Saints of Scotland : Saint Cuthbert

Our series of reflections continues with a reflection on Saint Cuthbert, one of the diocesan saints of St Andrews and Edinburgh. Whilst he is widely associated with the North-East of England, his story is rooted in Scotland. Father Andrew Garden considers the life of the 7th century figure.

Standing at the tomb of St Cuthbert in Durham Cathedral, there is a sense that this is a ‘thin place’, to use the phrase that has so often been applied to St Columba’s Iona. A place where the veil between heaven and earth is ‘thin’, where heavenly light seems to find its way more easily into our hearts; a place where it’s somehow more natural to raise our hearts and minds to God. Those who carried the coffin of St Cuthbert from Lindisfarne, where Cuthbert had been a monk, a hermit and a bishop, must have felt the same. They were known as the Haliwerfolc, the people of the saint, as they carried his coffin with great devotion, encouraged and guided by visions and miracles, until the shrine finally came to its resting place. The current building was eventually constructed more than 400 years after Cuthbert’s death in 693, its architecture a huge and inspiring expression of the effect of this remarkable man, its arches, columns and towers raising our eyes heavenwards, and our hearts with them.

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The window depicting St Cuthbert in the Scots College, Rome. Cuthbert is often seen holding the head of King Oswald. The Northumbrian king’s head was reinterred with the revered saint in Durham Cathedral.

It was in the Lammermuir Hills, to the south of Edinburgh, as he was keeping watch over sheep, that the young Cuthbert had raised his eyes and seen a vision of angels and the soul of St Aidan being carried into heaven. ‘What wonderful things you see, when you take even a short time to look heavenwards,’ Cuthbert had encouraged his fellow shepherds, who had been asleep and had missed the vision. This was the moment that made Cuthbert decide to become a monk. The hills, the sheep, the angels, Cuthbert’s watchfulness at night, all these details of course remind us of the shepherds in the hills near Bethlehem at the beginning of Luke’s gospel. And the pages of the gospels were to become a reality again and again in the life of Cuthbert. St Bede, his biographer, stresses repeatedly that Cuthbert preached above all with the example of his life. His actions made visible the words of the gospel, his life was a living interpretation of the scriptures: viva lectio est vita bonorum.

The sense of wonder at this saint as a living interpretation of the gospels found expression in the beautiful illuminated manuscript known as the Lindisfarne Gospels, created ‘in honour of God and of St Cuthbert’ shortly after Cuthbert’s death, and carried from Lindisfarne together with his coffin. The coffin itself was carved with the symbolic images of the four evangelists (these can be seen in Durham Cathedral today) as if to say, ‘This man showed us the true meaning of the words of the gospels.’ Placed within the coffin was a copy of the Gospel of John, now in the British Library, less dazzling than the illuminations of the Lindisfarne Gospels, but beautiful in a different way, with a clear, simple script. As a monk at Melrose, Cuthbert had spent the last seven days of Boisil’s life, reading through the fourth gospel, meditating, praying and reflecting with his master Boisil (St Boswell). Boisil knew he had only a week to live and Cuthbert had asked him what they could most profitably read in those remaining days. ‘St John the Evangelist,’ was the unequivocal answer. St Bede tells us that they had time to do so and concentrated on the simple things of ‘the faith that works through love’.  Bede takes this phrase from St Paul, a phrase which beautifully sums up the effect of John’s Gospel; contemplation of the truth in a way which transfigures our lives, heavenly light becoming active and present in us, a reflection of the movement of the incarnation: ‘The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.’ Accepting the Word, faith in Him, transforms our lives: ‘To all who did believe in Him he gave the power to become children of God.’ Bede knew that Cuthbert was truly a child of God and that he helped others to that ‘faith which works through love’.

The symbol of St John is of course the eagle and there is a wonderful story of Cuthbert who had gone on a journey to preach the gospel, accompanied by a young lad. They have no food and Cuthbert looks up (raising his eyes heavenwards once again) and notices an eagle high overhead. ‘God can send us food by means of that eagle,’ he says. A short while later they notice the eagle on the ground beside a river close by. ‘Run and see what God has sent,’ Cuthbert tells the youngster. Sure enough the eagle has a fish, which the lad brings to Cuthbert. ‘What! Did you not give God’s servant its share? Cut it in two and give half to the eagle.’ Looking up, raising the heart and mind heavenwards, being fed from above; and learning to view the world, God’s creation, in a heavenly light, seeing as God sees, and respecting and valuing creation accordingly: ‘God saw all that He had made and indeed it was very good.’

Cuthbert shared that vision, consoling, encouraging, exhorting, revealing God’s truth in his ‘teachings and his virtuous example’. The time he spent withdrawn from the world, as a hermit, contemplating heavenly truths, somehow made him more, not less able than others to connect to the lives of ordinary people. He would visit places ‘whose barbarity and squalor daunted other teachers’. People opened their hearts to him, drawn by the truth they recognised in his words and in his face.

Like the columns in Durham Cathedral, Cuthbert encourages us to take time to look up, as he did in the Lammermuir Hills, to raise our hearts and minds to God. He inspires us to find in the gospels the simple things of the ‘faith that works through love’, to strive to make the pages of the gospels a living reality in our lives.

FrAndrew_ChurchFather Andrew Garden is a priest of the archdiocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh, currently serving in the parish of St David’s, Dalkeith. He was ordained from the Scots College in 2013.

Since then he has served parishes in Kilsyth and Falkirk before taking up the posting in Dalkeith in 2016.

Before his studies for the priesthood, Father Andrew taught in Orkney.

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