The Rt Revd Norman Banks reflects on the calmness and assurance that St Cuthbert brought wherever he went
From the First Letter of St Peter: `Humble yourselves under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you:
Sense of peace
No one knows the reason why! But of all places a life-size copy of the wall painting of St Cuthbert here in Durham Cathedral, hangs on the west wall of All Saints East Barsham, the church which in the Middle Ages marked the boundary of the Holy Domain of our Lady in Walsingham, in Norfolk.
And it was there week by week that St Cuthbert looked down upon me and the tiny congregation that worships in a very obscure Norfolk Church. I think Cuthbert would have liked East Barsham Church. Unpretentious, crumbly, and largely ignored by those who rush past in cars and coaches on their way to Mary’s shrine. But if you do find yourself in that little church, what overwhelms is a sense of peace and calm.
And I think it is this deep calm which crosses the centuries that is a key to a right understanding of St Cuthbert.
In preparing for this evening’s celebration, I naturally took down from my bookshelves St Bede’s account of the blessed saint in his Ecclesiastical History and also his biography of St Cuthbert.
I was struck as ever by the beautiful and sensitive way in which Bede tells the life of one of Northumbria’s best loved saints, and by how in the autobiography each important event in Cuthberts life echoes stories from the Bible, as Cuthbert is fed by an eagle, draws water from hidden springs, cures the sick and stills storms at sea. What we discover time after time is that at the heart of this man of God, there is a stillness which both atLLacts and encourages bringing with it quiet assurance and confidence.
Ideal man of God
Cuthbert lived in hard and turbulent times, where people lived in fear and constant danger, not only from opposing tribes and warlords, but the fickleness of nature and the unpredictability of the seasons, disease and the dread of darkness and the spirit world.
Somehow under God, this man Cuthbert brought with him, wherever he went, a calmness and an assurance that
touched people at the deepest of levels. And those lovely stories of animals, otters, crows and eagles responding to his presence, with obedience and reverence, pay tribute to that inner calm.
Called from solitude
Cuthbert was a hermit, with a longing for the desert and to be alone with God. Although time after time he was called from that solitude to shepherd Christ’s flock and to minister to the local community, he always returned to the place where he could be most alone.
For Bede, Cuthbert is the ideal man of God, in following
Gods will and, to quote Bede, living out the faith that works by love’, whether as a monk, prior, bishop or hermit. For Cuthbert walked for weeks across the countryside to bring the Gospel to poor villages and remote hamlets, weeping with compassion even before sinners began their
confession, available to all and severe to none, while in his
heart never leaving the utter solitude of Farne.
This is surely why Cuthbert remains so attractive today both within the Church and far beyond. In a world saturated in noise and activity, in a society obsessed by possession and possessions, in a culture of the superficial, and a church ever searching for the new and the novel, Cuthbert offers another way. It is the way of the inside out, the city of God that lies deep within.
For it was on Inner Farne, in a circular windowless cell, largely open to the sky, that Cuthbert lived and died in the `City of God’ — a city he had first glimpsed as a boy when he saw St Aidan’s spirit ascend to heaven and which he fully inhabited when dying. As St Bede records, he raised his eyes to heaven and stretching out his hands aloft, sent forth his spirit in the very act of praising God to the joys of the heavenly kingdom’
St Cuthbert pray for us and may your calm, the calm which stilled storms, humbled men and women, and delighted the otter and the eagle, so quieten us, that with you, we may listen and hear the voice of the One who speaks truth deep within our hearts.
This sermon was first preached in Durham Cathedral on 5 September 2014