Cuthbert the monk – the Melrose years: miracles or tricks of the light?

© British Library Board, Yates Thompson MS 26 fols.10v-11r. 
Used by permission.

This is the second 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).

Don’t you think this is an amazing book-illustration, from that British Museum manuscript again only this time across two pages, showing Cuthbert as a boy praying that some monks caught in a storm out at sea would be saved, even though all the locals were jeering at them and complaining that they had changed all their old religious ways, and good riddance to bad rubbish. Well, I’ve heard a few complaints about change in the church in my time, but that was rather extreme, and of course God heard Cuthbert’s prayer, the storm subsided, and they were returned safely home.

After Aidan’s death, Cuthbert felt the urge to join a monastery, but instead of Lindisfarne he chose the more local Melrose, where the saintly Boisil was prior. Here is Boisil welcoming the lad as his servant gets ready to ride home with the horse and spear which he will now no longer need.

© British Library Board, Yates Thompson MS 26 fol. 16r. 
Used by permission.

Cuthbert being Cuthbert and God being God, the miracles didn’t stop happening. As Bede put it: “Inside the monastery the man of God performed more and more signs and wonders, and his reputation kept pace.” He didn’t just stay in the monastery though: he spent much time visiting the people on its estates. Take a look at these two illustrations:

© British Library Board, Yates Thompson MS 26 fols. 30r &31v . 
Used by permission.

They are nearly identical. But in fact they are fundamentally different, only you need the discerning eye of faith to tell the difference. Both buildings are on fire, and in both cases the locals are trying to put the fire out, as one would. The fire on the left looks more dangerously, very sparkly. But look more closely and what look like flames are in fact a devil, trying to trick the villagers into panicking and not listening to the saint. But Cuthbert sees through the plot, especially when throwing water at the flames makes no difference:

[Cuthbert] was preaching  the word of life   to a crowd of people in a certain little village, [when] he suddenly foresaw in the spirit that the ancient enemy would be present to hinder the work of salvation, and forthwith he set out to forestall, by his teaching, the snares which he knew would come. For he suddenly broke into the discourse he was giving with warnings of this kind: “Beloved, it is necessary, as often as the mysteries of the Kingdom of Heaven are preached to you, that you should listen with attentive mind and most watchful ear, lest haply the devil, who has a thousand wiles for injuring you, should with vain cares hinder you from hearing about your eternal salvation.” And  with these  words  he once  more  took up the thread of the discourse which he had interrupted, and at once that  most  evil foe, producing  a phantom fire, set  light to a house near by, so that firebrands seemed to be flying all through the village and, fanned by the wind,  their crackling rent the air. Then almost the whole crowd that he was teaching leapt up intending to extinguish the fire, though he  himself kept back a few with outstretched hand: the rest eagerly threw on water, but with all their real water they could not extinguish the false flames, until at the prayers of Cuthbert the man of God, the author of lies was put to flight, carrying with him his phantom fires into the empty air. Seeing this, the crowd, filled with wholesome shame, approaching the man of God again, prayed on bended knees to be forgiven for their fickleness of mind, confessing that they realised that the devil never ceased, even for an hour, from hindering the work of man’s salvation. And he, confirming the weak and inconstant, continued his interrupted discourse on the way of life.

The picture on the right tells a different story. This time the flames are real. Touchingly, it is the very house of his foster-mother Kenswith which is alight.

Cuthbert put out not only phantom fires but even real fires, and ones which many people could not extinguish with cold water from the wells, he put out unaided with his warm streams of tears.  For when, after the manner of the Apostles, he was going through all  parts  in order  to  teach the  way  of salvation,  one  day he entered the house of a certain faithful handmaid of God, whom he was careful to visit very frequently, because he knew she was given to good deeds, and also because she had brought him up from his boyhood’s earliest years and was therefore called mother by him.  Now she had a house in the west  part of the village, and no sooner had Cuthbert the man of God entered it to sow the seed of the word than a house in the eastern quarter of the same village caught fire owing to careless­ ness and began to bum very fiercely. Moreover a great wind arose from the same quarter, which tore away the blazing thatch of the straw roof and carried it far and wide throughout the whole village. The fierce flame kept off those who were engaged in throwing water, and even drove them farther back. Then the said handmaiden of God ran excitedly to the house in which she had received the man of God, entreating him to help by his prayers before her house and the whole village perished together. But he said: “Do not be afraid, mother, be calmer; for this fire, however fierce, will not harm you and yours.” Immediately he went out and cast himself upon the ground in front of the door; and while he was still praying, the winds changed and, blowing from the west, removed all danger of the fire attacking the house which the man of God had entered.  

The devil-defeating and the fire-extinguishing are both pretty miraculous, but the real miracle for me is how Cuthbert was able to tell the difference, to see what was really going on, and keep a firm grip on both natural and supernatural. In my own experience these two things don’t come to us with convenient labels attached, and if we follow St Irenaeus we will say in fact that it is always and necessarily the case that the phenomena can always be understood in either way: in his words we live in the world “as if God was not given”. God is there, but does not force his presence on us. It matters to him that we have faith.

The most striking instance of this for me was relatively recently, some six years ago when I was asked to be acting bishop for another diocese. It would be a tough job to do, and hard on my own senior colleague too who would lose my support. We took ourselves off to St Edmundsbury Cathedral seeking discernment. We separated, and when I reported back to Jean, I said I had seen an inscription, “Feed my sheep”, and I was taking it as a sign to say yes, so we did. The odd thing was that when I went back there, there was no inscription to be seen, but in the Bishop’s Chapel at Ipswich (which I had never seen before) there indeed are the words in the east window above the altar.

It’s the sort of story that makes your average Anglican feel slightly awkward, but I told it to the people there anyway, because it meant so much to me, and I don’t believe in airbrushing the personal and real out of religion. It was also a deep motivator for me to get out into the far corners of the diocese, all the little places, all the sometimes-forgotten clergy, and so some sheep-feeding, and it is for that that they remember me. I was never very good at the system leadership and change management stuff, but fortunately someone followed me in the substantive role who was good at it, and I like to think the sheep-feeding helped prepare them for it.

© British Library Board, Yates Thompson MS 26 fol. 22v. 
Used by permission.

Here is Cuthbert doing the rounds. I’ve long admired his commitment and stamina to this sort of pastoral work that can’t be done by email or even in a car, ever since I worked in Cumbria and found so many little country churches dedicated to him (including one of my own), in places where he must have gone to preach and later confirm. On foot mostly, and on rocky paths like this one, near Derwentwater. 

It was on another such rocky path, though in Midlands, that one final truth about these signs and wonders bore itself in on me. I was giving God a hard time because I felt it was time for a change and no change was on offer, and no sign as to what such a change might be. The word came back, in the form of a thought, no more, that when there was a fork in the road, a real possibility to consider, then I would find a signpost too. But Lord, I carried on, the path is so rocky. So, said my thoughts, you do appear to be wearing boots…  So I want to suggest that for each of us in our own way the signs are there to be seen – but with this proviso, from my experience, that they come when they are needed, to serve God’s glory and God’s purpose not ours. 

You may have noticed that the photo of the rocky path has had some post-processing done to it – one of those programs that makes it look a bit like a watercolour. I enjoy taking pictures, but I also enjoy messing around with them in the modern equivalent of the dark-room, and for me it is often then, when I am literally playing with its light, that I come to see something of its inwardness and message for me. Two quick examples:

Back in 2003 we visited the flagship Harvey Nichols store in Edinburgh – all chrome and glass, with sweeping long escalators. The shot on the left is from their in-store gallery, but it is the one on the right that has been swirled and coloured in Photoshop that really gives the feel of the place.

Then in 2009 we visited Ireland to see friends, and went to visit Slane – you’ll know the name because of the hymn-tune to “Be thou my vision”. There’s a fine and full graveyard there and in it a statue of St Patrick stands tall, overlooking and overseeing the plain beneath. The shot on the left is a fair one of it, but it was when I colorized it with Irish green that for me the brooding sense of the patron saint stood out, and stayed in my mind.

Tricks of the light indeed, but also staying with the light and carrying on looking until I found something to see. In prayer of course we don’t manipulate the light – we allow it to change us.

Giving time matters. On a daily basis I am quite good at as it were remembering to say my prayers – going through morning prayer, remembering those in need – and quite bad at then staying still in the presence of God and letting something deeper happen. Michael Ramsey. So it’s often been at times away like this – even a day is enough – that the connections start to be made, the insights come, the words flow. It’s something you can do this week: look for the spaces between things, and look for what is hiding in the spaces: look, or listen, or ponder, or dream.

And then perhaps like Gerard Manley Hopkins again you will see the plough-down sillion shine.

The Windhover 
To Christ our Lord
I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
    dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
    Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
    As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
    Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird, – the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!

Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
    Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!

   No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
    Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.