Cuthbert the child: looking and seeing

Cuthbert the child: looking and seeing
© British Library Board, Yates Thompson MS 26 fol. 26r.
Used by permission.

This is the first 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 me take you back in your mind’s eye to the middle of the seventh century and the time of St Cuthbert. Here he is in one of the wonderful pictures from an illuminated copy of his life in the British Museum, calming the fears of his companions as they sail the dangerous waters of the North Sea. I keep it as the lock screen picture on my phone and this lovely sculpture of it, as favourite present from Jean, is by my elbow in my study. I am rather good at turning the daily waves of life into rolling breakers, so pray for us St Cuthbert, now and in the day of our departing.

The British Isles then were still a patchwork of independent kingdoms, some going back to before the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons, some founded by them; and the northernmost of those new kingdoms is known to us now as Northumbria. which at its largest included much of the Scottish lowlands to the north and our Lancashire and Yorkshire to the south, including the old Cumbric kingdom of Elmet in our West Riding.

Needless to say, not only was Northumbria constantly at war with its neighbours, it was also internally divided, with rival rulers from north and south of the Tees bidding for power. It’s still a tense time when the Middlesburgh’s Boro Town face a Tees-Wear derby at Sunderland’s Stadium of Light. Since I was born in Sunderland my allegiance is clear – come on you Mackems – and I take comfort that Cuthbert’s territory is firmly on my side of the river, along with that of Bede and all the greatest northern saints, with only Wilfrid giving them a serious run for their money from the south, and he for my taste was far too fond of bling to be a favourite.

We do though have to look well to the north of Wearside to find Cuthbert’s stamping ground. His early life is lost in legend, but the earliest lives of him suggest he was born near Melrose, and brought up there by a holy foster-mother called Kenswith. Fostering wasn’t always a sign of poverty – noble families regularly posted off their children in this way, perhaps to toughen them up. We do find Cuthbert out watching over the sheep by night, which doesn’t sound so aristocratic, but think King David; and he does have a horse and spear to hand in true Borders style, in a way that suggests a certain position in society, as do his ease in the company of nobility and election as bishop. I’ll speculate that he lost his thane-class parents as a result of one of the many battles or plagues of the time, and was as it were put out to grass to grow up quietly and see what would happen.

You can’t, however, keep a good man down, and the very first episode Bede records about him, which was recounted by a later bishop no less, tells how as a boy he both excelled at boyish things and also betrayed the signs of greater things to come:

He amused himself with noisy games, and further, as was natural at his age, he loved to be in the company of children and delighted to join in their play.  And because he was agile by nature  and  quick-witted, he very often used to prevail over his rivals in play, so that sometimes, when the rest were tired, he, being still untired, would triumphantly look round to see whether any  of them were willing to contend with him again. … For when he was a child he understood as a child, he thought as a child; but after he became a man, he put away childish things entirely. And indeed, the divine providence at first deigned to check the exuberance of his childish mind by means of a fitting teacher. For Bishop Trumwine of blessed memory used to relate what had been told him by Cuthbert himself, how on a certain day, a large crowd of boys in a field were engaged in the usual contests and he himself was present: in accordance with the usual thoughtlessness of children at play, most of them were twisting their limbs into various unnatural contortions, when suddenly one of the little ones, apparently hardly three years old, runs up to him and begins to exhort him with the gravity of an old man not to indulge in idle games but rather steadfastly to control both mind and limbs. When Cuthbert scorns his warnings, he throws himself on the ground, wailing and bedewing his face with tears. The rest run up to him to console him, but he persists in his weeping. They ask him what is the reason why he is suddenly overcome with such grief. But when Cuthbert begins to console him, he exclaims at length: “Why, O Cuthbert, most holy bishop and priest, do you do these things so contrary to your nature and your rank?  It is not fitting for you to play among children when the Lord has consecrated you to be a teacher of virtue even to your elders.” 

This is about more than being a natural leader, though. What Bede is doing is preparing us to see Cuthbert as one on whom God’s Spirit is resting, who is living out God’s Word, and who lives in the borders not just between Anglo-Saxons and Picts but between the things of earth and the things of heaven. Just as the little child sees more than there was to naturally see, so too Cuthbert starts to see and be caught up in what God is doing, if we can put it that way – whether in experiencing angelic presences and miracles, or seeing what is happening in the spiritual realm. So when the great saint Aidan dies, Cuthbert is far away in his Melrose fields, but sees something in the light of the night sky that tells him of Aidan’s passing:

Now when Christ, whose grace is the guide of the life of the faithful, wished his servant to subject himself to the power   of a more rigorous dispensation, and to earn the glory of a greater reward, it happened that he was keeping the flocks committed to his care on some distant mountains. On a certain night while his companions were sleeping, he himself was keeping watch and praying according to his custom, when he suddenly saw a stream of light from the sky breaking in upon the darkness of the long night. In the midst of this, the choir of the heavenly host descended to the earth, and taking with them, without delay, a soul of exceeding brightness, returned to their heavenly home.  …   And in  the  morning,  learning  that  Aidan, bishop of  the  church at  Lindisfarne,  a man  of  specially great virtue,  had  entered the Kingdom  of Heaven  at  the very  time when  he had  seen him  taken from  the body,  Cuthbert forth­ with delivered to their owners the sheep which he was tending and decided to seek a monastery.

“Pools of light” was David Adams’ phrase for these moments of spiritual sight. Bede is obviously marking Cuthbert’s card as a saint in the making, who experiences such moments and sees such sights on a regular basis. Does that mean they are only for saints? I think not. The things of the Spirit were opened at Pentecost to all the people of God, and if the spiritual realm is a reality, it is a reality for all of us, whether we perceive or not. Perhaps it is just – well not just, it’s not trivial; perhaps it’s just simply – well not simply, because these things are profound; perhaps it is let’s say about the difference between lookingand seeing, which is something we know well, and something we all experience, but also something most of us manage to pass by from on the other side for most of the time.

Cameras and eyes work differently here. The camera simply records what it is front of it. The eye not only receives the sense impressions, it attends to them, focussing in on what seems important to us, adding layers of interpretation to it both in terms of simple things like edge and pattern recognition and in the more complex processing of recognising people and places, feeding back into the picture data already stored and layers of significance, so that we see more than we see – a nightmare of course for witnesses being cross-examined in court, but at the heart of what it is to interact as a human with the world. 

And more. I think we are all likely to be able to remember times when this seeing that is layered on top of our looking seemed to have a special quality to it. Suddenly, we say, I saw … Was it just a trick of the light (we’ll come back to that tomorrow), or did we indeed see through the sensation of the sight in front of us to something of the deeper meaning that we must presume all things have if they are of God. 

Bede tells us how an old priest priest named Ingwald, a monk of Wearmouth, heard about some of these miracles from Cuthbert himself, when was then a bishop; and that this Ingwald now, thanks to a lengthy old age, no longer with carnal eyes gazed on things earthly, but rather, with a pure heart, contemplated things heavenly.

But why wait until extreme old age? A retreat like this gives us the opportunity, if we will take it, to take the advice of Simon and Garfunkel and slow down, because we’re moving too fast, and it’s about time we made the moments last; took time not just to look but to see – first with our eyes, and then perhaps with our cameras too.

Jean is much better at noticing like this than I am. I tend to be rather too absorbed in my own thoughts – but perhaps that means that when I do stop and look, I am often very moved by what I see, be it another person, known or unknown, with all the mystery and majesty of their own self and their own story just hidden from my view, like this acquaintance  of mine, a Zoroastrian millionaire – really – with a taste for fine clothes and vehicles who just happened to stop outside a shop that perfectly captured his character:

or the pattern or beauty of a fragment of nature, suddenly framing itself in front of me – like these trees at the side of the Wear in Durham. Amazingly this is just as I and the camera saw it:

A poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins that I have loved since boyhood captures the sense that there, just beneath the surface of our ordinary reality, is the grandeur of God, if we can but glimpse it.

God’s Grandeur  

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
    It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
    It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
    And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
    And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
    There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
    Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
    World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.