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 Jesus Christ your Son our Lord. Amen.
Collect for St Cuthbert
THIS prayer evokes a place as well as a person for me. As a collect, it enables the Church anywhere and everywhere to call to mind the person of Cuthbert, the Northumbrian saint, whose exemplary Christian life was lived 14 centuries ago.
It also enables Christians to consider their various callings, including those to ordained ministry, at a time of college open days and events such as one tomorrow at Bishopthorpe (organised by Step Forward, it is for those aged 18-30 and thinking about ordination: www.stepforwardanglican.org.uk).
And yet, in my mind and heart, it is also a prayer of one place, the place of Cuthbert’s remains: his shrine at the eastern end of Durham Cathedral. These words appear on a prayer desk facing Cuthbert’s tomb, flanked by well-worn kneelers.
Around the tomb, the feretory space feels both enclosed and open. Screens and steps separate the shrine from the adjoining Chapel of the Nine Altars; but the eye is led upwards to surrounding stained glass, spectacular vaulting, and a tester suspended above the tomb and depicting Christ in glory.
The prayer’s opening lines artfully summarise the legend of Cuthbert’s career from shepherd-boy to bishop, playing on the ancient imagery equating the two forms of work. The change of vocation is pivoted by the phrase “to follow thy Son”: Cuthbert became a leader only by following — following Christ.
The Venerable Bede writes that Cuthbert was on a mountain-side, tending a flock of sheep entrusted to him, when he was captivated by a stream of light reaching down to earth somewhere in the distance. He learned later that Aidan, the first Bishop of Lindisfarne, had died at the moment of this vision. Cuthbert took this to be a divine sign to deliver up his sheep to their owner, and lead a life of holiness and ministry, after St Aidan’s example.
Elements of this story echo the encounter of Moses with the burning bush in Exodus 3. Moses was also on a mountain, keeping sheep for his father-in-law, when a wondrous sight diverted him, initiating a new direction in his life. Shepherding sheep would no longer be his vocation, either: God’s people needed tending and leading to new pastures.
Spectacular, emotive experiences, such as Cuthbert’s stream of light, or the burning bush, are often seen as a person’s discovering God. Sudden converts, we say, have found God. And yet who is really doing the finding, and who is discovered? In the case, it was surely he who was found: “God called to him out of the bush: ‘Moses, Moses!’ And he said: ‘Here I am.’” Cuthbert’s calling also involved a desire within himself being uncovered, and brought to light. God is the discoverer. It is God who does the finding.
This divine initiative to search and find fits the gospel notion that God is the shepherd who leaves the 99 to go after the lost one. And yet the second half of this collect invites us to seek a place for ourselves within this very divine initiative: to follow Cuthbert by “caring for those who are lost”.
Care is to be shown by bringing the lost home to God’s fold. We, like Cuthbert and Moses, are to be shepherds of someone else’s sheep. True shepherds have a fold open and awaiting them, a place where they, with the psalmist, may lie down in green pastures, be led beside still waters, and have their souls restored.
While I was discerning whether to train for ordination, I visited Durham and spent an evening in the cathedral, including prayer and communion at St Cuthbert’s shrine. Until then, my sense of vocation had felt a much like being prodded, steered, and out-manoeuvred. It seemed as if a firm stick was being wielded about me, complete with crooked end reaching round my neck occasionally, and wrenching me from where I had become wedged.
That evening in the cathedral felt different. It was as if I had finally found the right enclosure. In contemplative silence, I was embraced and stilled. In the eucharist, I was fed and freed. In that place, I was discovered.
I am now privileged to live within walking distance of St Cuthbert’s shrine. I can currently return there any day I like, and often do. Such a habit departs some distance from the way the shrine was primarily perceived and used in the medieval period: I have not come on a lengthy, costly pilgrimage; I am not praying to Cuthbert to intercede for me.
Instead, I pray in the presence of a shepherd, and ask again for mercy to care for the lost. I am found here. I am enfolded by love. And then I leave, and walk out into a world full of lost sheep — someone else’s sheep — and try to offer directions towards a beautiful, open enclosure.
Dr Philip Lockley is an ordinand at Cranmer Hall, Durham. He was formerly a Lecturer in Theology at Trinity College, Oxford, and taught modern church history in the university.