Amy Steedman – Saint Cuthbert

[Saint Cuthbert icon]
In all the countryside there was no other boy so strong and fearless as Cuthbert, the shepherd lad who dwelt amongst the hills above the old town of Melrose.

It was in the time when life was hard and rough, and there were but few comforts or luxuries even in the houses of the rich. The children in those days early learned to brave many a danger and suffer many a hardship, and so they grew up sturdy and strong of limb, accustomed to an open-air life, little heeding the icy winds of winter or the snow-storms that swept their southern border-lands of Scotland.

But among all these hardy children of the hills there was none to compare with Cuthbert. In all their games of skill or strength he easily won the foremost place. Whether it was winter and they played at mimic warfare, with wonderful snow castles to be stormed and good round snowballs for their ammunition, or whether it was summer time and they ran and wrestled on the grassy slopes of the hillside, it was Cuthbert who led the attack on the victorious side, Cuthbert who was champion among the wrestlers and swiftest in the race. When others grew tired and cried for a truce, Cuthbert was still fresh and eager, ready to urge them on, for he never seemed to know what it meant to give in. And yet there were times when the boy stole away silently by himself to a lonely part of the hill that overlooked the little grey road beneath, and there sat as quiet and motionless as the rabbits that peeped out of their holes in the rocks beside him. So still did he sit that any one seeing him might have thought he was asleep, if they had not seen his keen bright eyes and guessed that he was as busy with his thoughts as he had been about his games.

But there was no one on the wild hillside to watch the silent boy; only his little furry friends the rabbits stole out and nibbled the grass about his feet, and the birds came hopping around him, knowing they had nought to fear from one who never harmed them, waiting for the meal which he always shared with these his friends. Sometimes impatient of his long long thoughts, they would come nearer and peck at his bare feet, and Cuthbert would raise himself and chide them for their greediness, as he spread the crumbs which he had saved for them.

It was the little grey road beneath on which his eyes were fixed, and his thoughts followed its windings until it reached the old abbey of Melrose, the home of the holy monks, the servants of God. Sometimes he would see two or three of the brothers in their homespun cloaks passing beneath, and would listen to the soft notes of the vesper hymn as it floated upwards, and the eager light in his eyes grew ever brighter as he watched and listened. He knew what these good monks did for the people around; how they protected the weak, helped the helpless, nursed the sick, and went about unarmed and fearless through all the dangers that beset their path. There was something about the look of their kind strong faces that fascinated the boy, and drew him to watch for their passing and to dream of their work and their courage. Then he would softly sing over the fragments of their hymns which his keen ear had caught, and the sound stirred something in his soul.

“Who knows; some day I too may become a servant of God,” he would whisper to himself. And it was a wonderful thought to dream about.

Then came a day which Cuthbert never forgot. He was playing as usual with the other boys, who were leaping and wrestling, and in their wild spirits trying to twist themselves into every kind of curious shape. They were all laughing and shouting together, when a little boy, scarce more than a baby, ran up and pulled Cuthbert by his coat.

“Why dost thou play such foolish games?” asked the child gravely.

Cuthbert stood still and looked down with surprise into the child’s solemn eyes.

“Little wise one,” he answered with a laugh, pushing him aside, but with no rough touch, “wilt thou teach us thy games of wisdom instead?”

The child turned away and with a sob flung himself upon the ground, crying as if his heart would break. The children gathered round, fearing he was hurt, but no one could find out what it was that vexed him, until Cuthbert lifted him up and soothed him with kindly words.

“Has aught harmed thee?” asked Cuthbert.

“No, no,” sobbed the child; “but how canst thou, Cuthbert, chosen by God to be His servant and bishop, play at foolish games with babes, when He has called thee to teach thy elders?”

What strange words were these? The other boys had little patience with the crying child, and roughly bade him go home. But in Cuthbert’s ears the words rang with a solemn sound, and he stored them up in his mind to ponder upon their meaning. What had the child meant? Was it possible that some day the words would come true and he would indeed be chosen by God to enter His service?

There was so much to think about that the lonely hours on the hillside grew longer and longer, and he but rarely joined in the games now. Even at night he could not rest, thinking those long long thoughts. He knew that the holy monks spent many a night in prayer to God, and he learned to love the dark solemn stillness when he crept out on the bare hillside to say his prayers under the starlit sky.

It seemed to be a link between him and those servants of God, and he thought in his childish way that if the angels were there to carry the holy prayers up to God’s throne, they might in passing take his little prayer as well, and in that goodly company God would accept the best that a child could offer, knowing it was the prayer of one who longed to serve Him too.

As Cuthbert grew older there was less time for dreaming or for play. The sheep that were entrusted to him needed constant watchful care, for it was no easy task to be a shepherd in those wild days. Many an enemy lurked on the hillside, ready to snatch away a lamb if the shepherd was not careful. Not only did wolves prowl hungrily around, but men, not too honest, were as ready as the wolves to rob the flock, and it behoved the shepherd to be ever watchful and wary.

At night-time the shepherd lads would gather their sheep together and spend the hours in company watching round the fire, which they piled high with dried heather and dead branches from the wood. It was no hardship to Cuthbert, for he loved the long quiet nights on the hillside, and often while the others slept he watched alone, using the time for prayer.

He had helped to make the watch-fire as usual one night and had seen to the safety of the sheep, and then, one by one, the shepherd lads had fallen asleep in the warmth of the glowing fire. There was no need to rouse them, for he could keep guard alone, and he stole away a little apart to spend the night in prayer, as was his custom.

It was a dark night; the sky was velvet black, without even a star to prick a point of light through its heavy blackness, and the reflection of the fire served only to make the darkness more dense on the lonely hillside. Cuthbert could scarcely see the outline of the sheep, huddled together for warmth, and in that great silence and solitude God seemed very near. Then, as he knelt in prayer, gazing upwards, a vision such as that which gladdened the eyes of the shepherds of Bethlehem burst upon his view. A great stream of dazzling light broke through the darkness, as if a window in heaven had been opened, and in that white shaft of light a company of angels swept down to earth. It was no birthday message which they brought this time, but their song of triumph told of a good life ended, the crowning of a victor in a well-fought fight, as they bore upward the soul of one whose warfare was accomplished and who was entering into the joy of his Lord.

A great awe and joy filled the soul of Cuthbert as he gazed. Long after the last gleam of heavenly light had vanished, the last echo of the angels’ songs had ceased, he knelt on there. This then was the glorious end of those who entered the service of God. “Fight the good fight: lay hold on eternal life”; was that an echo of the angels’ song, or how was it that he seemed to hear the words spoken clearly in his ears?

With a cry Cuthbert sprang to his feet and ran back to the fire where the sleeping shepherds lay.

“Wake up, wake up,” he cried, shaking them by the shoulders as he spoke. “How can ye sleep when ye might have beheld the vision of God’s angels?”

The startled lads jumped up, wondering at first whether it might be an alarm of wolves or robbers, but even they were awed when they caught sight of Cuthbert’s face and saw the light that shone upon it. With breathless interest they listened to the tale he had to tell of the angels’ visit and the soul they had carried up to God. What could it all mean? They wished that they too had spent the night in prayer, instead of sleeping there.

Early in the morning, as soon as it was light and he could leave the sheep, Cuthbert found his way to the nearest hamlet, and there he learned that Aiden, the holy Bishop of Lindisfarne, had died that night.

So it was the soul of the good Bishop whose glorious end, nay rather whose triumphant new beginning, had been heralded by the angel throng. Cuthbert was awed to think that his eyes had been permitted to gaze upon that wondrous vision, and he felt that it must surely be a sign that God had given ear to his prayers, and would accept him as His servant. It was a call to arms; there should be no delay. He was eager and ready to fight the good fight, to lay hold on eternal life.

Before very long all his plans were made. It was but a simple matter to follow the example of the disciples of old, to leave all and to follow the Master. Only the sheep were to be gathered into the fold and their charge given up; only the little hut on the hillside to be visited, and a farewell to be said to the old nurse who dwelt there. Cuthbert had lost both father and mother when he was eight years old, and the old woman had taken charge of him ever since. She was sorely grieved to part with the lad, but she saw that his purpose was strong and that nothing would shake it. With trembling hands she blessed him ere he left her, and bade him not forget the lonely little hut on the hillside and the old nurse who had cared for him.

So at last all was ready, and Cuthbert set off down the hillside and along the little grey road that led to the monastery of Melrose, beside the shining silver windings of the Tweed.

Snow lay on all the hills around, and the wintry wind wailed as it swept past the grey walls and through the bare branches of the trees that clustered round the abbey. So mournful and so wild was the sound that it might have been the spirit of evil wailing over the coming defeat in store for the powers of darkness, when the young soldier should arrive to enrol his name in the army of God’s followers.

At the door of the monastery a group of monks were standing looking down the darkening road for the return of one of the brothers. The prior Boisil himself was among them, and was the first to catch sight of a figure coming towards them with a great swinging stride. “A stranger,” said one of the brothers, trying to peer through the gathering gloom.

“It is no beggar,” said another. “Methinks it is a young knight. His steps are eager and swift, and he hath strong young limbs.”

The prior said naught, but he too eagerly watched the figure as it came nearer. A strange feeling of expectancy had seized him. Something was surely about to happen which he had half unconsciously long waited for. Then, as the boy drew near and lifted his eager questioning eyes to the prior’s face, the good man’s heart went out to him.

“Behold a servant of the Lord.” Very solemnly the words rang out as Boisil stretched out both hands in welcome, and then laid them in blessing upon the young fair head that was bowed before him.

The greeting seemed strange to the brethren gathered around. Who was this boy? What did their prior mean? But stranger still did the greeting sound in the ears of Cuthbert himself, and he could scarcely believe that he heard aright. “A servant of God”: did the holy man really mean to call him, the shepherd lad, by that great name?

“Father,” he cried, almost bewildered, “wilt thou indeed teach me how I may become God’s servant, for it is His service that I seek?”

The prior smiled kindly at the anxious face, and bade him enter the monastery in God’s name.

“My son,” he said, “there is much for thee to learn, much to suffer, much to overcome, but surely the victory shall be thine.”

So Cuthbert entered the monastery and the gates were shut. The old life was left behind and the new life begun.

The prior himself taught the boy his new lessons, for his love for the lad grew stronger and deeper each day. Boisil felt sure there was a great future before the youth, and he often dreamed dreams of the greatness in store for him and the work that he should do for God in the world,

“Who knows,” he would say, “what honour God hath in store for thee. If heaven sends dreams, then is thy future sure, for I have seen thee wearing the bishop’s mitre and holding the pastoral staff.”

As for Cuthbert himself, he was too busy to think much of dreams or make plans for the future. Just as he had played his boyish games with all his might, so now he threw his whole soul into the work of the monastery. Lessons, prayer, fast and vigil, all were diligently attended to, and it was pleasant to see his glad cheerfulness when he was set to labour with his hands. The harder the task the more he seemed to enjoy it, and he rejoiced in the strength of his body which made him able to undertake much service. Although he now lived in the sheltered convent of the valley, his thoughts would often fly back, like homing birds, to the green hillsides, the glens and rocky passes, back to the little lonely weather-beaten hut where the old nurse lived. He never could forget the people who lived up there among the hills—poor shepherds, work-worn women and little children. It was a hard life they lived, with never a soul to bring them a message of hope or good cheer. Little wonder that their ways were often crooked and evil, and the thought of God but a far-off, dim, half-forgotten dream. Little wonder that black magic and witchcraft should still have power to enchain them in their ignorance and fearfulness.

The good prior often talked with the eager young brother about these wandering sheep, and when the time came he sent Cuthbert out with his blessing to work amongst the hills once more, to gather the flock into the true fold.

How well did Cuthbert know those steep mountain paths! With what a light heart did he find his way over the rough hillsides where no paths were, to reach some cluster of huts where a few poor families lived, or even a solitary dwelling where some poor soul needed his care. There was something about the young monk that won a welcome for him wherever he went. Perhaps it was because he was so sure that all would rejoice to hear the message he brought; perhaps it was because he looked for the best in every one and so they gave him of their best.

From place to place Cuthbert went, and it mattered not to him how rough was the road or how terrific the storms that swept over the border-land. The snow might lie deep upon the hills, and he might be forced to spend the whole day without food, but no difficulty ever turned him back or forced him to leave one but unvisited.

Far and near the people began to look anxiously for his coming, and to listen eagerly to his teaching. There was always much for him to do; many a tale of sin to listen to, many a sinner to be taught the way of repentance. There were children, too, to be baptized, and this was work which Cuthbert always loved. They were the little lambs of the flock to be specially guarded from the Evil One, who was ever prowling around to snatch them from the fold. The hut where the old nurse lived was often visited, for Cuthbert never forgot his friends.

There were other friends too that Cuthbert remembered and loved. His “little sisters the birds” soon learned to know and trust him again, and the wild animals of the hills grew tame under his hand. It is said that on one of his journeys, as he went to celebrate Mass with a little boy as server, they had finished all their food and were obliged to go hungry. Just then an eagle hovered above their heads and dropped a fish which it had just caught. The little boy seized it gladly and would have promptly prepared it for their meal, but Cuthbert asked if he did not think the kind fisherman deserved his share. The boy looked at the eagle and then at the small fish; but he knew what the master meant, so the fish was cut in half and the eagle swooped down to secure its share of the dinner.

There is another story told of the kindness shown by his furry friends to Saint Cuthbert, and it is a story which many people have remembered even when the history of Saint Cuthbert’s life has been wellnigh forgotten.

It was when Cuthbert went to visit the holy Abbess of Coldingham, that, as was his wont when night came on, he wandered out to say his prayers in silence and alone. Now one of the brothers had long been anxious to know how it was that Cuthbert spent the long hours of the night, and so he stole down to the seashore and hid among the rocks, watching to see what would happen.

It was a cold bleak night, and the sea lay black and sullen outside the line of breakers, but Cuthbert seemed to have no fear of cold or blackness. Reaching the edge of the waves, he waded in deeper and ever deeper until the water rose as high as his chest. Standing thus, he sang his hymn of praise to God, and the sound of the psalms rose triumphant, hour after hour, above the sob of the sea and the wail of the wintry wind. Not till the first faint gleam of dawn touched the east with rosy light did Cuthbert cease his vigil of prayer and praise. Then, numbed and half frozen, he waded out and stood upon the shelving beach once more, and from the sea there followed him two otters. The watcher among the rocks saw the two little animals rub themselves tenderly against the frozen feet, until their soft fur brought back some warmth and life to the ice-cold limbs; and when their work was done they stole quietly back into the water and were seen no more. It is this legend of the kindness of the otters which has never been forgotten whenever the name of Saint Cuthbert is mentioned.

For fourteen years Cuthbert remained at Melrose, and when the good Boisil died the brethren chose the favourite young monk as their prior. But it was not long before he left the abbey of Melrose and went to the monastery of Lindisfarne, on the wild bleak island known as Holy Island. Here for twelve years he did his work as thoroughly and bravely as he had done when he was a monk at Melrose, and within the monastery his gentleness and infinite patience, his kindliness and wise dealing, smoothed away every difficulty, and brought peace and happiness to all the community.

It was no easy life he led on that bleak, bare, wind-swept island of the North Sea, but still Cuthbert sought for something harder and more difficult to endure. He longed to follow the example of the hermit saints of old, and he made up his mind to seek some desert spot where he might live alone with God, far from the world with its love of ease and its deadly temptations.

From the monastery of Lindisfarne, Cuthbert had often gazed across to the little islands which in summer-time shone like jewels set in a silver sea, and in winter seemed like little grey lonely ghosts wrapped in their shroud of easterly haar, or lashed by the cruel north wind until only the white foam of the breakers marked the spot where they stood. It was whispered by the brethren that evil spirits had their haunt upon the wildest of those little islands, and it seemed a fit place for the powers of darkness to work their will. There was not a tree and scarcely a plant upon the little island of Farne, for the bitter winds blew the salt spray in from every side, and only the wild sea-birds, gulls, kittiwakes, puffins, and eider-ducks, found shelter among the rocks to build their nests.

It seemed exactly the spot that Cuthbert sought for his retreat, and he only smiled when the brethren sought to dissuade him, and talked of the dangers that awaited any one who dared to land upon that island.

“Have we not ourselves heard the demon shrieks and their wild wicked laughter on stormy nights?” said one brother solemnly.

“Ay, and have we not seen the glitter of the demon lights set there to lure poor fishermen to their destruction?” said another.

“The greater need, then, that I should go,” said Cuthbert. “Christ’s soldier is the fittest champion to fight the powers of darkness.”

So Christ’s soldier went out to seek a home on the desolate island, and all alone there he set to work to found a little kingdom of his own. Whether the demons fled at the approach of the holy man, or whether they fought for their kingdom and were cast out by the might of Saint Cuthbert, or whether he found only the shrieking wind and wail of the wild birds instead of the howls of a demon crew, we know not. But certain it is that when at last some of the brothers ventured over, half timidly, to see how their prior fared, they found only Cuthbert and the wild birds there in peaceful solitude.

The hut which he had built for himself against the rocks was almost like a sea-bird’s nest, for it was hollowed out deep within, and its walls were of rough stones and turf, its roof of poles and dried grass. It must have been a work of great labour to build that wall, and some of the stones were so large that it seemed as if it would have needed three men to move them.

“He could not have done it by himself,” whispered the brethren; “it is God’s angels who have helped him.” And when, too, they found a spring of clear water gushing from the rock close to the little oratory, they said in their hearts, “He who turneth the stony rock into pools of water, hath here again shown His care for His servant.”

At first it was needful that food should be brought to Cuthbert on the desolate island, but he was very anxious to provide for himself, for he always loved to work with his hands. The first crop of corn which he sowed came to nought, but the next thing he tried was barley, and that grew and flourished, and Cuthbert was content to think that now no longer was he dependent on others for his food. Yet it was but a scanty supply of grain that he had, and it was not without reason that the people whispered that the angels must bring food to the holy man, for he never seemed to lack the daily bread.

The wild birds that built their nests in the island of Farne soon grew accustomed to their new companion, and ceased to rise in white clouds when he came near. Of all the birds the eider-ducks were his special favourites and his special friends, and even to this day they are known by the name of Saint Cuthbert’s ducks. So friendly did they become that, when the sunny month of June smiled on the little island and the mother duck was sitting upon her nest, she would allow Saint Cuthbert to come near and gently stroke her, and even let him peep inside at the hidden treasure—the five pale olive-coloured eggs that lay so snugly at the bottom of the nest.

For eight years Cuthbert lived his life of prayer and self-denial in the little home he had made for himself, but at the end of that time God had other work for him to do. In the world of strife and human passions the Church had need of a strong arm and a pure heart, and it was decided that the hermit of Farne Island should be called forth and made a bishop.

A company of men landed on the island and brought the message to the lonely man in his little oratory, but Cuthbert would not listen to their pleading. The honour was too great for him, he said, and he prayed them to leave him to his prayers. Then it was that the King himself, with the bishops and great men of the kingdom, came in a wondrous procession and besought Cuthbert to come out and do battle for God in the Church. Cuthbert saw then that it was the will of God, and very sorrowfully he yielded. It was with a sad heart that he left his home among the wild birds and prepared to take his place in the world again as Bishop of Lindisfarne.

The dreams of Boisil, the good prior of Melrose, had indeed come true. The shepherd lad of the hills, the monk of Melrose, the prior of Lindisfarne, the hermit of Farne, now held the pastoral staff and wore the mitre of a bishop.

It was no mere sign of office that Cuthbert held in his hand the pastoral staff. He was indeed a shepherd and bishop of men’s souls, and he guarded and tended his flock as carefully as in the old days he had tended the sheep upon the hills. Once again he trod the rough hilly paths and brought comfort and help to those who were afar off, and lit the lamp of faith that had grown dim. Sometimes, in the wild waste districts where there was no church and but few huts, the people would build a shelter for him with the boughs of trees, and there, in Nature’s green cathedral, they would gather the children together for confirmation. Surely none of the little ones ever forgot that moment when they knelt before the good Bishop and felt the touch of his hand upon their bowed heads. The pale thin face was worn with suffering and hardship now, but the old sweet smile still drew all men’s hearts out to him, and the love that shone in his eyes seemed more of heaven than of earth. He had always loved the lambs of the flock, and each little fair head upon which he laid his hand had a special place in his heart, as he gathered them into the fold of the Good Shepherd.

But it was not only the souls of his people for which Cuthbert cared, but for their bodies as well. Many an illness did he cure: many a stricken man owed his life to the Bishop’s care. It seemed as if his very presence put fresh courage and strength into those who were thought to be dying, so that the touch of his hand led them back from the very gates of death. God had indeed given His servant special powers of healing, and who shall measure the power of a good man’s prayers?

Once, in a far-off hamlet which had been visited by a deadly sickness, Cuthbert had gone from hut to hut, visiting and cheering each one of his people, leaving behind him courage and returning health. He was very weary and worn out, for the work had been heavy, but before leaving, he turned to a priest who was with him and said, “Is there still any one sick in this place whom I can bless before I depart?”

“There is still one poor woman over yonder,” answered the priest. “One of her sons is already dead and the other is dying even now.”

A few swift strides and the Bishop was by the side of the stricken mother. No thought had he of the danger of catching the terrible disease. His strong loving hands gently drew the dying child from her arms, and, holding the little one close to his heart, he knelt and prayed that God would spare the little life. Even as he prayed the child’s breathing grew easier, and the cold cheek grew flushed and warm, and when he placed him again in his mother’s arms it was a living child she held and not a dying one now.

But Cuthbert’s strength was waning fast, and the old splendid health and strength were gone. He knew his work was drawing to a close and the days of his usefulness were over, and with the knowledge came a great longing to creep away to the little sea-girt island, and spend the last few months alone with God.

It was with heavy hearts that the brothers watched the little boat made ready which was to carry their beloved Bishop away from their care.

“Tell us, Reverend Bishop, when may we hope for thy return?” cried one.

“When you shall bring my body back,” was the calm answer. Then they knew that this was their last farewell, and they knelt in silence to receive his blessing.

The end was not far off. A few short weeks amongst the happy birds; a worn weary body laying itself down to rest before the altar in the little oratory; a glad soul winging its triumphant flight back to God, and Saint Cuthbert’s earthly life was over.

The end? Nay, there is no ending to the lives of God’s saints, for they come down to us through the ages, a golden inheritance which can never die; stars in the dark night shining steadily on, with a light “which shineth more and more unto the perfect Day.”