March 20 – Cuthbert, Aidan & Bede

These weekly “People to Commemorate” posts are a kind of calendar for the commemoration of the saints, reproduced here from a Uniting Church Assembly document which can be found in full here. They are intended for copying and pasting into congregational pew sheets on the Sunday closest to the nominated date.

Images (where provided) are of icons by Peter Blackwood; click on the image to download a high resolution copy of the image.

Cuthbert, Aidan & Bede, Christian pioneers

These three men of God exercised their ministries in the north-east of England, an area known today as Northumberland but their impact has moved far beyond that area.

ST AIDEN, who died in 651AD, was the first of the three. Coming originally from Ireland, he was a monk in the community of Iona in Scotland. Oswald, King of Northumbria, had sent a request to Iona for someone to come and do missionary work in his Kingdom. When the first one sent failed because the people were so barbaric, Aiden was made a Bishop and sent to undertake the task.

Along with a group of a dozen Gaelic-speaking monks, Aidan installed himself on the windswept island of Lindisfarne, building a simple wooden church and outbuildings as a base for his mission in 635AD. This island is just off the coast of Northumberland but can be reached by foot when the tide is out. It was reasonably close to Bamburgh where the King had his castle.

Where another Bishop had sought to bully his targets back into church, Aidan became renowned for his tact and diplomacy, walking from one village to another to converse with villagers and slowly engage their interest in Christianity.

The feat was not achieved without difficulty. To assist his work Aidan insisted on learning the native tongue and set about recruiting a dozen Northumbrian youths to form the basis for new English Christian Church, and ensure tales of his holy acts lived on after him. As well as giving away the horse presented to him by King Oswald, his saintly deeds were said to include rendering a deer pursued by hunters invisible and putting out a fire through prayer. The Venerable Bede, the scholar and historian as well as another seventh-century Northumbrian monk, wrote of Aidan:

“He neither sought nor loved anything of this world, but delighted in distributing immediately to the poor whatever was given him by kings or rich men.

He traversed both town and country on foot, never on horseback, unless compelled by some urgent necessity.

“Wherever on his way he saw any, either rich or poor, he invited them, if pagans, to embrace the mystery of the faith; or if they were believers, he sought to strengthen them in their faith and stir them up by words and actions to alms and good works.”

Aiden’s missionary work was very effective. Many people turned from traditional religion to faith in Jesus Christ. Many missionaries came from Ireland to help in the work. Churches were built and Aiden travelled throughout his diocese usually on foot. He was known for his holy life, his passion to share the faith and his compassion for the poor.

While out visiting his diocese in August 651 he was taken ill and died. His body was taken back to Lindisfarne for burial. He had been the Bishop there for sixteen years.

ST CUTHBERT was born about 634AD somewhere near the River Tweed in the Border country between Scotland and England. As a child he loved games, was athletic and exuberant. As a man he loved hard physical work. One night in his teenage years he was out looking after a flock of sheep when he had a vision of Aiden of Lindisfarne, being transported to heaven. He found out later that on that night Aiden had died.  Cuthbert decided to become a monk and went to the monastery at Melrose, a sister monastery to Lindisfarne. Cuthbert was trained in the Christian disciplines of prayer, fasting and study of the Scriptures. He learnt how to read and write in both English and Latin, for Latin was the language of the Church and the Bible. Cuthbert was not only diligent in spiritual disciplines and labouring tasks of the monastery, he also gave himself most wholeheartedly to evangelistic work and acts of compassion in the wider community. He would go to far away places in the mountains and live with the people there, teaching them about Jesus, urging them to come to faith and living the faith in their midst.

Cuthbert was one of the monks selected to move from Melrose to establish a new monastery at Ripon where he became Guestmaster. Because of his holiness and his concern for the people, he returned to Melrose as Prior. This was a time of tension for the Church in England. Missionaries had come from Rome and begun work in Kent in the south of England. Their form of Christianity was Roman in origin. The north of England had been evangelised by Irish monks who lived out what is called Celtic Christianity. As the two groups spread throughout England tension became inevitable. The two groups had a different way of setting the date of Easter and disagreed about how much centralisation there should be in the Church and how much spontaneity. The wife of King Oswy of Northumbria came from Kent and so he was confronted by the two forms of Christianity in his own house. So he called a Synod at Whitby in 664 to decide whether Roman or Irish customs should be followed. The Roman forces prevailed and the Irish monks withdrew to Iona in Scotland.

To cope with the changes and the departure of the Irish monks Cuthbert was made Prior of Lindisfarne. He re-organised the monastery. He also became famous because of his gift of healing. Streams of people came to Lindisfarne to seek his help. Cuthbert also had a strong relationship with wild animals and birds. One time he rose in the middle of the night to pray. This he did by standing for hours in the sea. When he returned to the beach two otters came with him and played around him. After he blessed them they returned to the sea.

St Cuthbert now felt a further call from God to be a hermit. He made his home on one of the desolate Inner Farne Islands. A cell to live in and a place in which to worship were built. They were surrounded by high walls so Cuthbert could only see the sky. Occasionally the monks would come from Lindisfarne to visit him and still, though fewer, people came seeking counsel and healing.

In 684 he was elected Bishop of Lindisfarne a position which he did not want. The King and other Bishops prevailed upon him. After two years of faithful leadership he resigned his position and returned to his hermit cell on the Inner Farne. Cuthbert died a hermit on 20 March 687. His body was taken to Lindisfarne where he was buried on the right hand side of the altar.

After many raids by the Vikings the monks fled from Lindisfarne taking Cuthbert’s body with them. After many years of wandering, the body of Cuthbert was brought to Durham in 995 and the monks began building that immense Cathedral. St Cuthbert’s tomb is in Durham Cathedral behind the High Altar having been placed there in 1104.

The following prayer is used in the Cathedral each year on 20 March, St Cuthbert’s Day:

 Almighty God, who didst call thy servant Cuthbert from keeping sheep to follow thy Son and to be a shepherd of thy people, mercifully grant that we, following his example and caring for those who are lost, may bring them home to thy fold, through thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

 BEDE, or THE VENERABLE BEDE, was a child of only seven years when in 680 he was taken to the monastery at Monkwearmouth for education. He was dedicated to the service of God. Two years later, a monk named Ceofrith established an outreach monastery at Jarrow. It was called St Pauls. Both Monkwearmouth and Jarrow are in Northumberland in the north-east of England. Ceofrith took Bede with him and he lived there from when he was nine until his death in 735.

Bede has been called the Father of English History. He wrote at least forty works, his most famous being Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation. There is no doubt that Bede had a strong sense of the divine calling on his work. When he was still a child all the monks at Jarrow died of the plague except Ceofrith and Bede. Because of his great knowledge of Latin and Greek and some Hebrew, he set about translating the Scriptures so they were more accessible to other monks and to the people. Bede did not forsake his spiritual duties for his writing. He was always present at the worship the monks were required to attend. He was ordained a Deacon and at the age of thirty he was priested.

It is unknown how he became known as ‘The Venerable Bede’. One story is that a disciple wrote in Latin, ‘In this tomb are the bones of Bede’. When he woke in the morning the word ‘venerable’ had been added.

Bede died in 735. He was translating right up to the time of his death. He was buried at Jarrow but later his body was removed to Durham Cathedral. There he lies in the Galilee Chapel. Above his grave in Latin and in English is this prayer of The Bede:

Christ is the Morning Star
Who when the night
of this world is past
brings to his saints
the promise of
the light of life
and opens everlasting day.

by Rev John Mavor