A poem on the life of St. Cuthbert of Lindisfarne c.634-687ad,

by Colin Symes



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  Holy Island

A solitary stretch this is; a place too sacred
To be conjoined to the main, but by a path
Washed daily by the ebb and flow of cleansing tides
To rinse away the traces and the prints of things profane.
Here is a place aloof, a natural hermitage,
A cocoon of greatness, a wild, awesome shrine -
Holy Island , whence, when men were plagued with fear
Of darkness so profound, it passed their simple knowing,
A bolt flew, brilliant as the dawn of time itself,
To raise up Christ and down the demon ignorance,
To bring the fire of God searing through the kingdoms
Of this world, to reach from Forth to Thames , and further.

Here trod bold Aidan first; called by the Northumbrian king
To scatter seed that burgeons into life and faith;
He did not live to see thence spring but tender shoots,
Yet, in his heavenward ascent, one shepherd lad
Did, as famed Elisha saw his lord arise, see him
Borne upward, supported on the arms of angels
And thus did deem it as a vision for his life
To be a monk at Mailros, and to serve Lord Christ,
To serve with labour, study, witness and inspire
His confreres to abide in love, all to forsake
For sake of gaining heaven and the riches there,
And precious lives to liberate from pagan lore.


Cuthbert his name; raised by his mother-nurse, Kenswith ,
He learned the glory of the King of Heaven's love,
As, at her side, his eyes afire with wonder,
He heard the sacred history proclaimed to him.
A fine young man he was, sturdy and flaxen-haired,
Of breeding, not a common serf, but nobly born.
Like his heavenly Master he grew in favour high
And, by his vision, came he up to Prior Boisil ,
The well-loved prior at Mailros, who, on seeing him,
Raised in holy awe his hands toward sky and heaven
And declared for all to hear, prophetically,
As John to Christ, 'Behold, the servant of the Lord !'

 Site of Old Mailros, from Scott's View
There Cuthbert learned the skills in which monastics throve,
To read, to copy, memorise and preach Christ's word,
From Boisil, father to the novice youth, in all
A man of holy purity and prophetic grace.
And all along, in Cuthbert grew the peregrine ,
To forge through forest dark, to ford the rivers swift,
To reach the lone, desolate hamlets in their darkness,
To stand beside their village wells and bring them truth
From living springs, which quenched their thirst and brought them life.
Brave man ! Fed by eagles , beloved of seals and otters
Who came to warm his icy feet as he sang psalms
At dead of night, for penance standing in the sea.

Beloved indeed, not only of the lower orders,
But by all those whose lives he graced with his own life;
Scarce could he celebrate the mass without tears shed
And wept for pity at the sins confessed to him.
Through testing days of Whitby Synod calm he stayed,
When Colman, angry and unmoving, split the church
For sake of Easter Day , withdrawing to Iona,
Dividing even Aidan's bones 'twixt him and them.
Submissive Cuthbert, bending to the Roman way,
Desired the peace and furtherance of the holy life,
And rival factions reconciled to join again.
And then he came to Lindisfarne, as prior sent.


St Cuthbert's Island, Lindisfarne

Marked by a cross, an island even holier yet
Stands o'er against the sacred abbey's ruined walls;
Here built the holy man his oratory, cut off
From interference in his communion by tides.
Yet, even wading through the rising waters came
The pilgrims for the Thaumaturgus' blessed words,
That they might find some holy cure, some gracious sign,
Some vestige of the power found in Cuthbert's hands.
To hermitage had turned his thoughts of late,
To escape the constant press of men and women's need;
Thus was he granted leave to sail away to Farne
To share his oraisons with cries only of gulls.

Full nine long years upon that island was his home,
In chapel, where no view of sea nor land could draw
His thoughts from things divine; from Easter to Easter
He removed not his boots of skin from off his feet,
Save for the sacred Maundy's rite of washing them,
In honour of the Lord's great act to Peter.
Yet would he still not turn away the faithful ones
Who braved the vicious sea in boats to hear him speak,
Nor did their hope deceive them , for no man returned
Deprived of the great consolation Cuthbert gave,
Nor yet went back accompanied by sorrowed mind
Which caused his fearful voyage to bring him thither.

But now was Cuthbert troubled by heralds urgent,
Men, sent from Theodore , the Primate bade him come
And receive a bishop's mitre, to be at Hexham,
Thence to shepherd and to guide the northern churches.
He would not - too dear to him was his hermitage
To leave it now, to leave behind devotions' call,
The oratory, the animals, the lowly ducks
He tended on their nests without their scorning him -
To leave his lovely Farne would crush his ageing heart,
To go back to the mire and frenzy of the world -
He could not ! Then came the King himself to beseech
That he should lead them, leave his loneliness and come.


Then Cuthbert heard a voice; a distant voice it was
That rang to him from through the years long since gone by;
Boisil , his beloved prior, whose prophecy
He now, with pain, perceived to be at fulfilment,
'Behold the Servant of the Lord !' He knew the way -
His door he opened, and went out into the day.
'The Lord be praised !', the brothers' voices rose to sing,
And, 'Hail! thou, Hexham's bishop, servant of the Lord!'
Cuthbert smiled wanly, raised his hands in blessing,
Like one surrendering to superior forces,
And spoke; 'The comfort and advising of the weak
Is equal to the sacrifice of prayer. I come.'

St. Cuthbert's pectoral cross

As though he had not laid it down, his zeal renewed,
His work of care and wonders he took up once more.
Exchanging sees with Eata of Lindisfarne ,
Still close he stayed to well-kent places and his home;
Great miracles of healing issued from his prayers -
The plague was stayed, fierce storms were calmed, and many won.
He read men's inmost thoughts and saw their deep desires
Without their telling; of all Lindisfarne's bishops
The most beloved and revered this monk became;
And yet, in all, his garb remained humility.
How many blessed the day God spoke to Boisil first,
Which saying unlocked Cuthbert's heart to bishop them.

Yet, failed his strength and yearned his heart for lonely Farne;
A boat he took, knowing well his days were far spent;
'I shall return when you bring back my body here',
He said. And even in those last few days of life
When storms left Cuthbert desolate, in need of food ,
Those who would challenge winter seas to reach his isle
Were healed and comforted through Cuthbert's drooping hands
And wondered at the strength which dwelt in Cuthbert's heart.
At last, on a spring day, the unction he received
And, lifting up his heavy eyes to heaven,
Stretched forth his hands to magnify his Creator,
And in the very act of praising Him, expired.


They say his body incorruptible was kept,
And cherished by the brothers there at Lindisfarne
Until great waves of violent men crashed on the shores
To pillage and to massacre and to destroy .
The saint's revered remains they did not desecrate,
For faithful men bore off the casket, and in Durham
Layed him finally to rest, this holy being,
Underneath a slab of grey inscribed ,'CUTHBERTUS'.

 Cuthbert's tomb, Durham

O Lord, who by this faithful Cuthbert spoke,
Igniting fires of righteousness throughout the land,
Grant that this man may our hearts inspire to serve You,
As we his zeal and patience seek to emulate.

Edinburgh, 9th February 1980

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