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Cuthbert

When Deborah asked me to write something on this blog for today, I took a look at the lectionary, and two things caught my attention. The first was that today, March 20, is the feast day of St. Cuthbert, Bishop of Lindesfarne, who turns out to have some connections to our present predicament. The other was Psalm 91, and psalms in general — but more about that later after we visit the saint.

Cuthbert began his life as a shepherd in Northumbria, a medieval kingdom in what’s now northern England and southern Scotland. He decided to become a monk in 651, after having a vision on the night that St. Aidan died — Aidan was the founder of the great Benedictine monastery at Lindesfarne. Cuthbert first entered the monastery of Melrose, and in 661 the community was struck by the plague. He survived, but the prior died, and Cuthbert was chosen to succeed him. After that, he traveled through the countryside helping plague victims, and gained fame as a worker of miracles.

But, perhaps true to his shepherd-nature, Cuthbert had always felt called to solitude, and five years later he retired to the island of Inner Farne where he built an oratory and cell, and lived as a hermit, becoming increasingly renowned for his holiness. He was finally prevailed upon to become Bishop of Lindesfarne in 684, but died just three years later. He was buried at Durham Cathedral, and became the most important medieval saint of Northern England.

In addition to being no stranger to the plague, Cuthbert would have been very familiar with the psalms. Benedictine monks pray the psalms continuously, day and night, sometimes going through the entire psalter in two weeks. So he certainly would have known Psalm 91, which is appointed for Evening Prayer today. It speaks of God as our Refuge, and these verses must have stood out to Cuthbert as they do to us today:

 

  1. He will cover you with his pinions,

and under his wings you will find refuge;

his faithfulness is a shield and buckler,

 

  1. You will not fear the terror of the night

or the arrow that flies by day,

 

  1. or the pestilence that stalks in the darkness,

or the destruction that wastes at noonday.”

 

There’s something comforting in the thought of St. Cuthbert walking through the rugged countryside and peasant settlements of Northumbria, or sitting alone in his cell, reciting psalms like this one to himself, during a time of great uncertainty and danger so long ago. While what we’re facing is unprecedented, that’s because our own “known world” is so large and interconnected. For medieval people, plagues and wars and natural disasters completely filled and upended their “known world” too.

Like you, perhaps, I’ve had an ambivalent relationship with the psalms. Some are favorites that help me go to sleep when I’m worried, some are beautiful songs of praise and poetry — but I’d rather ignore the angry, vindictive, violent ones. As a singer, I’ve appreciated the care and detail that our music director, Jonathan White, has brought to our singing of the psalms this year. It’s gotten me to slow down and pay real attention to the words, and to understand that the choir is praying the psalms for and with the congregation, so it’s important to do that as well as we can.

Now we won’t be singing for a while, unfortunately, but I’ve found that some of the psalms are speaking to me in a new, more immediate way. They are so human, expressing such a range of emotions about the beauty and wonder, unfairness and uncertainty of life. It helps me to see that ever since the psalms were written, human beings from the exiled Jews to Jesus Christ, from St. Cuthbert to the people with whom we share our pews, have found an echo of their own experience in these words. We aren’t as alone as we sometimes feel.

–Beth Adams

Comments(2)

  1. Reply
    Roderick Robinson says:

    I’ve visited Lindisfarne. That’s to say I’ve stood on the shore and looked across the neck of sea that separates it from the mainland. As I’m sure everyone knows, the tide comes and goes, allowing and denying access. There are times when even atheists wonder what it would be like to be cloistered briefly in a place where the material world had been shut out; wondered, but done nothing about it. Lindisfarne and its tides encourage such speculation. Without any sense of volition one might say, “I’ve missed the tide. At least I can experience solitude.” I can write this aware that I am 84 and that Lindisfarne is 340 miles away from where I live. But these factoids do not render the speculation useless. I suspect I am constituted from far more unachieved goals than those I have achieved. It’s a form of day-dreaming and may lead anywhere. Earlier this morning I never imagined I would have left my insubstantial spoor here. It’s also caused me to re-consider psalms, more particularly those similar forms which are part of the Anglican liturgy. More particularly still, the Magnificat and the Nunc Dimittis. Chants to accompany them were learned when I was briefly a member of the comically named Idle Parish Church choir, Idle being a suburb of Bradford, a northern city in the UK. Music embedded seventy-five years ago and yet still precisely accessible. Music and solitude. Music for solitude. Surely day-dreams harm no one.

    • Reply
      Beth says:

      Robbie, thanks for reading and for this comment and description of what it’s like to view Lindesfarne from the mainland. You write about the universality of the statement, “I’ve missed the tide,” and also about how solitude lets us daydream about unachieved goals as well as achieved ones. It seems to me that having the ability and self-knowledge to be able to reflect in that way, and accept that both are part of life, is itself an “achievement” (funny word for it) that comes with age. this extra-ordinary time we’re in seems to be giving us an opportunity for more meditation, more solitude, more reflection on what’s truly important — and that has to be a good thing. No one achieves all they wanted; I think a big part of what we’re here for is not “success”, but being more and more awake.

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