Saint Cuthbert of Lindisfarne

Cuthbert (c. 634 – 20 March 687) is a saint of the early Northumbrian church in the Celtic tradition. He was perhaps of a noble family, and born in Dunbar, now in East Lothian, in the mid-630s, some ten years after the conversion of King Edwin to Christianity in 627, which was slowly followed by that of the rest of his people. The politics of the kingdom were violent, and there were later episodes of pagan rule, while spreading understanding of Christianity through the kingdom was a task that lasted throughout Cuthbert’s lifetime.

Cuthbert grew up near Melrose Abbey, a daughter-house of Lindisfarne, today in Scotland. He had decided to become a monk after seeing a vision on the night in 651 that St. Aidan, the founder of Lindisfarne, died, but seems to have seen some military service first. He was quickly made guest-master at the new monastery at Ripon, soon after 655, but had to return with Eata to Melrose when Wilfrid was given the monastery instead.

About 662 he was made prior at Melrose, and around 665 went as prior to Lindisfarne, living in a small cell. There he made friends with the birds, giving them his protection from hunters and sharing meals with them. He is the patron saint of otters, and after standing waist-deep in the North Sea during his nightly prayer vigils, two otters would come and warm his feet.

Cuthbert was a perfect choice for such a sensitive role; his reputation for devotion and sanctity, and the fact that he himself had been raised in the Celtic tradition and now supported Roman rule made his gentle leadership ideal for the job at hand. He spent a great deal of his time at Lindisfarne evangelizing among the people of the area, and exercising the tact and patience for which he was renown to lead the conversion to Roman Christianity.

Cuthbert’s time at Lindisfarne was short, however. He desired the peace of a life of contemplation, and in 676 the abbot granted him leave to retire to take up the simple life of a hermit. Just where Cuthbert chose for his retreat is uncertain. Some traditions say that the rocky islet of St. Cuthbert’s Island, near Lindisfarne, was the spot. Other traditions place him in St. Cuthbert’s Cave, near Howburn. In any case, he did not stay long, and soon moved to Farne Island, opposite Bamburgh.

After several years of austere life on Farne, Cuthbert was reluctantly persuaded to return to a more active role in the church, and became Bishop of Lindisfarne. His consecration was held at York on Easter, 685. He returned to Lindisfarne, but his time was short. By Christmas, 686 he felt his death approach, and Cuthbert resigned his see and returned to Farne Island. He died on March 20, 687.

But the story of Cuthbert does not end there. He was buried at Lindisfarne Priory, where his tomb quickly became a magnet for pilgrims. Miracles were reported at his grave; in fact, so numerous were the reported miracles that Cuthbert was called the “Wonder-worker of England”.