Sunday, January 10, 2010

St. Cuthbert

So, for years all I've known about 'St. Cuthbert' comes from playing D&D, in which he is the patron for all those who think most problems can be solved by hitting somebody upside the head. I was vaguely aware that there'd once been a real Cuthbert, whom I associated with Iona, and who wd no doubt be astonished to find himself transformed into one of the fictional gods of Greyhawk by Gygax et al.

That's why I was bemused last week to read the Venerable Bede's life of Cuthbert, Vita Sancti Cuthberti, written about 721, or only about thirty-four years after Cuthbert's death in 687. Since Bede himself was born in 673, the two actually overlapped, and though Bede seems never to have met the man himself he incorporates a number of first-person accounts from various monks he knew who had known Cuthbert and been present at the events described.

Among some of the more interesting bits was the discovery that medieval monks took afternoon naps (part XVI), that the king of Northumbria's half-brother was exiled to Scotland for his love of literature (part XXIV) but recalled upon the king's untimely death to accede to the throne, and that tent revival meetings aren't a 19th/20th century American phenomenon like I thought but go back to early medieval times (XXXII)*.

Cuthbert was first an Abbot, then a hermit, and finally a bishop; I found the account of his years as a hermit the most interesting -- such as when birds came and fed on the barley he'd planted but all left when he reminded them it was unfair to reap what they had not sown (XIX), or his banishing the two crows who shared his island because they took straw from the thatch of the visitor's hut he built (so people who came to see him would have their own place to sleep and not intrude on his own cell); one came back a few days later and begged pardon for itself and its mate (successfully). Bede ascribes Cuthbert's ability to talk with animals and have them obey him as a sign that Adam's power of dominion over creation, denied to most of us, had been restored to him (XXI). Another theologically interesting passage comes somewhat earlier when after discussing Cuthbert's ability to extinguish raging housefires with just prayer he adds a personal note: "But I, and those who are, like me, conscious of our own weakness and inertness, are sure that we can do nothing in that way against material fire, and, indeed, are by no means sure that we shall be able to escape unhurt from that fire of future punishment, which never shall be extinguished" (XIV) -- apparently the 'born-again' conviction of guaranteed salvation was no part of the experience of the Venerable Bede, officially recognized as a Doctor of the Church, and his fellow monks. Hmm.

And, in a final note, it sounds as if Cuthbert was one of those who made it his mission to put down the native Celtic church and substitute Roman rites and customs in its place; there are no less than three mentions of his enforcing new practices: defending those whom the locals accused of having "taken away from men the ancient rites and customs" (III), imposing new practices upon those fellow monks at Lindisfarne who "preferred their ancient customs" (XIV), and on his deathbed denouncing those "who err from the unity of the Catholic faith . . . by keeping Easter at an improper time" (XXXIX).

So, a fairly interesting person, who was already being venerated as a miracle worker in his lifetime and whose remains were treated as saint's relics almost immediately, and in rather unsettling ways. A few famous saints, when you come to read their life's story, don't hold up too well to modern scrutiny, but Cuthbert, while no Francis of Assisi, comes off better than most.

In any case I don't think I'll be able to face him in a D&D setting again without thinking of the real person.

--John R.

*"he came to a mountainous and wild place, where many people had got together from all the adjoining villages, that he might lay his hands upon them. But among the mountains no fit church of place cd be found to receive the bishop [Cuthbert] and his attendants. They therefore pitched tents for him in the road, and each cut branches from the trees in the neighbouring wood to make for himself the best sort of covering that he was able. Two days did the man of God preach to the assembled crowds, and minister the grace of the Holy Spirit by imposition of hands upon those that were regenerate in Christ" (part XXXII).

1 comment:

Donna Farley said...

It's good to see the real Saint Cuthbert being discovered by someone familiar with the D&D version...I suppose it's somewhat analogous to the relationship of the real St. Nicholas to the modern Santa Claus! :-)

Recent scholarship is inclined to look at Saint Cuthbert as a transitional figure and something of a peacemaker between the Celtic and Roman traditions. It should be remembered that Bede writes from the next generation, and was very much a Roman partisan, which colours the language he uses to tell the story of Cuthbert.