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St. Cuthbert

St. Cuthbert of Lindisfarne
by Mary C. Earle

Portrait of Saint Cuthbert by
Kelly Schneider Conkling

With the ebb,
With the flow,
O Thou Triune
Of grace!
With the ebb,
With the flow.
—Carmina Gadelica, II, 217

Saint Cuthbert lived in the seventh century in the area that is now northern England and southern Scotland. He lived in a time very remote from ours, a time so long ago that I doubt we can even imagine its culture. That said, his time was rife with political and religious polarities—not so very different from our own

Struggles were raging about who was right and who was wrong. The native church of Celtic Britain had developed practices that differed in form from those of the church in Rome. Just as in our own times, congregations and governing church bodies were wracked by heated arguments and dissent.

Cuthbert had been formed by the Celtic Christian tradition on the island of Iona. As a young boy, he had been drawn to the monastic life. After mentoring and prayer, he became the abbot of the community at Lindisfarne, also known as Holy Island, on the northeast coast of the borderlands of Scotland and England.

As an abbot, and later as a bishop, he was known for a remarkable capacity to act as a reconciler in times of dissent. The many stories, even the legends, give us a sense of a man who was able to speak the truth in love, and to guide communities in the midst of turmoil and confusion.

Cuthbert was something of an introvert; he was a person whose spirit was quickened by silence and solitude. As a consequence, he faced a challenge—how to remain steady in the face of so much contention within his own community at Lindisfarne and within the larger church.

The island itself offered the gift of a tidal rhythm. Lindisfarne is cut off from the mainland twice a day when the tide is full. When the tidal waters ebb, you can walk from the island to the mainland. A profound natural rhythm shapes the life of those who live on Lindisfarne to this day. A full tide enfolds the little island in the waters of the sea, and for a bit, even the tourists and the pilgrims cannot reach it. With the ebb, connection is restored and traffic goes back and forth.

In Cuthbert’s life we see the example of someone who knows the need to live out that elemental rhythm, that pattern of community and solitude, that ebb and flow. One author suggests that in his life as a bishop, Cuthbert suffered from what we would call depression, partly because he was not on the island and could not rest in the silence and solitude that replenished his spirit. His office demanded a life that was continually engaged in administration, in public pronouncements, in hearing disputes.

When he was able to return to the monastic life, he retired to Inner Farne, an island even more remote than Lindisfarne. Even in this hermit setting, pilgrims sought him out for counsel. His reputation for gentle insight and soul-hospitality brought many to his home. He developed a signal—a shuttered window. If it were closed, he was to be left in prayer. I am told that in some Native American cultures similar ways are practiced. An open blind invites a knock on the door; a closed blind says, “Not now.”

St. Cuthbert’s life has taught me to tend to both the ebb and the flow of action, prayer and life itself. Our culture here in the United States is so over-heated, so noisy, so busy, that we often make decisions impulsively and without reflection. We often drive ourselves to exhaustion, and forget why in the world we might be doing what we are doing. We think of hospitality in odd ways—either refusing the stranger completely, or thinking in a thoroughly romantic way that we need to welcome every single person at any time.

Cuthbert’s life, though remote in time from us, teaches us the deep human need to allow for rest, replenishing quiet, communion with the natural world and the time to simply catch up to ourselves. His life is one of discernible patterns of movement like the tide—hospitality and seclusion, activity and rest, community and solitude. St. Cuthbert is dear to me because, though his stories are often embellished, he comes through as a real human being, dealing with tensions within himself and within his society.

I am convinced that beginning to pattern our lives on this ebb and flow may be the most subversive act that could happen for both persons and communities. Allowing ourselves to follow Cuthbert’s example challenges our assumptions of self-importance and our habituated tendency to over-work.

In fact, Cuthbert’s life offers us an example of the real fruitfulness of life that is possible when rest is allowed, when quiet restores the soul, when stillness gives us the space in which to breathe. We step away from the harried, hassled, incessant patterns of too much of everything. As we live with ebb and flow, we allow ourselves time to be in the garden, to write in the journal, to listen to God. In that shift, real transformation is possible and deep, lasting restoration of community and culture may grow up.

With the ebb,
With the flow,
O thou Triune
Of Grace!
With the ebb,
With the flow.

Copyright ©2006 Mary C. Earle


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