By CAROLE BRESLIN
The Melrose Abbey in Scotland, which is located about 30 miles south-southeast of Edinburgh, attracts more visitors than just about any other attraction in Scotland. Although mostly in ruins now, the abbey boasts a museum and other sites of interest, such as the embalmed heart of Robert the Bruce. Mel Gibson revived interest in him with the making of Braveheart. Three miles to the east of this abbey, there was once another Melrose Abbey founded by St. Aidan and later there was also the abbey of which St. Cuthbert served as prior for a brief period of time.
St. Cuthbert, claimed by some Irishmen to be from their country, more likely was born in the Lowlands of Scotland. Since history does not pick up his life until he was about eight years old, he may have been an orphan, certainly born of poor parents. His caretaker, named Kenswith, cared for him as though he were her son.
Like most young boys, he was lively and active in many physical undertakings. He excelled at running and jumping as well as the “manly” art of wrestling. He did not seem to care much for the things of God by participating in these activities. However, one day a young lad stunned him with the comment, “How can you waste your time in idle sport — you whom God has set apart to be a priest and bishop?”
From that time on Cuthbert spent much time in contemplation and prayer facilitated by his quiet life of shepherding in Northumbria. In 651 — Cuthbert was about 15 years old at the time — he had a vision of St. Aidan’s soul being carried by angels to Heaven the very night Aidan died. From that moment on, the shepherd consecrated his life to God.
St. Cuthbert first went off to the military before showing up one day at the door of Melrose Abbey; he was accepted by St. Boisil, the prior, immediately. After nine years, he followed St. Eata to Ripon, just outside of Glasgow, where another abbey was to be built upon land which had been donated by the king.
Shortly thereafter, Cuthbert came down with the yellow plague that was decimating the people of Scotland. When he learned that an all-night vigil of prayer by his confreres saw him through the ordeal, he arose, exclaiming that God could not ignore the prayers of such good men.
Noticing that the populace was reverting to pagan charms and superstitious means to alleviate the plague, he undertook greater work to preach to the people and visit them to revive the Christian faith. He did this even though he had not fully recovered from the illness himself.
During his time at Ripon he ministered to those who were most far away, knowing that they saw priests the least. This travel over such hilly terrain certainly was not easy, but he did not count the cost. Even as prior of Melrose and then at Lindisfarne, he continued his visits both far and near.
Many miracles were worked at his hands, leading to his nickname, “The Wonderworker of Britain.” Other witnesses said that he rose at night to enter the water, as cold as it was, and spent the night up to his neck, praising and singing to the Lord. When he came ashore, legend has it that two otters rubbed him with their fur to warm his chilled body.
Another time when he and two other travelers were stranded at the foot of a cliff because of inclement winter weather, the two others feared for their lives. St. Cuthbert told them to trust in God who would provide for them and indeed they found a supply of dolphin meat nearby that sustained them until they were saved.
Conflict soon occurred to disrupt the peace. The struggle between the Celtic Rite and the Roman Rite, although settled at the Council of Whitby when the king ruled for the use of the Roman Rite, resulted in the Irish monks leaving and returning to Ireland, taking the remains of St. Aidan, the founder of Melrose, with them. The job left for St. Eata, who then became bishop, and St. Cuthbert his prior, was challenging, to say the least. Those disgruntled by the ruling made life difficult by opposing the ruling.
St. Cuthbert would simply close the meetings without delay when passions ran too high.
Eventually peace was restored by his patience and perseverance. He then continued his apostolic work with the people of the countryside by his preaching and visitations. He also labored to care for those who were physically ailing as well spending his nights in prayer and his days at work.
He yearned for a more solitary existence where he could spend his time in prayer, so, with the permission of his superior, he left for what is to this day called St. Cuthbert’s Isle off the east coast of Scotland. Visitors braved the stormy seas to reach him, however, driving him to move to an even more remote island that had neither water nor food.
At last he did find water on the island and after a year of crop failure he managed to raise some barley to sustain him. Even all this hardship did not deter those seeking his help. Surrendering, he built a guesthouse for those landing on the island. He left this island only once to minister to the king’s daughter, who urged him to accept a bishopric.
After long prayer and deliberation, he agreed, if he could spend six more months at his hermitage. During this time he spoke with St. Eata, who agreed to some changes which would allow St. Cuthbert to become bishop of Lindisfarne and thus be in charge of the monastery there.
He was consecrated bishop of Lindisfarne in 685. He continued to give alms, preach, and visit the poor. Sadly, two weeks after Cuthbert’s consecration, the king was killed in battle. This tragic loss of king and battle ushered in another round of the plague. Once again, the bishop visited the sick, working many miracles, bringing much hope to the suffering. He even brought one boy back to life.
Two years later, recognizing that his end was near, he gave some final instructions to his brethren. He suffered great trials at the end when no one could reach him. He died on March 20, 687.
In death, his body traveled almost as much as in life. He was first buried at Lindisfarne where his body remained for nearly 200 years. When the Northmen attacked Scotland, the body was carried to various sites, before finally being placed in Durham Cathedral.
Many pilgrims came to this shrine for Cuthbert, but during the chaos following the divorce of Henry VIII, his body was removed again when the Catholic churches were pillaged. Several places now claim to have portions of his remains in Scotland.
Dear St. Cuthbert, your prayers sustained your labors. Teach us to pray and to pray more deeply, listening and praising. Help us to support all our labors of evangelization with the all-important requirement of prayer and communion with our Father in Heaven, together with Jesus His Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
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(Carole Breslin home-schooled her four daughters and served as treasurer of the Michigan Catholic Home Educators for eight years. Mrs. Breslin’s articles have appeared in Homiletic & Pastoral Review and in the Marian Catechist Newsletter. For over ten years, she was national coordinator for the Marian Catechists, founded by Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ.)