The most popular saint of the pre-Conquest English Church, Cuthbert was born of a fairly well-to-do Anglo-Saxon family about the year 625. Bede the Venerable, whose Life of Cuthbert provides most of what we know about the saint, writes that when Cuthbert was away in the hills looking after a flock of sheep, one night after his companions had gone to sleep he was keep watching and praying, he suddenly saw “light streaming from the skies, breaking the long night’s darkness, and the choirs of the heavenly host coming down to earth. They quickly took into their ranks a human soul, marvelously bright, and returned to their home above.” Cuthbert was instantly moved by this vision to give himself to spiritual discipline, and began thanking God and exhorting his companions to praise God as well. The next day, on hearing that Bishop Aidan of Lindisfarne had died, Cuthbert committed himself to the monastic life.
Cuthbert entered Melrose Abbey in 651 and was trained in the austere ways of Celtic monasticism. With the abbot Eata he moved to Ripon to start a monastery on estates given by King Oswiu’s son Alcfrith, but Alcfrith insisted on the adoption of Roman customs, and the Melrose monks retired. Cuthbert became prior of Melrose around 661, and during the next few years he undertook missionary journeys of the neighboring lands, preaching the Gospel to those who had gone astray. Bede writes that “such was his skill in teaching, such his power of driving his lessons home, and so gloriously did his angelic countenance shine forth, that none dared keep back from him even the closest secrets of their heart.” Cuthbert “made a point of searching out those steep rugged places in the hills which other preachers dreaded to visit because of their poverty and squalor. This, to him, was a labor of love. He was so keen to preach that sometimes he would be away for a whole week or a fortnight, or even a month, living with the rough hill folk, preaching and calling them heavenwards by his example.”
After the Synod of Whitby in 663 and 664, he submitted to the synod’s decision and adopted Roman customs. At Eata’s direction, he became prior at Lindisfarne, where by his patient persistence he won the monks from Celtic customs to those decided upon at Whitby, becoming a focus of unity for the Church in northern England at a time when its customs were being brought into conformity with those of Rome and the rest of the Western Church. His zeal for prayer was such that sometimes he would keep vigil for three or four nights at a stretch, driving away the heaviness of sleep by doing manual work or by walking about the island, inquiring how everything was getting on. A diligent pastor, Bede writes that “his thirst for righteousness made him quick to reprove wrong-doers, but his gentleness made him speedy to forgive penitents. Often as they were pouring out their sins he would be the first to burst into tears, tears of sympathy with their weakness, and, though he had no need, would show them how to make up for their sins by doing the penance himself.”
Cuthbert lived as a hermit on a little island adjacent to Lindisfarne, cut off from the main island at high tide, and in 676 he relinquished the office of prior, withdrawing to Inner Farne, in order to live in almost complete solitude. By 685, his holiness and other qualities had become so widely known that King Egfrith of Northumbria and Archbishop Theodore of Canterbury chose him as bishop of Hexham. Almost immediately, he exchanged this see with (now Bishop) Eata for that of Lindisfarne. Once again, his pastoral and missionary zeal was expressed in preaching, teaching, and visiting his diocese, and he was also reputed to have the charisms of prophecy and of healing.
He died on Inner Farne on March 20, 687 and was buried at Lindisfarne. Eleven years later, when his body was elevated to a new shrine, its incorruption was discovered, and from that time onwards it was the object of special veneration. After the Danes destroyed Lindisfarne in 875, several members of its monastic community traveled around northern England and southwestern Scotland with the shrine and relics, seeking a safe home for them. Resting for some years in Norham-on-Tweed, Ripon, and Chester-le-Street, their eventual home was Durham, which they reached in 995. A Saxon church was built over the shrine, and the saint’s relics were translated into it in 999. His shrine remains a prominent part of Durham Cathedral to this day.
prepared from The Oxford Dictionary of Saints,
Lesser Feasts and Fasts (1980),
and The Life of Cuthbert (Bede the Venerable, trans. J.F. Webb, Penguin Books)
Almighty God, you called Cuthbert from following the flock to be a shepherd of your people: Mercifully grant that, as he sought in dangerous and remote places those who had erred and strayed from your ways, so we may seek the indifferent and the lost, and lead them back to you; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
The propers for the commemoration of Cuthbert, Bishop of Lindisfarne, are published on the Lectionary Page website.
The icon of Saint Cuthbert was written by and is © Aidan Hart, and is reproduced here with his generous permission.
Because in this sanctoral calendar, the commemoration of Thomas Ken, Bishop of Bath and Wells, falls on March 20, Cuthbert is commemorated on the date of the translation of his relics, September 4. This date is provided as an alternative for his commemoration in the sanctoral calendar of the Church of England as well.