‘The servant of the Lord is he who walks in darkness and has no light, yet trusts in the name of the Lord, and leans upon his God.’ Isa 50:10
The Festival of Candlemas, February 2nd, brings to an end the Church’s Season of Light. It began in Advent when we heard from Isaiah that the people that walked in darkness have seen a great light (Isa 9:2). The imagery of light borrowed from the Greeks carries the immanence and the transcendence of the Incarnation into the heart of the Church’s mission. St John, in his Gospel and first Epistle, intertwines the parallel concepts of light and love. The wonderment is that they not only find their source in God, but are also capable of being exemplified in ordinary human lives.
So, while Jesus said of himself, I am the Light of the world (John 8:12), we have seen for ourselves that baptism into his death and resurrection affords a share in that light.
Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your Father who is in heaven. (Matt 5:16).
This is the light of faith. Artists, poets, composers have offered insight into our ability or inability to see this light. Isaiah, referring to testing times, contemplates the servant of God whose faithfulness is measured by a willingness to continue his journey when there is little light to show him the way, who trusts in God’s name, and leans upon his God. Whilst the imagery here is that of a figure picking his way through the gloom, barely able to see the path beneath his feet, who has within him the confidence to keep going, and who leans on his stick to derive balance and momentum, the metaphor is that of the spiritual journey, the attitude of mind and heart. Like all good metaphors of the soul, it has a dynamic. It presents the idea of movement, of changing circumstance, even of mood, on the part of the servant. God, by contrast, is constant in name and steadfast in support. It also implies solitude, the need to do this alone, perhaps in barren and inhospitable places.
Why resort to this image, this text from Scripture, in deciding what to say to you this evening? I’ve been asked by your Chaplain to speak about a British divine, whose writings or lifestyle might have something useful to offer. Julian of Norwich was already spoken for in this series, so I’ve chosen a northern bishop and saint who is remembered and loved in the north of England not for his writings but for his example of holiness and humanity in a period of religious and political upheaval.
Cuthbert was born in 634, and lived and served in the lineage of Aidan. On the night Aidan died, Cuthbert had a vision of angels bearing a soul to heaven. He saw himself caught up in that vision, and as a result presented himself at the monastery at Melrose to receive the Celtic tonsure. He served here first as a monk and later as Prior. In 664, the Synod of Whitby was called to resolve the conflicts between Celtic Christianity which had prevailed in Iona and Northumbria, and Roman Christianity. The presenting issue was the date of Easter and the shape of the monastic tonsure. It was a controversy of major proportions, a turning point in English history. By choosing in favour of Rome, the Church of England established herself firmly within the Catholic tradition. Soon after the decision of the Synod, the Bishop of Lindisfarne took himself back to Ireland, and Cuthbert, having first fended off attempts to make him Bishop of Hexham, was asked to be Prior of Lindisfarne.
As one who had been nurtured in the losing side of the debate, he immediately set about healing the conflicts of loyalty. He worked for reconciliation and stability by fostering Roman orthodoxy without rejecting Celtic traditions, to begin with by promoting Celtic manuscript illumination. And by personal example he taught and modelled the solitary contemplative life, one of the greatest strengths of the Celtic way. At first he built himself a cell on the nearby Thrush Island. But he became overburdened by visits (in between the flood tides) of pilgrims seeking advice, teaching and healing of diseases. After twelve years, now in his 40’s, he moved to another hermitage cell on the Inner Farne Island, which was considered to be uninhabitable. Despite severe weather and isolation, he continued to be sought out for counsel and comfort. Efforts continued to make him a bishop, such was his wisdom, holiness, oratory and personal charm. Finally, on Easter Day 685 he was consecrated Bishop of York. But it didn’t work out! He didn’t take to the organisational function of a bishop; he found it a distraction, and within 18 months he had returned to Inner Farne in order to give his whole and undivided attention to God. It was not to last: In 687 Cuthbert fell ill and died. True to the tradition of the primitive Church, much attention was given and recorded regarding his death and burial; to the construction of a tomb in 698 and the subsequent reburial in Durham Cathedral. A cult of St Cuthbert developed in which his protection was sought in the struggle with the Scots. For mariners the naming of a ship after the saint was thought to be prudent.
Bede in his history records the debt that the English Church owed to Aidan and Cuthbert. They both modelled rigour and humility, in stark contrast to the prevailing ‘slothfulness’ of the day where the political convenience of Christianity was expressed in royal courts and aristocratic households. Aiden and Cuthbert helped establish a Christian tradition that was true to its roots, and also shaped the identity of the region, which has never been lost. What is fascinating is that Cuthbert achieved this not by conventional skills of leadership, certainly not what we today would call ‘management skills’.
Rooted in the Benedictine way, bent upon listening, listening to the word of God, his ministry was directed to the poor whose neighbouring hamlets and cottages he loved to visit whenever he could. The movement of the soul that he had seen that night when Aidan died was a movement that led him closer to God, by means of solitude and prayerfulness amongst the rocks, the howling of the wind and the crashing of the waves against the shore. As a hermit, he turned his back on society, not out of contempt for it but in order to be single-minded, living out the Lord’s command to be attentive and obedient. St Benedict hints in his Rule that the life of the hermit is the perfection of the monastic life. Cuthbert exemplifies the primacy of the spiritual in all our lives.
What might we draw from this remarkable model of ministry and witness? First, anyone who knows the North-East of England, and especially the coast of Northumberland, will readily identify with the impact of the natural world upon Cuthbert’s thinking. The grandeur and savagery of the elements, the meeting of sea, sky and land, the harsh struggle to maintain daily life amidst the extremes of weather and loneliness, concentrates the relationship of Creator and creation. Reciting the psalms, morning and night, alone would see to that.
Secondly, Cuthbert’s simplicity and holiness attuned him to the hearts of local people who struggled to make a living and bring up their children. There is something very contemporary about this. The leader in the Independent on Thursday, commenting on the bishops’ intervention in the social benefits debate, stated robustly that poverty was a matter of politics and economics. It has nothing to do with spirituality, it claimed, and if the bishops believe that it has, then they should confine their comments to the pulpit rather than the House of Lords. It is an astonishing statement partly because it reveals such little understanding of what poverty is like, and of how it is far more the lack of money. But it also disregards the common memory or any sense of history. For all its shortcomings, the Church has the authority of God’s love, and the voice of Jesus, in and through identification with the poor.
St Francis exemplified that in the 13th century. In the 20th century what first became known as liberation theology, later to be called contextual theology, went a stage further when the Church not only identified itself with the poor, but saw that the only authentic expression of the Body of Christ could be of the poor themselves. It is not possible to see God, other than through the eyes of the poor, so it was said. If you question that, try reading the Magnificat, the Song of Mary.
Thirdly, the most enduring element of the Cuthbert tradition – and he was not alone in this – was his utter dependence upon God. It was partly a pronounced sense of vocation, of being called into a way of life and a form of ministry that was counter-cultural, even in that fairly primitive society. It was partly a sense of humility that no doubt grew out of his life of prayer. So Ecclesiasticus, that collection of wisdom in the Apocrypha, teaches
The greater you are, the more you must humble yourself…for great is the might of the Lord; but by the humble he is glorified. (Ecclcus 3:18-20).
For Cuthbert, solitude and humility led to the discovery of God within. As St Ignatius would teach centuries later,
If we allow ourselves the space to say the ‘Our Father’, we are giving God the chance to speak and be heard.’ (Exercises)
The great spiritual writer of the 1970’s, 80’s and 90’s, Henri Nouwen, developed the vocation of servant-hood which so much informed Cuthbert’s thinking and life-style. Nouwen came upon the loneliness of those who lived with mental illness, and whose poverty was found in the social isolation they endured. He referred to the tradition of deutero-Isaiah whereby those who are frail are carried, physically or figuratively by one who is stronger; carried to a place of safety, protected and enfolded in arms that are strong and loving and dependable. The prophet writes,
Even to your old age, I am he, says the Lord. Even when you turn grey I will carry you. I have made, and I will bear; I will carry and will save.
It was this consciousness of the God who reaches to our infirmities by carrying us when we are too weak to walk, that so caught the imagination of Henri Nouwen and contributed to the foundation by Jean Vanier of L’Arche communities for people with mental frailties. I’m told that a visit to one of the L’Arche communities is to experience a household where each person gives and receives, and where it is not immediately obvious who are the carers and who are the cared-for. Nouwen and Vanier could transliterate the words in Colossians 3:16
Let the word of God dwell in you richly
as you ‘live among those whose mental isolation so often diminishes; carry them in a household of loving, supportive care; cherish them out of your own weakness and disability; for in the humble and in humble existence, God is glorified.’
So, finally to the verse from that same section of Isaiah with which we began.
‘The servant of the Lord is he who walks in darkness and has no light, yet trusts in the name of the Lord, and leans upon his God.’
The Lindisfarne coast at night is magisterial, made all the more dramatic by distant flashing lights warning of treacherous rocks. Cuthbert in his hermit’s cave on these islands would have been entirely familiar with total darkness, where the stars themselves would often have been blotted out by storm clouds. The elements in almost every respect defined the parameters of his journey with God. He was sure-footed, and not just with his feet. For he knew, whether he learnt it or whether it came as a gift, how to walk in darkness where there is no light, and lean on his God. And in the walking, there is sharing, empathy, teaching by example. The walking was sometimes to carry another in the darkness where there is no light; and sometimes to be carried by the Saviour in whom he had gladly and joyfully placed his entire trust.
To this same Saviour, for each of us on our own perilous journey of faith, be praise and glory this night and for ever.
Very Rev’d Graham Smith, Dean of Norwich
29th January 2012