Commemorated on March 20th
St Cuthbert was born about the year 643 in Northumbria. He spent much of his childhood and early youth as a shepherd but also spent some time in military service. He entered the monastery of Melrose and after some years was sent to Lindisfarne, with the charge of reforming the monastery there. He tackled this difficult task with great patience and love.
“Some of the monks preferred their old way of life to the rule. He overcame these by patience and forbearance, bringing them round little by little through daily example to a better frame of mind. At chapter meetings he was often worn down by bitter insults, but would put an end to the arguments simply by rising and walking out, calm and unruffled. Next day he would give the same people exactly the same admonitions, as though there had been no unpleasantness the previous day. In this way he gradually won their obedience. He was wonderfully patient and unsurpassed for courage in enduring physical or mental hardship. Though overwhelmed by sorrow at these monks’ recalcitrance, he managed to keep a cheerful face. It was clear to everyone that it was the Holy Spirit within giving him strength to smile at attacks from without.”
In 676 he became a hermit on the Farne Islands but nine years later was taken away from his solitude with great reluctance to be made a bishop by Archbishop Theodore.
As a bishop he continued the indefatigable work of travelling (on foot) and teaching that he had done when he was prior of Lindisfarne. After two years he resigned his episcopate and returned to the Farne. He died a year later in 687.
Cuthbert’s life as a hermit fits exactly into pattern shown us by the monks of the Egyptian desert and others throughout the history of the Church, right through to St Seraphim. The depth of prayer gained in solitude brought many people to him, seeking guidance and spiritual and physical healing. Humble and mighty people sought him out and churchmen wanted to draw him into the public life of the Church, thus threatening the source of his holiness.
A famous account of Cuthbert’s struggles in prayer describes him praying at night, standing in the freezing water of the North Sea.
“There followed in his footsteps two little sea-animals, humbly prostrating themselves on the earth, and licking his feet they rolled upon them, wiping them with their skins and warming them with their breath.”
It is tempting to sentimentalise this story and not see the connection between personal holiness and the restoration of the original relationship between human beings and animals. Cuthbert, like so many great saints was “the New Adam, once more at peace with all creation, naming the animals who were once more in right relationship with man.”
The life of a hermit depends on the double conviction that the individual person’s relationship with God is of crucial importance and at the same time all human beings are connected and affected by the actions of the other. As Benedicta Ward puts it: “so that wherever there is that reality which is repentance before God for one, the whole of humanity receives it”.