A lad in his teens was out watching sheep in the Lammermuir Hills on the night of August 31st 651, when a shining path of light broke the darkness and moved across the sky from earth to heaven. In his spirit he realised that a truly bright soul had been carried into Paradise. Soon after, Cuthbert learned that at that moment Aidan (see August 31st), the great Bishop of Lindisfarne, had died. He believed this was a call to the monastic life and left his sheep and his family to enter the abbey of Melrose, but he was turned away and told to go back when the border country was more peaceful. When he returned he was accepted and was trained in the monastic life by the prior, Boisil (see July 7th). After spending some time as a monk in Ripon, Cuthbert became prior of Melrose himself. He engaged in mission activity throughout the Borders, and the town of Kirkcudbright is named after him. In 664 the yellow plague struck. Three years earlier, Boisil had predicted its coming, declaring that he would die, but Cuthbert would be spared. Boisil’s words were proved true – Cuthbert recovered from the plague, but suffered from an internal disability for the rest of his days.
Later in 664 Cuthbert was made Prior of Lindisfarne, although all he really wanted was to retreat into the life of a hermit. He spend many hours alone with God on the tiny isle off Lindisfarne known today as Cuthbert’s Isle. This did not prove sufficiently remote and so in 676 he received permission to retire to the Farne Islands, even further out to sea. He built a tiny cell, with a chapel adjoining, sunk into the ground so that the only view he had was of the sky, inspiring his prayer and meditation. Nevertheless, he had the birds for company, and in later years people called the eider ducks “Cuddy’s ducks” in affectionate memory of him. He respected all of God’s creation, sharing his food with birds and animals and allowing otters to dry his feet by rubbing them with their fur. People began to learn of his saintliness and travelled to the Farnes to see him. In 684 the King and Cuthbert’s fellow clergy appointed him Bishop of Hexham and travelled in a fleet of boats to beg him to accept the office. Cuthbert was extremely reluctant, but went with them. In the end he arranged to exchange posts with the Bishop of Lindisfarne, and so stayed on familiar ground.
Two years later, in 687, sensing that his death was near, he returned to the Farne Islands. The monks from Lindisfarne regularly tried to visit him, out of concern for his welfare, but were prevented by storms. They finally succeeded just before Cuthbert died. He had spent just two months back on the island. His earthly remains were buried in the church of St. Peter on Lindisfarne, but, when the Vikings attacked, they were carried by the monks to a number of resting places in the north of England to keep them safe. The whole of the English people were said to honour him. Finally, in August 1104, no doubt contrary to what Cuthbert himself would have wished, his remains were placed in the splendour of Durham Cathedral, in an honoured sanctuary behind the high altar, which has been a place of pilgrimage and inspiration to many ever since. When his remains were examined, his body was still found to be untouched by decay, giving off “an odour of sweetest fragrancy,” and “from the flexibility of its joints representing a person asleep rather than dead.” Because of the miracles God worked through him, he is called the “Wonderworker of Britain.”
We would follow Your calling, Lord, seeking to be obedient even when it goes against our own desires. We would make Your love known to other people and share Cuthbert’s care for our neighbours in the natural world. We would not seek our own glory, but the quiet joy of being in Your presence, whether alone or together with others. Give us the grace to fulfil these desires in the strength of Jesus Christ, our Saviour. Amen.