As some of you will be aware, one of the ways in which we are seeking to deepen our spiritual roots as a community of faith here at St Bride’s, is through reconnecting with our Celtic Christian heritage – and our patron saint, St Brigid of Kildare. We are currently exploring the idea of refurbishing our main Crypt Chapel downstairs, with the idea of dedicating it specifically to her memory and using it as a focus for Celtic prayer.
And as I mentioned at our Patronal Festival back in February, it is a particularly appropriate strand of Christian tradition for us to be exploring at the present time, with its deeply-rooted connection to the theme of God in Creation. We are all, I suspect, acutely aware (as never before) of just how critical our relationship with the created world truly is.
And as it happens, during these past four days the Church of England calendar has celebrated two other very famous Celtic saints. Thursday was St Patrick’s day, when we commemorated Ireland’s patron saint. And today is the feast day of St Cuthbert of Lindisfarne.
Cuthbert was born around the year AD 640, probably in the lowlands of Scotland. As a young boy he experienced a profound experience of the presence of God and resolved to dedicate his life to God’s service. He was admitted as a monk to Melrose Abbey, and eventually moved to Lindisfarne, where he became abbot, and was consecrated a Bishop in the year 685. He travelled tirelessly around his Diocese, walking and preaching, but also retreating for times of solitude and prayer.
A few years ago I had a very memorable holiday in the north-east of England, where we visited some famous sites associated with Celtic Christianity, which included a visit to Lindisfarne. It was not my first time there, but I found myself deeply affected by the experience, just as I was on my initial journey over the causeway to that remarkable tidal island. There is something about the ruins of the ancient abbey – a holy site where prayer has been valid for centuries – which has led countless pilgrims to recognise it as being a ‘thin’ place – a place where the boundary between the heavenly and the earthly is very fine indeed. And although we were there at the height of summer, the wind was strong and the weather blustery. One felt very exposed to the elements and to the gaze of Almighty God.
Those of you who have visited the place yourself yourselves might remember that there is a tiny island just off Lindisfarne which is itself cut off from the main island by the sea at high tide, but connected when the sea is out, so if you time it right you can clamber over the rocks to reach it. Traditionally called Hobthrush, it is now better known as St Cuthbert’s Island – because it was there, within sight of Lindisfarne, that Cuthbert withdrew to embrace the life of a hermit. Eventually he felt that even that isolated place was simply not remote enough for him, so he relocated to Inner Farne instead – an island that was even more inaccessible – which was the place of his eventual death.
On my last visit to the abbey on Lindisfarne, the tide happened to be out so I was able to make the rather challenging journey to St Cuthbert’s Island over the slippery rocks. I went there alone, and what I found was a tiny but extraordinary place. It was profoundly moving to think that, all those centuries ago, Cuthbert had knelt right there, there in solitude, yearning for ever greater closeness to God, at one with the natural world and the elements, and far from any of the distractions of normal human life.
The Venerable Bede described Cuthbert’s time at Lindisfarne as follows (From The Life of Cuthbert, Celebrating the Saints p. 145):
When Cuthbert came to the church and monastery of Lindisfarne, he handed on the monastic rule by teaching and example; moreover, he continued his custom of frequent visits to the common people in the neighbourhood, in order to rouse them up to seek and to merit the rewards of heaven.
Some of the monks preferred their old way of life to the rule. He overcame these by patience and forbearance, bringing them round little by little through daily example to a better frame of mind. At chapter meetings he was often worn down by bitter insults, but would put an end to the arguments simply by rising and walking out, calm and unruffled. Next day he would give the same people exactly the same admonitions, as though there had been no unpleasantness the previous day. In this way he gradually won their obedience. He was wonderfully patient and unsurpassed for courage in enduring physical or mental hardship. Though overwhelmed by sorrow at these monks’ recalcitrance, he managed to keep a cheerful face. It was clear to everyone that it was the Holy Spirit within giving him strength to smile at attacks from without.
Such was his zeal for prayer that sometimes he would keep vigil for three or four nights at a strength. Whether he was praying alone in some secret place or saying psalms, he always did manual work to drive away the heaviness of sleep, or else he would do the rounds of the island, kindly inquiring how everything was getting on, relieving the tedium of his long vigils and psalm-singing by walking about.
What I love most about this description is what a very humane man he remained despite the deprivations of the lifestyle that he chose to adopt. Cuthbert was a man who was called to introduce change to a very entrenched group of recalcitrant monks who deeply resented everything that he was doing – and despite being the recipient of their bitterness and insults, he remained patient, and calm, and zealous in prayer, slowly and eventually winning them round.
And it seems to me that it is by no means inappropriate that we should be commemorating Cuthbert during this season of Lent, as we can learn so much from his example – even for this one, short season of the Church’s year. Perhaps he will encourage us to seek a little more solitude and stillness; or to learn to respond to the frustration and bitterness of others with love and patience. And above all, to spend a bit more time with God in prayer.