Cuthbert the prior: Lindisfarne and longing for a long exposure

© British Library Board, Yates Thompson MS 26 fol. 35v. 
Used by permission.

This is the third 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).

Bede tells us that after 

many years in the monastery at Melrose [where he] had distinguished himself by the many signs of his spiritual powers, Cuthbert’s most reverend abbot Eata transferred him to the monastery which is situated in the island of Lindisfarne, in order that there also he might both teach the rule of monastic perfection by his authority as prior and illustrate it by the example of his virtue; for the same most reverend father ruled this place also as abbot at that time. 

So there he is in the picture, teaching the monks in the Chapter House at Lindisfarne.

The miracles and walkabouts continued, but it seems the brethren themselves weren’t always impressed. Well, just look at their faces… The heart of the problem was that these were the years just after the Synod of Whitby, and while Cuthbert was keen – and probably under orders – to establish the proper Roman Benedictine rule (you’ll notice the monks all have Roman tonsures), the older brethren who had been brought up in Celtic ways and probably in a laxer lifestyle too, were not so keen. Bede again:

Now there were certain brethren in the monastery who preferred to conform to their older usage rather than to the monastic rule. Nevertheless he overcame these by his modest virtue and his patience, and by daily effort he gradually converted them to a better state of mind. In fact very often during debates in the chapter of the brethren concerning the rule, when he was assailed by the bitter insults of his opponents, he would rise up suddenly and with calm mind and countenance would go out, thus dissolving the chapter, but none the less on the following day, as if he had suffered no repulse the day before, he would give the same instruction as before to the same audience until, as we have said, he gradually converted them to the things that he desired. 

He seems to have had better luck in bringing back the same issues time and again than Mrs May had with her Brexit deal. But it clearly took a toll. At first he balanced it out with long night walks and vigils, reciting the psalter which by now he knew by heart. But he longed for to be able to spend longer with God, for a longer exposure we might say. And, Bede tells us, his abbot eventually granted his request, so that

after he had completed many years in that same monastery, he joyfully entered into the remote solitudes which he had long desired, sought, and prayed for, with the good will of that same abbot and also of the brethren. For he rejoiced because, after a long and blameless active life, he was now held worthy to rise to the repose of divine contemplation. He rejoiced to attain to the lot of those concerning whom the Psalmist sings: “The saints shall go from strength to strength; the God of Gods shall be seen in Zion.” Now indeed at the first beginning of his solitary life, he retired to a certain place in the outer precincts of the monastery which seemed to be more secluded. But when he had fought there in solitude for some time with the invisible enemy, by prayer and fasting, he sought a place of combat farther and more remote from mankind, aiming at greater things. There is an island called Fame in the middle of the sea which is not like the Lindisfarne region—for that owing to the flow of the ocean tide, called in Greek “rheuma”, twice a day becomes an island and twice a day, when the tide ebbs from the uncovered shores, becomes again contiguous to the land; but it is some miles away to the south-east of this half-island, and is shut in on the landward side by very deep water and on the seaward side by the boundless ocean. No one had been able to dwell alone undisturbed upon this island before Cuthbert the servant of the Lord, on account of the phantoms of demons who dwelt there; but when the soldier of Christ entered, armed with the “helmet of salvation, the shield of faith, and the sword of the spirit which is the word of God, all the fiery darts of the wicked one” were quenched, and the wicked foe himself was driven far away together with the whole crowd of his satellites. This soldier of Christ, as soon as he had become monarch of the land he had entered and had overcome the army of the usurpers, built a city fitted for his rule, and in it houses equally suited to the city. It is a structure almost round in plan, measuring about four or five poles from wall to wall; the wall itself on the outside is higher than a man standing upright; but inside he made it much higher by cutting away the living rock, so that the pious inhabitant could see nothing except the sky from his dwelling, thus restraining both the lust of the eyes and of the thoughts and lifting the whole bent of his mind to higher things. He made this same wall, not of cut stone nor of bricks and mortar, but just of unworked stone and of turf which he had removed from the excavation in the middle of his dwelling. Some of these stones were so great that it would seem to have been scarcely possible for four men to have lifted them, but nevertheless he was found to have brought them thither from elsewhere with angelic aid, and to have placed them in the wall. He had two buildings in his dwelling-place, namely an oratory and another habitation suitable for common uses. He finished the walls by digging and cutting away the natural soil both inside and outside, and he placed on them roofs of rough-hewn timber and straw. But away at the landing-place in the island there was a larger house in which the brethren who visited him could be received and rest, and not far away was a well for their use. 

© British Library Board, Yates Thompson MS 26 fols 39r,44r, 45r. 
Used by permission.

This is a very precious account not only of Cuthbert’s journey into solitude, with the reminder that this was no easy option but opened the door to another sort of deeper spiritual struggle; it is also a rare account of the practical arrangements that were needed (and of the sort of structure such a hermitage would be, much in the Celtic tradition despite the new Roman rule, which probably went down well with those scary older brothers). Being a saint, Cuthbert could of course expect to have the occasional angel to come and lend a hand with the building work; and when the local ravens decided to help themselves to the straw from his roof to furnish their own nests, they accepted his reprimand and returned penitently with a useful lump of lard for the monks to use as dubbin on their boots.

The monks weren’t always as on the ball as they should be, and the third picture shows them looking on in amazement and abashment as the sea throws up a long piece of timber for Cuthbert to use, which they had promised to bring but promptly forgotten. The British Library notes say it was a roof-beam for Cuthbert’s church, but Bede was more practical: the key thing you need to know is that the monastic work for a loo was a necessariumso listen out for the word necessaryand draw the obvious conclusion: 

Not only the creatures of the air but also of the sea, yes, and even the sea itself, as well as air and fire as we have shown above, did honour to the venerable man. For if a man faithfully and wholeheartedly serves the maker of all created things, it is no wonder though all creation should minister to his com- mands and wishes. But for the most part we lose dominion over the creation which was made subject to us, because we ourselves neglect to serve the Lord and Creator of all things. The very sea, I say, was ready to do service to the servant of Christ when he needed it. For he was intending to build a hut in his monastery, very small but suited for his daily needs; it was to be on the seaward side where the hollowing out of a rock by the washings of continual tides had made a very deep and wide gap; a flooring had to be placed under the hut, and this had to be twelve feet long so as to fit the width of the gap. So he asked the brethren who had come to visit him, that when they were returning, they would bring with them some timber twelve feet long, to make a flooring for his little house. They promised gladly to do what he asked. But after they had received his blessing and returned home, the father’s request escaped their mind; and when they returned to him on the appointed day, they did not bring what they had been asked for. When he had received them most kindly and had com- mended them to God with his accustomed prayer, he said: “Where is the timber that I asked you to bring?” Then they remembered his petition and, confessing their forgetfulness, they craved pardon for their trespass. But the kindly man consoled them with gentle words and bade them remain on the island until morning and rest, for he said: “I believe that God will not forget my desire and my needs.” They did as he had said and rising up in the morning, they saw that the night tide had carried up some timber of the required length, and had placed it over the very spot whereon it was to be set for the building. As soon as they saw this, they marvelled at the holiness of the venerable man for whom even the elements did service; and with fitting shame they blamed their slothful minds, for even the insensible elements taught them what obedience ought to be shown to saints.

I love the way in which spirituality and practicality are combined. A fully Christian view of what a person is and how the world is combines the two in a thorough-going way, and in that sense a “retreat” is never about running away from things but usually involves confronting them – but hopefully seeing them transformed as well. Perhaps we should call them “advances” instead.

Taking time opens up new possibilities in photography as well, whether it is taking the time to choose just the best time or best angle or best light for a particular shot, or extending the time of the exposure to bring out aspects of a moving, living scene that are hidden in a normal still. So in the montage here we can see all the paths of the sun throughout a year collapsed into one single view; the movement of water in a river scene made visible; or a whole game of snooker captured in a single picture (all from where there are full attributions and CC licence details).

I haven’t as yet experimented much with long exposures, and since I often rely on my iPhone I’m rather limited in what I can do, but here to finish are three of my own pictures which were about timing in other ways. 

The first dates from my first visit to the new Great Court at the British Museum, roofing over the old open space round the famous Reading Room where I once used to study. The quality of the space, the form and the light is exceptional, and I stood and waited to try and catch a moment which spoke of something of that, but also added a touch a drama, since I realised that the scene was so bright that if I exposed for the architecture the people would become silhouettes. If only I had waited a little longer until the couple in the middle had moved leaving just the outer figures having their Brief Encounter-like moment. But I’d already waited a long time and more people just kept coming into shot, so this had to do. I wonder what stories were really being lived out?

The second is a scene from inside Carlisle Cathedral – the Regimental Chapel – which I passed by daily for six years or so when I was a Canon there. But it was only on one day that the light was suddenly right, and so I rushed back home – happily we only lived next door – and took the shot you can see, which somehow brings out, for me at least, the sense of faded glory and wistful remembrance that marks such a place.

Finally, a grab shot from Florence, with – it is Italy of course – a couple of rather pretty police officers to catch the eye, but then also two very large pistols, and a hub-bub of tourists and traders around them, which made it a stand-out shot for me that caught the Florentine flavour. A moment either way and it would have gone.

So to go back to our prayers, as you try to not just look but see, as you try to see not just the tricks of the light but what the light is doing, keep an eye on the timing as well; take time, and see what you can see.  

Gerard Manley Hopkins has a poem which starts off with a glimpsed moment of a kingfisher or dragonfly in flight, but goes on to invite us all to live out the God-given grace of who we are, and glimpse that beauty too.

As Kingfishers Catch Fire
As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame; 
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells 
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s 
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name; 
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same: 
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells; 
Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells, 
Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came. 

I say móre: the just man justices; 
Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces; 
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is — 
Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places, 
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his 
To the Father through the features of men’s faces