A homily by the Abbot of Farnborough on St Cuthbert of Lindisfarne
Each year, in early September, parishes of the Society in the Diocese of Durham organise a festival Mass in honour of the Translation of the Relics of St Cuthbert of Lindisfarne to Durham in the year 1104. This year’s Festival will take place on Friday 2 September, at Durham Cathedral at 7.30pm. The mass will be celebrated by the Bishop of Burnley, and will be followed by a procession to St Cuthbert’s Shrine.
As a novice I was given the name Cuthbert. We had to offer three names, and Cuthbert was my third – coming from Durham and being born on 20 March, it was inevitable that it should be selected. I was given a book to read: The Two Lives of St Cuthbert. It does not – as the title suggests – mean that he had some sort of double life! Rather, the ‘two lives’ were the two main biographies written about him. And yet we can speak about ‘two lives’ of St Cuthbert: he was pulled in two directions, and his biography is the tale of that tension. One of his lives was as the saintly bishop, the zealous missionary – the ‘Wonderworker of the North’ – and the other was his monastic life. His answer to the call of God involved not only leaving the world – fuga mundi – as so many had done before him, but even leaving the monastery to become a hermit: ‘hidden’, as St Paul says, ‘with Christ in God’. This was Cuthbert: a man with a passion for the souls of men and a passion to be alone with God. This is as fresh today as it was then, because it is the vocation of every one of us, in every generation, to answer the call that God makes to us. For each of us this will involve some balancing of the call to prayer and the call to service, whether we be called to serve God in the market place of modern life or in the silence of the cloister.
Thomas Merton, that great spiritual writer, said that in every man and every woman there is a monk or a nun trying to get out. Monastic life is written into the English DNA: our land is littered with old monasteries. Some of them are great cathedrals like this one; some are ruins, and yet we love them. Centuries after the monks have gone the silence remains and we love to visit them. Be it for a quiet walk, a family outing, or a picnic, we sense a great peace in those places hallowed by centuries of the praises of God. Their walls are soaked with prayer; they give us life; they stir our emotions. There is in each of us a deep sense that our peace comes from doing God’s will and being at one with God’s will for us. And yet, in each of us there is also a need to communicate the love of God with others.
We all have to experience the tension between prayer and action. A preacher in the market place has nothing of any use to say if his preaching does not spring from a life of prayer and reflection. Likewise, the hermit in his cell prays uselessly if his prayer is all about himself and does not spring from a profound love of the world and eagerness for the salvation of souls. Cardinal Basil Hume called this ‘nostalgia’: when we are active in life we must have nostalgia for the desert – for prayer – and when we are in prayer it must be with a nostalgia for the market place and the needs of the world.
This spiritual combat is a work of the heart. The Christian life is about building in our own little hermitage – our own Inner Farne – where we can spend time with God. The Christian life is about making our spiritual lives thoughtful: about reflecting on how God speaks to us each day in the events of our lives, and pondering all these things in our hearts as did Our Lady. We need each to have a cloister. Just as the heart of the monastery has a cloister so we need, at the heart of us, to have a space, a moment, a time, where distractions are relegated to the periphery and God is central. The point of the cloister is not the structure or the pretty garden it encloses but the fact that there is nowhere to look except upward towards God. Cuthbert was a monk even among monks. Just as Abraham was asked to leave his country and kinsmen, so Cuthbert left even the monastery to withdraw to the greater solitude of the hermitage. It is no wonder that he accepted the Benedictine Rule for his monks so readily: St Benedict talks about fighting in the ranks and then going to the hermitage having been trained for the single combat in the ranks of the monks. Cuthbert saw his own experience mirrored in the Benedictine Rule.
Cuthbert’s time was not unlike our own: an age of violence; paganism on the rise; life regarded as a cheap commodity. It was not a programme, or a course, or a new theory that saved the day: it was his personal holiness. It was his burning love that converted others. It was his interior unity. He was a true monk – the word monk comes from the Greek monachos, meaning ‘one.’ And Cuthbert was one – utterly integrated – he had an undivided heart. And he gave all. This is what God asks of each of us: our all. We don’t negotiate what God asks of us. When we set out to do God’s will, we sign a blank cheque and we let Him write in the amount. And it costs: we have to love until it hurts, because real love hurts, and it is on the measure of our love that we will be judged on the evening of our lives. Cuthbert gave his life, his health – even his beloved Celtic patrimony – it all had to go so that he could decrease and Christ increase in him. All was given to the one project of the love of Jesus Christ.
This is the place of the life of prayer – the contemplative life – in the heart of the Church. I am encouraging a sort of spiritual schizophrenia: I want each of you to have two lives. I want you to have a missionary heart afire for preaching the Gospel by the joy of your life; but also a monastic heart given to prayer. And so we commend ourselves and the whole North to the intercession of St Cuthbert, the Wonderworker of the North. May he be our model and our guide, our inspiration and our powerful intercessor; and may we be blessed with a little share of his great faith. St Cuthbert of Lindisfarne, pray for us.
The Rt Revd Dom Cuthbert Brogan has been Abbot of Farnborough since 2006. www.farnboroughabbey.org