This calendar of saints is drawn from several denominations, sects, and traditions. Although it will no longer be updated daily, the index on the right will guide visitors to a saint celebrated on any day they choose. Additional saints will be added as they present themselves to Major.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

March 20 -- Feast of St. Cuthbert

St. Cuthbert was a seventh century monk born. Inspired by a vision of St. Aidan of Lindisfarne entering heaven, Cuthbert entered monastic life at age seventeen. He was above all dutiful, but the times were tumultuous and his inclination was solitary. That's a poor mix for getting what you want out of life, and that's where the dutiful comes in. I'd mention that the career of his corpse makes a better story than his biography, but I'd be getting ahead of myself.

He chose to enter the monastery at Melrose instead of Lindisfarne because he knew and admired the prior, Boisil. Boisil put in a good word with Abbot Eata, and things worked well. Cuthbert was such a good monk that he was part of a team establishing a new monastery at Ripon, where he served as guestmaster. That's a pretty gregarious job for a monk, if you think about it, but he apparently did well.

I've mentioned the Synod of Whitby in other posts. This is where they debated the Celtic Rite traditions (tonsure, calculating Easter) versus the Roman Rite traditions. Rome prevailed at the synod, so Eata withdrew all his monks to Melrose where they could continue to cut their hair the right way and celebrate Easter on the right day.

Boisil and Cuthbert both caught the Plague. Probably a lot of other monks did too, but they aren't as significant in this story. When Cuthbert recovered, he was appointed Prior; the job was vacant because Boisil didn't recover. Then Eata became Abbot of Lindisfarne, the big monastery in the area, and induced Cuthbert to become prior there.

Monks and ambition don't mix well. For most of us, the idea of advancing one's career seems attractive. As prior, he'd have more opportunity to see that things were done according to his directions and preferences. He'd have more opportunity to meet people and even travel freely. He'd have privileges denied to monks without special duties and titles. But none of this interests men who have deliberately withdrawn from the world in order to improve their spiritual health. Work, study, prayer -- that's their choice. So for Cuthbert, rising to Prior of Lindisfarne was a sacrifice.

After twelve years, he was allowed to withdraw to a small island where he could live and pray in isolation. He even built a cell with the window so high that he could not be distracted by a view of the sea. He was nine years there, visited only by monks inspired by the rigor of his devotion. His reputation as a holy man spread, so of course he was drafted back into Church management, and having taken a vow of obedience, he could ought refuse. He was appointed the Bishop of Hexham, a new diocese in Northumbria. And this is the part of his life I find most intriguing: Eata, who was by this time Bishop of Lindisfarne, offered to swap dioceses. The negotiations and motives have not been recorded, and thus remain open to speculation.

Anyway, Cuthbert was an active and effective bishop of Lindisfarne for two years. He retired three months before his death in 687, and pilgrims reported many miracles at his grave site. Of course it might be hard to attribute all those miracles to him because the head of St. Oswald was buried in his casket in order to prevent it from being swiped. Competition for relics was already leading to some less than holy acts. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's saint-bones wasn't explicit in the Torah, but it apparently should have been.

With all the visitors, the monks of Lindisfarne figured the casket should probably be more accessible. They dug him up and found the body to be incorrupt -- no word about Oswald's head. They put some new clothes on him and put his casket above ground in the sanctuary, which certainly seems unwise in light of the previous paragraph, but they did. In 875, the Vikings drove the monks from Lindisfarne, and they naturally took Cuthbert with them. They carried him with them as they wandered for seven years. They settled in Ripon, then Durham Cathedral, then back to the monastery at Lindisfarne, then back to Durham, all the while worrying that either the Vikings or the Normans would jack the casket. In 1539, the casket was reopened and the body was still incorrupt. In 1827, the casket was again reopened and a single skeleton was discovered. They took the precious items buried with it and reburied it. Again in 1899, they opened the casket to examine the bones. They found a man about fifty years old, from before the eleventh century, with clothes from approximately the seventh century.

Locals swore that the bones weren't Cuthbert. Loyal Catholics had taken the body during the worst days of the religious wars in order to prevent it's seizure by Protestants. Maybe, but they couldn't explain where the sixteenth century loyalists got seventh century clothes and pre-eleventh century bones to substitute. Maybe it's Eata, dragged up from a grave in Hexham?

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