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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Saturday, 22 March 2014

The Week of St Cuthbert: too much attention?

The end of Cuthbert Week. His day was 20 March. On Wednesday and Thursday we had great celebrations in the Cathedral. Today there were family activities in and around the building. This afternoon I welcomed over 120 pilgrims on the annual ‘Cuddy’s Corse’ from Chester-le-Street to Durham. This is a walk organised by the Northumbrian Association to re-enact the last leg of the monks’ long journey bringing Cuthbert’s body, together with the Lindisfarne Gospels, to Durham his final resting place. Led by a Northumbrian piper and the Banner of St Cuthbert, we walked in a merry procession to the shrine where we said prayers.

Our new Bishop was with us on Thursday, the day itself. He tweeted beforehand: ‘Durham Cathedral for my first St Cuthbert’s Day pilgrimage. I suspect Cuthbert would not have liked all the attention.’ It’s an interesting comment. We know from Bede that Cuthbert hoped to be buried on his beloved Inner Farne, but reluctantly recognised that his brothers would want him back on Lindisfarne. We know that he was famous for his simplicity and humility: he would have fought against adulation. If that wasn’t enough, we can be sure that as a Saxon he would have hated the idea of lying interred beneath a Norman cathedral. So the Bishop is right. I reckon Cuthbert would have liked his distant successor's tweet.
Yet this isn't all of the truth. The veneration of Cuthbert as a saint began only a decade after he died. His body was disinterred by his community and miraculously found not to have been corrupted. At once he was pronounced a saint – this was how they ‘canonised’ saints in those days. And this gave Cuthbert back to the world as a man in whom it was believed God had vested special spiritual power. When the Vikings destroyed his monastery on Holy Island and drove his community inland to find safety, they took with them their two most precious possessions: the Lindisfarne Gospels, and Cuthbert’s body. So ‘all the attention’ paid him goes back over a thousand years.
The paradox is that saints tend to be humble and self-effacing: that’s what makes them so attractive to us. The ‘attention’ we give them is a way of honouring a collective memory of goodness and sanctity that is precious. It recognises that their influence is profound, their capacity to inspire us and enlarge our vision undying. Not on account of their words and actions by themselves, but because of what inspired them, Jesus Christ and the gospel. We can be sure that Cuthbert would have said: don’t focus on me, put Jesus at the centre, the Lord for whom I lived and died. All the saints would say the same. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be saints.
Cuthbert’s shrine in Durham Cathedral recognises this. Above the stone slab with his name on it hangs a 20th century tester showing Christ in Glory surrounded by the symbols of the four evangelists. It’s as if Cuthbert is lying in his tomb looking upwards directly into the face of Christ the Lord of all. And Christ in turn looks on him as a beloved child, as he does all of us. In the Hebrew Bible, it says that Moses was with God face to face, ‘as someone looks on their friend’. This mutual gaze of recognition and divine friendship is at the heart of religion.
And this, I think, is what St Cuthbert represents to all of us who speak of him as the ‘glory of our sanctuary and ever-living symbol of our apostleship’, as one of our Durham prayers puts it. Through his memory, his companionship and his prayers, he helps us to know Jesus more clearly, love him more dearly and follow him more nearly day by day. And that makes him truly evangelical in his appeal.  

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