Retreat 5: St Cuthbert

On the Sunday evening I made my way from Holy Island to an even smaller island – St Cuthbert’s Isle, which you can cross to easily when the tide is out. I had to be quick though as it was around 9 in the evening and getting dark. People are often got caught out with the tide when hopping across to St Cuthbert’s Isle, having to wait on the tiny island for as long as five hours till the tide again recedes.

Cuthbert would often come here to escape from the busyness of the monastery on Holy Island, praying in a small cell here that he built. He strikes me as being a true contemplative, seeking to get away from it all, even from the remote island and the monks to somewhere quieter.

Cuthbert received his ‘call’ from God on 31st August, AD 651, the night St Aiden died. He saw a vision in the sky while minding a flock of sheep by night – a stream of light from the sky, a choir of heavenly hosts descending to earth and taking with them a ‘soul of exceeding brightness’. He was just 17 at the time.

The next day, on learning that Aiden has died the same night of the vision, he went to Melrose to become a monk. Here he spent 13 years, becoming prior of Melrose in his late 20s, and moving to Lindisfarne when he was about 30. Here he helped in the running of the monastery and was an active missionary and spiritual guide.

But as the years wore on Cuthbert felt God calling him to a life of greater solitude, and at 40 he moved the larger island of Inner Farne, where he built a hermitage. People still sought him out, making their way over to him in boats to consult him about spiritual matters or for healing.

Cuthbert reluctantly left his life of peace and solitude for a couple of years to become a bishop, at the request of both church and king. He travelled extensively, nurturing newly formed monasteries and acting as visionary, prophet and healer.

Cuthbert died on Inner Farne on AD 687 in the company of his monks. His body was buried on Lindisfarne.

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