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The Upside Down: Saint Cuthbert – Wonder Worker

John Mitchinson reflects on why the life of Saint Cuthbert still has important things to teach us

Saint Cuthbert and Otters

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Three months before my father died, he told me how much he’d enjoyed the novel I’d given him at Christmas. It was called Cuddy by Benjamin Myers, published by Bloomsbury in March, and it has just won the Goldsmiths Prize.

Cuddy is the nickname of Saint Cuthbert, the great saint of north-east England famous for his piety and his miraculous gifts. 

For 300 years after his death, his coffin, containing his still undecayed body, went on the run from Viking hordes, carried by successive generations of monks. It was finally interred on a site above a bend in the River Wear. Over him, was raised what became Durham Cathedral, one of the world’s great buildings and the place where my father was ordained in 1968.

It was how he described his response to the book – the last one he finished under his own steam – that has stayed with me. 

“I could have been like him,” he told me with childish enthusiasm. 

“What, like St Cuthbert?” I laughed. 

“Yes,” he said. 

“What, living alone on an island surrounded by puffins and terns, eating nothing but raw onions and having your feet warmed by the breath of otters?”

“Why not?” he chuckled. 

The exchange reminded me not only of my own admiration for Myers’ brilliant, ambitious novel written, in the author’s own words, “in the long shadow of Saint Cuthbert’s enduring influence”, but of my love for the saint himself – something I shared with my father.

Given the intricate and often frankly unbelievable miracles attributed to many medieval saints, there always seemed something very simple and Christ-like about Cuthbert. 

He had started life as a shepherd in the far north of Northumbria and retained a close affinity for nature: he was at his happiest on his island fastness of Inner Farne, where he lived surrounded by thousands of pairs of guillemots, puffins and eider ducks. With his own hands, he built a two-roomed stone house surrounded by a high wall. This meant he could spend much of his time praying outdoors, “with only the sky to look at, so that eyes and thoughts might be kept from wandering and inspired to seek for higher things”. 

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He was soon inundated by visits from pilgrims. News of the ‘wonder worker of Britain’ had spread and there was a constant stream of visitors asking for healing and counselling. In return, Cuthbert asked only that his uninvited guests respect the local animals and he forbade the hunting of all nesting birds – probably the world’s first piece of wildlife conservation legislation. In his honour, eider ducks are still called ‘Cuddy ducks’.

He was also a remarkably skilful politician. 

When he arrived at Lindisfarne in 669, he was given the task of persuading the monks there to accept the authority of Rome, as ordered by the Synod of Whitby in 664. The Synod was a major turning point in the early history of the British church, marking the end of independent Celtic Christianity – a loosely administered, missionary-based religion – introduced into Ireland by St Patrick in the 5th Century and taken to Scotland and northern England by St Columba. Many British monastic institutions (including Lindisfarne) were resistant to the changes. 

Cuthbert was the perfect man to make them see the light. He had all the credibility that came from wandering the wilds as a missionary in the Celtic mode but was also a pious and obedient member of a Benedictine monastery, committed to the authority of Rome. The monks deferred to his moral authority and, through his inspiration, the north-east of England became one of Europe’s most influential centres of religious scholarship. The Lindisfarne Gospels, commissioned in his honour, are regarded as the supreme fusion of Anglo-Saxon and Celtic religious art.

Cuthbert spent the last year of his life on his beloved Inner Farne, living on a weekly ration of five raw onions (“whenever my mouth was parched or burned with excessive hunger or thirst I refreshed and cooled myself with these”). This was a return to the simple Celtic faith of his youth and it’s that I think that had so excited my father. 

He too had joined a monastic order at 16 and, although by the end of his life, he no longer went to church, that had always been his road less travelled. 

I like the idea that reading Cuddy had fired the failing neurons in his brain and connected him with an earlier version of himself. By the end, he didn’t need buildings or music or formal liturgy. He was like Cuthbert, on his own, contemplating an empty sky, feeling the pull of the sea. 

As Ben Myers imagines Cuthbert’s final moments:

I am sun and moon and rain. 

Tomorrow’s skeleton swathed in silk.

It is where we are all headed.

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