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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

26 March 2021

Malcolm Guite makes an unforgettable pilgrimage, in the footsteps of St Cuthbert

THIS week, we have celebrated the feast day of St Cuthbert, one of my favourite saints. There is so much to like about him, and so much that seems pertinent to our lives, and to the Church now.

Like us, he was a Christian at a time when there were deep and apparently irreconcilable divisions in the Church. Although an Anglo-Saxon himself, his faith, — indeed, his moment of conversion — was the gift of Irish monks in the old Celtic church order: it was a vision of ascending light at the moment of St Aidan’s death, in Lindisfarne, which turned his life and brought him to his first monastery.

He lived at the time of that stormy Synod of Whitby, when his “side” lost, and he graciously gave up his place in the monastery at Ripon to Wilfrid, the victor in that synod, and returned to Melrose Abbey. Yet, when Cuthbert was called to leadership at Lindisfarne, he was able to build up a rich and diverse community, whose culture combined the best of his double Irish and Anglo-Saxon heritage.

But, in his deepest heart, he was a hermit, a contemplative, and a mystic, and was glad to give up the episcopacy and return, at last, to a hermit’s life on the Inner Farne.

I knew the story of his life from Bede, but felt I came closest to him when I walked, as he did, on foot from Lindisfarne to Melrose, staying in Cuthbert’s cave, and, as he did, reciting the Psalms aloud as I walked.

It was an unforgettable pilgrimage, for such long walks bring you close to God, to nature, and to your own heart. The myriad seabirds crying and wheeling over the islands, and the lovely “cuddy ducks”, for whose welfare he made special protective laws, and the high crags of the Eldon hills, still “a covering for the conies”, were just as they were, just as Cuthbert would have seen them, when he walked by and blessed them.

Of course, even when he left this life, on 20 March 687, his wanderings were not over; for when the Vikings raided Lindisfarne, “Cuthbert’s People”, as his community came to be called, set off with the relics of their saint, and wandered all over the north, bringing his body as a kind of benediction to every place they visited, until he, and they, came to rest in Durham.

I have been there, too, where the great cathedral towers over his shrine, and the dark stone proclaims “Cuthbertus” in august Latin lettering. But I prefer “Cuddy”, the affectionate name by which he is still known and revered all over the north. And that is the name I used to title this sonnet, in which I tried to capture a little of who he was, and still is, for all of us:

 

Cuddy

“Cuthbertus” says the dark stone up in Durham
Where I have come on pilgrimage to pray.
But not this great cathedral, nor the solemn
Weight of Norman masonry we lay
Upon your bones could hold your soul in prison.
Free as the cuddy ducks they named for you,
Loosed by the Lord who died to pay your ransom,
You roam the North just as you used to do;
Always on foot and walking with the poor,
Breaking the bread of angels in your cave,
A sanctuary, a sign, an open door,
You follow Christ through keening wind and wave,
To be and bear with him where all is borne;
The heart of heaven, in your Inner Farne.

(From The Singing Bowl, Canterbury Press, 2013)

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