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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Monday, 5 September 2016

St Cuthbert: our travelling companion in faith

Some of you will have heard Melvyn Bragg’s engaging series on The Matter of the North on BBC Radio 4 this week. On Tuesday he explored “The Glories of Northumbria”. His focus was the way in which Christianity shaped the origins of what we now call the North East. As a southerner, coming for the first time to Northumberland as a parish priest over thirty years ago, I began to learn not only to admire the saints of the north but to love them: Aidan whose feast day was last Wednesday; Hild, Oswald and Cuthbert, Benedict Biscop, Wilfred, and the man without whose writings we would know next to nothing about any of them, Bede. Since the 1980s, they have been my companions in prayer, pilgrimage and the spiritual life. They have played a large part in my formation as a human being and a Christian. I have tried to learn from them, though I am a long way from emulating their devotion, their fervour, their capacity to see the world lit up by God’s fierce and wonderful love.  

When I came back to the North East as Dean at Durham Cathedral, I found myself involved with the saints in a very particular way. The Cathedral is a shrine church that holds remains of three of them: Oswald, Bede and Cuthbert. But it is Cuthbert who lies at the heart of that great and wonderful building – like Lindisfarne, a spiritual emblem of Northumbria if ever there was one. The Cathedral is only there at all because of St Cuthbert and the community who wandered all over the north until they found a permanent home for his body and built a church around it. To be guardian of Cuthbert’s shrine, to have it as a focus of prayer and reflection, to welcome pilgrims who come in search of all that his memory represents – it’s been the greatest privilege of my life.

But our own story comes in at this point, here in the upper reaches of the Tyne. For on their pilgrimage in search of a final resting place, Cuthbert’s community stopped in many different places with their bishop, their Lindisfarne gospel book and the relics of their saints. Wherever they stopped, a temporary church was constructed to house the shrine. Many of them became permanent buildings, a chain of ancient churches across the north that held the memory of this extraordinary journey. Old Haydon, Beltingham, Bellingham, Corsenside, Halton, Allendale and Elsdon are among those in the catchment of the River Tyne and there are many more across Northumberland and Durham. 

So this church we worship in tonight is a footprint of a journey, a trace of a community on the move. I find great meaning in this. Bede tells us that Cuthbert himself was a great traveller, like Aidan and Wilfred before him, always journeying towards new and unknown horizons where he believed God was leading him to bear witness to the gospel. I see him as a kind of Jeremiah as we heard in the first lesson, a young man eager to go where he could uproot and destroy all that was unjust and wrong so as to build and to plant what would serve to bring about goodness and truth. In that reading, Jeremiah is promised hardship and suffering if he is to be faithful to his call. And having preached to exiles, he himself ends up as an exile in Egypt where he dies. There’s a hint of Cuthbert there too, embracing self-inflicted loneliness and exile in a hermit’s cell on the Inner Farne, not because he saw it as a place of peace and tranquility but because he looked for a harsh and testing environment where he could do battle with the demons. 

I love the idea that like Cuthbert, his family of followers saw themselves as a pilgrim people. The monks of Durham identified them with the Hebrews tramping across deserts, rivers and seas as they looked for their promised land; they saw their great Cathedral as the goal of every pilgrim’s longing, Jerusalem the golden. I used to preach about Durham, for all its rock-like stability, having been a mobile cathedral for all those decades Cuthbert’s community were on the move. And part of its pre-history is this church dedicated to St Cuthbert. Because his community rested here with its bishop, praying, preaching good news from its gospel book, remembering its saints, we can truly say that once upon a time, the cathedral was here too. And if it turned out that in his lifetime, Cuthbert came here too, that would simply add lustre to what we cherish in the long history of this holy place.

So if we are going to be faithful to Cuthbert’s memory in this our valley, in these church's dedicated to him, then we need to be travellers of the spirit in our minds and imaginations. That is to say: daring to light new lamps, begin new tasks, think new thoughts of God, hold new hopes of heaven. Our world and our lives are not at all like Cuthbert’s or his community’s. But for them as for us, life could never be about standing still. “To live is to change, and to live long is to have changed much” as John Henry Newman said. If we follow Jesus the Way, we are always a people on pilgrimage.

Embracing change can be the most difficult thing in the world. But what’s so important about travelling is that it opens us up to new possibilities. It helps us to see new things and see familiar things in new ways. A Bantu proverb I'm find of says that if you never travel, you think mother is the only cook. That’s what Cuthbert and his community can help us to grasp: that there can be transformation and renewal in the lives of our churches, our communities, ourselves. Life doesn’t have to be stuck in old habits or routines once we entertain the thought that God could make a difference. 

This was what motivated Cuthbert and the saints. They had looked into the face of God in Christ, and had grasped what St John is speaking about in our second lesson, words I treasure more and more. “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called the children of God; and that is what we are. We are God’s children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” What we shall be has not yet been revealed. But we glimpse it in the death and resurrection of Jesus and his gift to us of a transformed hope and vision of life. And we make it real by following Jesus as Cuthbert and his community did, loving one another “not in word or speech but in deed and truth” as St John says. Like them, we look for the signs that God is making all things new. Like them we are learning how to live as those who are hope-filled, unafraid and glad, who believe and trust, like them, that God is among us on every journey that we make, until one day we see him face to face and travelling days are done. 

Michael Sadgrove, In St Cuthbert’s Time, September 2016

Jeremiah 1.1-12, 1 John 3.1-3, 18-end

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