Over the weekend, we were in Durham, residing at the Castle (!), enjoying the town, and touring the Cathedral. Behind the main altar of the cathedral is a shrine to St. Cuthbert, the humble, gentle monk who served as bishop of Lindisfarne and died there in 687.
The two saints most closely associated with the Holy Island, or Lindisfarne, are Aidan and Cuthbert. One could say that Aidan called Cuthbert to follow the monastic life. One night, when Cuthbert was tending sheep, he had a vision. He saw far in the distance bright lights that he interpreted as angels accompanying a soul to heaven. He later found out that very night Aidan had died — almost as if Aidan had sent out a call to this young man to follow after Aidan in ministering to the people of Northumbria (now parts of Scotland and the north of England).
After living in the great monasteries of Melrose and Ripon, Cuthbert was sent to Lindisfarne as prior. The monks there were not quick to accept him. Some scholars guess that Cuthbert wanted to tighten up aspects of monastic life that had gotten lax since Aidan’s death. Or maybe they just saw him as an Anglo-Saxon outsider. Cuthbert would hold meetings with the monks that would turn contentious and even personal in their attacks. When this happened, Cuthbert would quietly leave the meeting but always return, without comment, for the next one. Gradually he won over the most hard-hearted monk by his humble persistence.
Like Aidan, Cuthbert traveled the countryside ministering to the rural poor, preaching and administering the sacraments. He was generous to all, known as a loving pastor, had a reputation for both healing gifts and gifts of special vision or prophecy.
When he died, he already had quite a following of people from all parts of society. He died as a hermit on an island a few miles away from Lindisfarne. Then began the incredible journey of his earthly remains.
His body was first brought back to Lindisfarne and buried there. The monks had the custom of exhuming the body of their “saints” at the anniversary of death. So on the 11th anniversary, Cuthbert’s coffin was opened. His body was found to be entirely intact, with no decomposition! This, of course, only popularized his relics even more so many pilgrims came to Lindisfarne to be near Cuthbert’s body.
With the Viking invasions of the mid-9th century, the monks carried Cuthbert’s body off the Island all the way to Durham for safety. There a church was built to honor St. Cuthbert.
Later, after the Norman Invasion of 1066, the new rulers, the Normans, decided to put their stamp of power and authority on this northern area of England by building a grand cathedral for Cuthbert’s remains. There his body remains today, after being exhumed at least two more times!
What to make of these stories of bodies exhumed and relics honored?! So foreign in many ways to my Protestant sensibilities! What isn’t foreign is Cuthbert’s humility, sincere faith, gentle pastoral presence and desire to be close to God. What is all too familiar is the way powers and authorities try to use popular religion for their own purposes.
Contrasting the quiet peace of the little church at Lindisfarne with the soaring transepts of the magnificent cathedral of Durham, I can’t help but think Cuthbert would have been happier in the lonely windswept setting where he prayed and served his God.