In the footsteps of St Cuthbert

Posted in Blog, Christianity

Although we hadn’t intended it, a holiday Sheila and I enjoyed at the end of May and the beginning of June turned into something of pilgrimage in the footsteps of St Cuthbert. But we didn’t do it in the right order! On a sunny day we took a walk along the east bank of the Leader Water which flows into the river Tweed, near Melrose. Here, as a boy, Cuthbert guarded sheep before entering the Abbey at Melrose in 651, which we also visited. Later he became, first a hermit, then – reluctantly on his part – Bishop of Lindisfarne which we had visited earlier, being careful to arrive at the causeway when the tide was right.

In his Life of Cuthbert, Bede portrays Cuthbert as a humble, kindly man who made friends with the poor and had no fear of authority. In those days people – even kings – were in awe of ‘holy men’. Cuthbert also seems to have had a sense of the wonder and goodness of creation. He seems genuinely to have loved people for themselves and demonstrated that God loved them too.

When he died on the Outer Farne, near Lindisfarne, in 687, his monks honoured him and his remains. When the Vikings invaded the region in the late eighth century, Cuthbert’s community took his body away from Lindisfarne, along with the Lindisfarne Gospels and other precious items. Eventually, after much journeying, they made a permanent home for him in Durham. A small church was built, and then another replaced it. In 1093 the Normans, the new rulers of England, began the third church, the magnificent Durham cathedral, situated dramatically high above the banks of the River Wear, which we visited later on our holiday, taking the opportunity also to view the tomb of Cuthbert’s biographer, Bede.

The climax of any pilgrim’s visit to Durham is to see the shrine of St Cuthbert at the top of steps in the Chapel of the Nine Altars. In medieval times the remains of the Saint inside the coffin were seen as a tangible link with paradise. Cuthbert was in heaven but his body was here on earth. The material remains were a sign of the heavenly reality. In the Middle Ages pilgrims came to Cuthbert from all over England and northern Europe. Now they come, whether they think of themselves as pilgrims or tourists, from all over the world.

I took the picture you see in the Church of St Mary the Virgin which was built on the site of the monastery on Lindisfarne founded by Aidan, the first bishop of the island. Called The Journey it is a dramatic sculpture in elm by Fenwick Lawson showing six monks taking Cuthbert’s coffin from the church on the long journey which eventually ended in Durham cathedral.

Each of our lives is something of a pilgrimage – a journey of faith into a deeper understanding of truth. Even though our pilgrimage in the north of England and Scotland was muddled, because we stumbled into it and did it in the wrong order, it told us a story which enhanced our understanding. Our lives themselves also tell stories even if they may not be as vividly remembered as Cuthbert’s is over a thousand years after his death. But if they are stories which reflect something of the life and example of Christ – and his best loved followers – they will be stories worth telling.