written by Mary B. Thorpe
In this season of the COVID-19 pandemic, Cuthbert is an apt source of wisdom.
You don’t know Cuthbert (627-687 A.D.)? Unless you come from the Diocese of Durham, where he is buried, that’s not surprising. He was a monk in northern England who had the heart of a hermit, but realized that God called him to a different role. He lived for much of his time in Lindisfarne, but did not only live a solitary life of prayer. He went out on long circuit rides to minister to those around him, teaching them of Christ and faithful Christian life. In “A Great Cloud of Witnesses,” James Kiefer notes that he “urg[ed] them in times of sickness not to rely on charms or amulets, but to pray to God and put their trust in his mercy and love.” He was made Bishop of Hexton, but swapped episcopates with his friend Eata, then Bishop of Lindisfarne, so he could return to the community he loved. Who knew that such a thing could be done? No one… except God, one imagines! He continued his loving pastoral care for the community until shortly before his death.
One of the things I’ve noticed in the midst of this pandemic is how easy it is to look for quick solutions, someone to blame, or magic bullets. Televangelist Jim Bakker got slapped down hard for suggesting that a product he was hawking (and profiting from) was efficacious, even though it was known that it had absolutely no value against the virus. FaceBook is full of ads for a variety of remedies that are equally questionable. And the conversation about where the virus came from, if it’s a conspiracy, how to resolve the pandemic? It often devolves into back-and-forth arguments of ever-increasing intensity.
How is it that when such a situation occurs, we forget God’s providence? How is it that we suddenly think it is all up to us to fix something that is so much larger? Our fear seems to make our faith more puny, not more robust. I expect that Cuthbert and his mentor Aidan of Lindisfarne regularly dealt with frightened people – this was not a calm time in the history of the Church and allegiances were fluid in northern England during this period – and illness, and death, and questions. Cuthbert’s wisdom in response to the struggles and pain was simple, and based in Jesus’ own words: pray and put your trust in God’s mercy and love.
That is not to say that Cuthbert only talked about prayer. No, he modeled care for the physical needs of those in distress, offering generous care, healing, and wisdom. He understood that God calls us to serve each other, most especially the least among us, those he encountered on his long journeys, those who were afraid, sick, troubled in heart.
Here’s where it gets complicated: how best to serve each other during this difficult season? Is it always going out to encounter those in need? For some, that may indeed be God’s wish. But for others, the wisest strategy is to be cautious in how we serve, because of our own age or infirmity. We can pray when we cannot encounter others face to face. We can give when there are other organizations who can support the needs of the hurting. We can stay home rather than being a vector of disease.
Some of our food pantries and feeding programs are having to adjust their ways of serving those in need to avoid further spread of the virus. This doesn’t always feel as welcoming and loving as the way we have done it regularly. But part of the gift of caring for others is respecting what helps and what creates greater risk. Cuthbert understood that.
One of the more surprising gifts Cuthbert, that deep introvert, brought to his work was the gift of reconciliation. Cuthbert lived in the midst of the great controversy between those who wanted to retain the Celtic religious tradition and those who wanted the Church in England to adhere to Roman traditions. It was a source of argument that rivaled anything we see on the Web in level of vitriol. And yet Cuthbert was apparently able to bridge that gap and get his people to accept the Roman tradition with little bloodshed, consistent with the decisions of the Synod of Whitby. In modern parlance, we’d say that he got people to focus on the main thing. We’d do well to model that ourselves, rather than expending energy on things which are not central to our call in this moment.
Odd, isn’t it? That a 7th century hermit and bishop from northern England would have anything to say to us in this hour? But we are God’s people. We tend to repeat our mistakes, large and small. Thanks be to God for reminders from this introverted but incontrovertibly gifted servant of God of what is important and what should be released from our attention. Maybe there will be one less mistake today, because of his wisdom.
Collect for Cuthbert of Lindisfarne:
Everliving God, you called your servants Aidan and Cuthbert to proclaim the Gospel in northern England and gave them loving hearts and gentle spirits: Grant us grace to live as they did, in simplicity, humility and love for the poor; through Jesus Christ, who came among us as one who serves, and who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
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Picture Attribution: (Scene of St. Cuthbert performing a healing miracle from BL YT 26, ff. 53v-54, [Public Domain] via picryl.com and Creative Commons).
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The Rev. Dr. Mary Brennan Thorpe is Canon to the Ordinary for the Diocese of Virginia, a wife, mother, grandmother, iconographer, writer, knitter, and lover of opportunities to see old things in new ways. Her prior career as a lobbyist has caused some to wonder if she has gone from the profane to the sacred as a form of repentance. She blogs sporadically at Rev Mibi, and is in the midst of writing two books.