Feast Day: March 20
It’s a common sight in almost every time and place—a group of boys gathering to play in a field, throwing and catching, running and racing, bashing each other down into the mud and whooping triumphantly in victory. But what happened in one group of boys on a windy morning in the ancient Kingdom of Northumbria, almost 1400 years ago, was far from common.
The champion on the field that day was a rambunctious 8-year-old who could outrun, out-jump, out-wrestle, and out-boast anybody in his age group, and the next highest besides. He had just won another contest and was being congratulated by his friends when a small three-year-old toddled up and told him to put aside all these childish games and concentrate on God. When the older boy laughed at him, the 3-year-old fell to the ground and wept bitterly. The older boy, rough in sports but gentle in nature, comforted the toddler and asked him why he was crying. The boy slowly calmed down and then said “Why do you, holy Cuthbert, priest and prelate, give yourself up to these things which are so opposite to your nature and rank? It does not become you to be playing among children, when the Lord has appointed you to be a teacher of virtue even to those who are older than yourself.”
Cuthbert, 8-year-old playground champion, was stunned at the words, and the prediction, of the toddler. Was he really supposed to be doing something other than childhood sports, and was he, who had never thought much about God, to be a priest and bishop?
From that day on, Cuthbert began thinking more and more about God, and slowly, with God’s grace, the toddler’s words proved true. Cuthbert grew to be acclaimed as St. Cuthbert, the greatest saint in Northumbria and one of the greatest in the British Isles. The Venerable Bede, who was 14 when Cuthbert died in 687, but knew many monks who had known Cuthbert, tells the story of his calling, his life, and his miracles.
Bede seems amazed at the number and power of Cuthbert’s miracles. Even before Cuthbert became a novice at Melrose Abbey he was known for calming winds at sea, as Jesus had done, and entertaining angels, as Abraham had done. And as a monk and priest his reputation for holiness and wonders spread far and wide. He traveled the roads of what is now northwest England and southwest Scotland and preached God’s word to all he found. He ministered to the poor and healed the sick. He put out a house fire simply by the power of his prayer, expelled demons from many people, and was even known, later in life, to have changed water into wine.
When his abbot needed a monk to go to Lindisfarne to teach monastic discipline and the new Roman ways (as opposed to the Celtic calendar and customs they had been following), Cuthbert was his choice. Anyone who has ever dealt with change in church knows that getting the brethren to accept new ways may have been Cuthbert’s greatest miracle of all. He faced strong opposition from the monks, says Bede, but he went about his work with patience, modest virtues, and winning ways. When he grew tired of the bitter taunts hurled at him, “he would rise from his seat with a placid look and dismiss the meeting until the following day, when, as if he had suffered no repulse, he would use the same exhortations as before, until he converted them.”
Cuthbert was also known as a hard worker. “No one,” Bede quotes him as saying, “can displease me by waking me out of my sleep, but, on the contrary, give me pleasure; for, by rousing me from inactivity, he enables me to do or think of something useful.”
But through all these years of holy work, Cuthbert longed for solitude, for a quiet cave where he could pray day and night and draw closer to God. Finally, after many requests, he received the blessings of his abbot to retire from active life and establish a hermitage on a little outcropping of the Farne Islands.
Even here, however, the miracles continued. Cuthbert’s island was known to be inhabited by demons and no one else dared step foot on it, but Cuthbert chased the demons away. When he built his oratory, angels came to help with the larger stones, a pit dug in dry and rocky ground yielded a pleasant spring, and crows came and apologized to him after they pulled some thatch out of the roof of his hut.
As much as Cuthbert wished for a retirement of solitude, his reputation for holiness and miraculous works brought a steady stream of visitors to his hermitage. He graciously welcomed them all and gave whatever help, advice, solace, and blessing he could. As a result Cuthbert became even more popular, and the day came when his popularity and reputation for holiness led to his election as bishop of Lindisfarne. All he wanted was to be left alone with God on his little rocky island, and he did his best to avoid the summons, but his brother monks and the people, and many nobles, including the king, pressed him to accept the election. They needed him. So Cuthbert reluctantly left little Farne and traveled to York for his consecration.
No matter how reluctant he had been, Cuthbert undertook his ministry with the same energy and zeal he had brought to everything in his life. He constantly traversed the roads of his diocese visiting parishes and spending time with the people. He was well known, says Bede, for standing up for the poor and weak against anyone or anything that would oppress them. He fed the hungry, clothed the naked, comforted all who were in sorrow, and exhorted everyone to live a Christian life, but asked nothing of anyone that he wasn’t already doing himself.
And the miracles continued. A dying servant of one of king’s attendants was cured, as was the wife of an earl, when Cuthbert gave them a drink of holy water. His prayer restored health to a young man he found dying on the road. During a plague outbreak he came across a mother who had just lost one small son and was on the brink of losing another. Cuthbert healed the dying boy and promised the mother that no other member of her family would succumb to the disease — a promise, Bede tells us, that was fulfilled.
Bishop Cuthbert was loved by the people of his diocese, but after only a few years he was exhausted by his pastoral duties and feared his health was failing. Once again he longed for the solitude of the Farne Islands and knew it was time to go home to die. A few days after Christmas, 686, Cuthbert gave up his pastoral office and, with one brother to care for him, retired again to his hermitage, where he endured terrible sickness and suffering. Cuthbert died the following March, causing great grief and lamentation throughout the land.
Reverence for Cuthbert grew after his death, as did reports of miracles occurring at his tomb and shrine (which moved several times until ending up in the cathedral complex in Durham). Today Saint Cuthbert is the patron saint of Northumbria and has recently been suggested as the patron of all of Great Britain.