. 
Used by permission.

The monks were obviously showing due respect to the man who had been their Prior, their Bishop, and the most famous of their number for many years. But there was more at stake than that. Cuthbert’s ministry and miracles, prophecies and prayers while he was alive had sustained his people. As a saint-in-the-making he would continue to do the same in his death. So Bede records the continuing miracles at his tomb – more than enough to ensure canonisation if the present system had been in place – and then, Bede says, God

put it into the hearts of the brethren, eleven years after his burial, to take his bones—which they expected to find quite dry, the rest of the body, as is usual with the dead, having decayed away and turned to dust—and to put them in a light chest in the same place, but above the floor, so that they might be worthily venerated. When they reported their decision to Eadberht their bishop, about the middle of Lent, he consented to their plan and ordered them that they should remember to do it on the day of his burial, which is the 20th of March. They did so; and opening the sepulchre, they found the body intact and whole, as if it were still alive, and the joints of the limbs flexible, and much more like a sleeping than a dead man. Moreover all his garments, in which he had been clothed, were not only undefiled but seemed to be perfectly new and wondrously bright. When they saw this, they were struck with great fear and trembling, so that they hardly dared to say anything or even to look upon the miracle which was revealed, and scarcely knew what to do.

No way was this a sudden whim, and no way did the monks not know what to do. It was the surely the culmination of a carefully planned campaign to give glory to God, St Cuthbert and the community at Lindisfarne, with all the benefits that would bring.

But the practical and the spiritual go together – I said it myself – and if the growing wealth of Lindisfarne laid it wide open to Viking attack, the growing influence of Cuthbert provided not just them but the whole region with a rallying-point in time of trouble, so that not only the Lindisfarne community but the whole populace became known as the Hailwerfolc–  the people of the holy man, the eider ducks that Cuthbert loved are still known as Cuddy’s ducks, and a visit to Durham shows that Cuthbert and his cross are still unmissable today. 

Public domain

More subtly and more beautifully, when the Cuthbert community produced what we now call the Lindisfarne Gospels a few years later, they very consciously sought to bring together the whole range of religious, artistic and linguistic influences that had helped form Northumbria, carrying on Cuthbert’s work of composing a rich unity from their diversity. It’s a project that still has work to be done on it all these centuries later.

Our photography too can be a powerful way of bringing out the balance and harmony in what is around us. There is all the difference in the world between a simple image of record and one that looks, and then sees, and then composes in such a way that the inherent pattern and beauty of the scene is brought out – whether that is in the cloisters at Durham Cathedral, where I walked on sabbatical as I prepared for a new phase of ministry and life ahead, or in the secular cathedral of King’s Cross station, where three crosses for the king stood out for me one Lent against a Lenten array of purple light.

So as I end these talks, glory be to God for dappled things, for the way in which across the ages and across the divides, all can join together in one hymn of praise.

Pied Beauty  
Glory be to God for dappled things – 
   For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow; 
      For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim; 
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings; 
   Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough; 
     And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim. 

All things counter, original, spare, strange; 
   Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?) 
      With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim; 
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change: 
                                Praise him.