If I were to say to you that you are not a human (ἄνθρωπος), you might take it as an insult. I will say it, nevertheless. We are not humans, neither you nor I; we are merely in the process of becoming so. To become a human is to become One in Christ (cf. John 19: 5), and to become One in Christ, as we Orthodox should know, is a process which begins with Holy Baptism and proceeds throughout the course of our lives – a process we Orthodox call theosis. At times, the goal of this process seems to us to be an impossible one and utterly out of our reach. It is for this reason that God raises up his saints to serve as milestones or checkpoints, to demonstrate to us that our goal is not an impossible one. The ultimate purpose of the Church is to produce saints. A Church that does not produce saints is no Church at all.
There was a time when the light of the Church shone brightly on the fertile soil of Britain, and the Church thrived here, yielding up saints at an astonishing rate. For centuries, however, a dark cloud has cast a shadow over these islands. The relics of many of our saints were desecrated following the reformation and still more were largely forgotten about, and so it is a very long time since the inhabitants of Britain looked to the saints in their midst for inspiration. A break in the clouds has appeared at long last and the Church is once again ministering to those in need of guidance. Indeed, it has even sent a saint to minister to us in recent times (St. Sophrony of blessed memory), but that is not to say we should not remember the saints of earlier days who, in spite of our own ignorance, pray for us continually so that this break in the clouds might be sustained.
One might ask, how can these saints speak to us now, when the circumstances of the land and the people who live here – and indeed the peoples themselves – have changed so dramatically? Let us answer that question by considering the broad themes of the life of St. Cuthbert, one of Britain’s most important saints historically, and ask ourselves how he speaks to us now.
St. Cuthbert ministered during a time of great tension between the Celtic church and the Romanised Anglo-Saxon church, which had established itself in Britain much later than the former. Though he was himself of Anglo-Saxon descent, St. Cuthbert had been raised in the Celtic tradition and was inclined to favour it over that which had infiltrated from the European mainland. Nonetheless, when the Council of Whitby agreed to adopt the calendar and some other customs of the Roman church – which was, like the Celtic church at that time, in full communion with the wider Orthodox Church – St. Cuthbert not only abided by the decision but encouraged others to do likewise. For St. Cuthbert, the unity of the faith was paramount and, so long as the mysteries remained incorrupt, it would have been unthinkable to jeopardise that unity.
Do we Orthodox in Britain today, coming, as we do, from a variety of different backgrounds and ethnicities and being accustomed to a wide variety of local traditions – and, yes, even different calendars – not face a similar dilemma to St. Cuthbert at times? Should we ever be troubled by such concerns, we may recall that we are, nevertheless, all Orthodox and all becoming one in Christ, and therefore, so long as the mysteries are preserved, we should not allow them to deprive us of Holy Communion with one another.
Another notable theme of St. Cuthbert’s life is that of sacrifice and service. St. Cuthbert wished more than anything to flee from the world and to serve God in solitude, and so he retreated to an island to live the life of a hermit. St. Bede reports that ‘so high was the rampart that surrounded his dwelling that he could see nothing else but the heavens which he longed to enter’. Nevertheless, when called upon to minister to the people, St. Cuthbert ultimately put others before himself because he understood that the Church had need of his pastoral gifts. St. Bede further writes of St. Cuthbert that he ‘taught them what should be done but first showed them how to do it by his own example’.
Here we should reflect on what we mean when we say that a break in the clouds has formed and that the light of the Church is once again shining on Britain. It is through the members of the Church, that is to say you and I, that the light shines once again on these islands, where it is so desperately needed (in more ways than one!). The brightness of that light depends on how we conduct ourselves. If we behave badly or, worse, if we conceal the light by attempting to ‘blend in’ with the world around us, keeping our faith in secret, then we might as well be on our own private island or in the wilderness – not that this is necessarily a bad thing if one spends every waking hour praying without ceasing, but how many of us can say we do this? We must try to remember that, for those who remain in ignorance regarding the Church and the message of Holy Scripture, we,the members of the Church, are the embodiment of Christ and the message of the Gospel – when those outside of the Church think of our Lord, they see us. We need not proselytise but, like St. Cuthbert, we can teach by example and, in so doing, we may encourage others to believe in the transformational power of God and to seek out the gift we ourselves have been given. Recall that the will of God is for ‘all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth’. (1 Tim 2:4) Like St. Cuthbert, we can do God’s will by humbling ourselves and by being of service to others, teaching them who Christ is by ourselves becoming one in Christ, that they might see us and think of our Lord. If we do this, then we can truly say Christ is risen and walks among us.
We will be celebrating the feast of St. Cuthbert during the Liturgy on 20 March at 9am. A new icon of this great Saint is currently being painted on the South wall of our church.
Of further note is that there is a pilgrimage way in the north, between Melrose Abbey, in what is now Scotland (close to where St. Cuthbert was born), and the Holy Island of Lindisfarne off the coast of Northumberland, where St. Cuthbert was once Bishop. Members of our church are in the early stages of working on the programme and logistics for a pilgrimage later this year when Covid restrictions allow. The route is 62 miles lone and generally takes around 5-7 days to traverse depending on how one paces oneself. There are a number of options in terms of overnight accommodation, whether or not one prefers to sleep on rough ground staring up at the stars, or in a soft bed. Both preferences can potentially be accommodated. If you might be interested in taking part in this pilgrimage, please speak with Luke Thomas.
Luke Thomas, Feast of Saint Cuthbert, 2021