Yesterday I made a pilgrimage to St. Cuthbert’s Shrine in Durham Cathedral.
St. Cuthbert died in 687. The Venerable Bede wrote this about St. Cuthbert’s death in his History of the English Church and People:
“Above all else he was afire with heavenly love.”
For over 100 years people flocked to visit Cuthbert’s shrine on Lindisfarne. Holy Island became one of the most important sites in early medieval Christianity. But in 793 Lindisfarne was suddenly no longer a safe resting place for the body of the “Fire of the North”. The Vikings attacked. After repeated raids on the northern coast of England, the Bishop of Lindisfarne decided to move Cuthbert’s body (and the whole church piece by piece!) onto the mainland. That new location was short-lived as Viking raids laid waste to another nearby priory and the great church in Hexham. So in 875 the monks put the head of St. Oswald, and some bones of St. Aidan, into Cuthbert’s coffin and set off on what would be an over 100 year journey around Northumbria. His body is said to have rested in many churches and villages throughout the area including here in Hexham and in the village of Elsdon where perhaps the first person with the surname Elsdon was given the first name Cuthbert.
In the late 10th century a monk had a vision that Cuthbert wanted them to go to Dunholm (Durham). So the company of men found their way to a high plateau and there set up a new shrine for their beloved Cuthbert. But alas there was still no permanent rest for the weary. 1066 brought William the Conqueror and the Norman Invasion. The Bishop of Durham fled before the Norman army, taking Cuthbert with him. Finally, a period of calm descended upon the area and Cuthbert could be returned to Durham. The first stone was laid for the magnificent Durham Cathedral in 1093 and in 1104 Cuthbert was finally laid to rest permanently in the shrine behind the high altar. At that time Cuthbert’s coffin was opened and his body was said to be found totally intact having not decomposed in over 400 years! This miracle only added to the mystery and wonder associated with St. Cuthbert.For over 1300 years pilgrims have visited St. Cuthbert’s shrine seeking divine guidance and intervention in their lives. I made my own pilgrimage this week.
My pilgrimage was quite different from those of medieval Christians walking over the hills and through the valleys of Northumberland to the great cathedral on the hill in Durham overlooking the River Wear. But I did go on my own power. I rode my bike. Despite this being the wettest April in England in more than 100 years, I have done what I can to get out on my bike. So partly to enjoy another beautiful ride through the countryside, and partly to make my journey to Durham without a car, I rode the 40 miles from Hexham to Durham. I did get lost along the way a couple of times and had to struggle up 20% grade hills with my bike loaded down. But all in all it was a very pleasant way to journey between two of the greatest churches in all of northern England.
I have been to Durham a number of times before. It was a place that I went routinely with my family when visiting this area as a child. Erica and I watched a very young Daniel Radcliff and a very white Hedwig filming this scene from Harry Potter in the cloister of Durham Cathedral 12 years ago. I remember checking out the tomb of the Venerable Bede who is also buried in the Cathedral. But this time my visit was different. After reading a great deal about St. Cuthbert I wanted to spend some time as a pilgrim.
When I arrived in Durham a choir from the Netherlands were performing a choral concert. I gingerly walked by them to get to the shrine of St. Cuthbert – a difficult feat decked out in my blindingly bright yellow cycling jacket. There were a couple of other people quietly looking around in Cuthbert’s shrine when I got to it up in the very front of the church. I stood for a while looking at the tomb, taking it in a totally new way this time. And then I decided to kneel. I am thouroughly Reformed (Presbyterian) in my theology when it comes to saints. That is to say, I am not familiar with, or particularly comfortable with, praying to saints. But there on the stand just in front of me was this prayer to God:
Almighty God, who didst call thy servant Cuthbert from keeping sheep to follow thy Son, and to be a shepherd of thy people, mercifully grant that we, following his example and caring for those who are lost, may bring them home to thy fold, through thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
These words, and remembering that Cuthbert was a pastor before he was a saint, helped me to set aside my misgivings about praying at the tomb of a saint in front of other visitors and open myself up to God’s presence with me in that place for that moment in time.
As a pastor I find it difficult to pray much of the time. Too often I compose my own prayers the way I compose them for worship – to be prayed in front of and with other people. It was a wonderful moment to simply pray as myself – thoughts to be heard by nobody but God…and maybe St. Cuthbert.