Gateway to the Classics: Saint Christopher and Saint Cuthbert by Mary Macgregor
Saint Christopher and Saint Cuthbert by  Mary Macgregor

St. Cuthbert


St. Cuthbert was once a babe who laughed and clapped his tiny hands for joy when he was pleased, who cried and kicked his tiny feet in anger when he was displeased. He was so like other babes that no one dreamed that some day he would grow into a kind and gentle Saint.

When he was old enough to tend the sheep on the grassy slopes of Lammermoor, Cuthbert became a little shepherd lad. He was gay and careless as were his playmates.

The old folk among whom his childhood was spent loved Cuthbert well. When he became a Saint they often talked together of those early days when he seemed just like other boys. Only now they were sure that he had never been quite like his companions.

Some whispered among themselves that the Saint had been a royal babe, that his mother had been a beautiful princess, from the fair green isle of Erin. She, poor princess, had lost her crown and all her jewels. Worse had befallen her, for cruel men had dragged her to the market-place and sold her as a slave.

Others there were who cried that the barefooted shepherd lad had been no royal babe, nor was he of Irish birth. His home had been in the wild Border counties. With those blue eyes, that golden hair, how could he have been ought but Saxon? Why, his very name had a true old Saxon ring. Yes, their beloved Saint had been a little English lad.

So the old folks talked. But history does not tell us the birthplace of St. Cuthbert, nor if he were born in a palace or in a peasant's hut. We know only that when he was about eight years old both his father and mother were dead.

The little orphan boy was left alone with his nurse, an old woman who lived in a cottage on the Lammermoor hills. So kind was the old woman to her little charge that when he was grown up he never forgot her.

In summer-time Cuthbert was up with the dawn, wandering over the hills, making friends with birds and beasts. It was dusk before he found his way back to the cottage.

But in winter, when the snow fell fast, or the wind blew fierce, he could not roam. So he drew his little chair close to the clean-swept hearth, and while shadows flickered on the wall, his old nurse told him tales of the countryside. Rough tales many of them were, of wild, half-savage tribes, that dwelt far off among the mountain passes.

The boy could see the eyes of the warriors gleam as they tracked their foes through lonely glens, over desolate moorlands. Strange figures they seemed to the little lad, with faces and bodies stained with the juice of plants, and poisoned arrows at their side.

But there were other tales of holy saints and kindly monks who toiled and prayed in quiet old monasteries, and these too Cuthbert loved. He dreamed about these godly men in their quiet retreats, until he fell asleep in his little chair by the hearth.

Cuthbert grew up strong and brave as any lad in all the countryside. He was fond of games, yet sometimes he would slip away from his comrades, and throwing himself down on the side of the green hill, he would peer into the future. Would he be a soldier and fight for his country, the lad wondered, or a monk, like those who dwelt yonder in the old monastery of Mailros. Then his eyes would wander to the valley and follow the twistings of the river Tweed. They would linger at length on the monastery, where it stood guarded by tall pine trees, that looked from the distance like sentinels.

"Come and play with us," cried his playmates, breaking rudely into his dreams. But at such times Cuthbert paid no heed to their entreaties.

The old folks talked of his pranks in after days, as though they had never been played by other boys. They had seen him walking on his hands, standing on his head and turning somersaults so skillfully, that his companions clapped their hands. But surely these were feats that any boy might do. One strange tale the old folks did tell and it was this:

Once as Cuthbert was wrestling with his companions in a meadow, a little unknown child of three years old ran up to them.

The boys flung themselves apart and stared in astonishment at the tiny stranger. He, looking at none save Cuthbert, said in a grave tone, "Why will you spend your time in idle games, O Cuthbert?"

Cuthbert wished to go on playing, so he only smiled on the child, as he called to his comrades to begin their game afresh. Then the little stranger, seeing that Cuthbert paid no attention to his words, flung himself on the ground and sobbed aloud.

The boys had kind hearts hidden beneath ways that were sometimes rough, so they ceased their game when they saw the child's tears and tried to comfort him.

But he sobbed on, heedless of them all, until Cuthbert came and stooped over him. Then once more he spoke in the same grave tone: "Why will you behave so foolishly, O Cuthbert? It becomes you not to sport among children, you whom the Lord hath consecrated."

Cuthbert forgot his game. He must find out by whom the child had been sent. But even as he said in an eager voice, "Tell me whose messenger you are?" the tiny stranger rose and running swiftly across the meadow was seen no more.

The boys were soon playing as gaily as before, all save Cuthbert. He could not forget the strange words, the tearful face of the little messenger. Such was the strange tale the old folk told when Cuthbert had become a saint.

Meanwhile the lad was tending his sheep on the grassy slopes of Lammermoor.

What a glorious world it was, thought Cuthbert. Far below him lay the valley, with hamlets and cottages that looked like tiny dots from where he stood upon the hillside.

The winding waters of the river Tweed made him long to wander down to the plain, but he could not leave his sheep although the river called. So he lay and watched it as it twisted and curved and twisted again, until he learned to love the magic windings of the Tweed.

How he loved too the tall, dark pines that stood near the monastery. It was in their mysterious shades, so his old nurse used to tell him, that the ancient gods were worshipped with charms and amulets and magic songs.

But Cuthbert was not left alone with his sheep and his dreams. For the boys from the valley would often clamber up the grass-covered hills, and they would wrestle and fight and race as growing boys delight to do.

It was at night, while the stars shone down upon him, as he watched his sheep, that Cuthbert saw strange sights.

The valley lay quiet in the starlight, and the shepherd lad could catch a glimpse of the monastery of Mailros, or Melrose as we call it now. He knew just where it lay in a little grassy glade, encircled by the tall trees of the forest.

Although it was night Cuthbert was sure that in his cell the holy Abbot Eata would be awake, kneeling in prayer before the great crucifix that hung upon the wall. Then he, alone on the silent hills, also knelt to pray. When he arose he thought that some day he would serve God as did the Abbot of Mailros. Like him he would dwell in the old monastery, leaving it at times to carry the gospel from the coast of Berwick to the Solway Firth.

He would journey through the mountain passes where men and women still lived half savage lives, to tell them of the gentleness of Christ. He would be kind too to the shepherd lads, as the holy Eata had been kind to him. Thus under the starlit skies did Cuthbert dream.

Then, one summer, in the month of August, 651 A.D., Cuthbert saw a marvellous sight.

It was dark and the boy had wandered from the mountain track, when far off on the horizon he saw a gleam of light. Brighter and brighter it grew, until it seemed a shining pathway to the skies. And lo! down the pathway sped white-robed angels on their way to earth. Why had the angels left the Paradise of God, Cuthbert wondered as he gazed.


Saint Cuthbert sees a vision while leading his sheep by night.

Soon he saw the angels climbing upward once more, and in their arms they bore a radiant soul. Scarce knowing what he did the boy began to move toward the light, but even as he did so it faded away.

Then in the darkness Cuthbert knelt to pray that he might live so that one day his soul too might be carried up the shining pathway of the skies.

When the morning dawned, Cuthbert heard that in his quiet cell the night before the Bishop of Lindisfarne had breathed his last. Then he knew that it was for the soul of the holy Bishop that the angels had come to earth.

A few days later, the shepherd lad made up his mind to go to the monastery at Mailros and ask Eata to train him as a monk.

But Eata wished to prove the lad, and as these were rough times in the Border counties, he sent Cuthbert away to serve God as a soldier until more peaceful days dawned. Then he might return to dwell in the monastery if he willed.

So Cuthbert rode away to seek his country's foes. Over rough mountain passes he journeyed, or sailed along the wild sea coast, helping the weak and those who had none other to fight for them.

Sometimes he was mocked by foolish folk, sometimes he was without food, but he learned to endure hardships as a good soldier of Jesus Christ.

One day Cuthbert reached the banks of the river Tyne. He tarried to watch a raft loaded with logs of wood. It was being steered to the monastery that stood on the other side of the river. Suddenly a violent storm arose and the wind drove the raft down the river toward the sea.

From the monastery windows the monk saw that their comrades were in danger and they hastened to the river, and launched their boat to go to the help of the raftsmen. But the current was strong, the storm fierce, and their efforts were all in vain.

Soon a crowd of country folk gathered on the bank. As they watched the raft, they jeered at the monks and bade them make haste lest their comrades were drowned.

"Why do you scoff when you see these men are in danger?" asked Cuthbert. "Would it not be well to pray to the Lord to save them, rather than to mock at their peril?"

But in churlish tones the crowd answered, "Let no one pray for them; may God have pity on none of them, for they have taken away our gods. We care not what may betide them."

Then Cuthbert fell on his knees before the heedless folk and prayed that the monks might not perish. As he prayed, lo! the wind began to blow toward the shore, and the raft was soon in safety on the other side.

The country folk were silent now, ashamed to look at the stranger. But Cuthbert bade them praise God for His goodness and serve Him whom the winds and the waves obey.

Winter had come and Cuthbert was journeying over frozen moorlands, while snow fell thick and fast around him. His horse soon grew weary and stumbled, so that the lad was forced to dismount and guide the animal through the heavy snowdrifts. He had begun to fear that he was lost when he saw a tiny gleam of light in the distance. He urged on his horse with kindly words until at length they stood before the door of a lonely farmhouse.

Cuthbert knocked, and an old woman opened the door and drew the stranger in from the storm. She wished to give him food and begged him to stay until the storm was over. But it was Friday and on that day Cuthbert fasted from morning until night in reverence for the Passion of His Lord. So he told the old woman that he would wait only until his horse was fed and rested, then he would try to reach the nearest hamlet.

The storm raged as fiercely as ever when Cuthbert and his horse set out once more. He could not see a step before him, for the wind had risen and was whirling the snowflakes in his face. Before long he knew that he must find shelter or both he and his horse would perish. Just as he felt he could go no farther he saw before him an old hut. The walls were crumbling, the thatched roof was rent in many places, yet it would be some protection from the storm.

Cuthbert tethered his weary beast to the crumbling wall and feed him with a handful of dry grass that had been blown off the roof. He himself was hungry after his long fast, but there was no food in the hut. Too glad of shelter to complain, Cuthbert knelt to thank God for His care. While his master prayed, the horse began to nibble at the thatched roof. As he did so he pulled out of the straw a bundle, wrapped in a linen cloth.

When Cuthbert rose from his knees he saw the bundle and unfolding the cloth he found what he needed most—bread and meat.

Once more he knelt to thank God for food as well as shelter, then, after sharing the bread and meat with his faithful beast, he lay down to sleep.

Months passed away while Cuthbert fought for the helpless and strove to free his country from her foes. Then when autumn came and touched the forests into splendour of scarlet and gold, Cuthbert journeyed back to Mailros. For quieter times had come and he hoped that Eata would receive him now.

It was evening as Cuthbert rode in at the gates of the monastery. The rays of the setting sun fell upon the lad, touching his fair hair with a golden gleam, lighting up his glad face until it shone with a beauty exceeding fair.

"Behold a Servant of the Lord," cried the Abbot Eata, as he welcomed the lad who was to be a soldier of Jesus Christ for evermore.

So in the happy harvest days, Cuthbert became a monk in the monastery of Mailros.

His dress was no longer the rough garment in which he had journeyed from place to place, but a long white robe. Over the white robe he wore a tunic and a large hood made of wool. On his feet were sandals, but these he took off when he sat down to meals.

There was work for all who dwelt in the Monastery of Mailros, for the monks swept and cooked and cared for the cattle. And ever as they worked their voices might be heard, singing glad songs of praise to God.

Among the monks none was more diligent than Cuthbert, but when the day's work was over, when the barley bread had been baked and the eggs cooked, he would steal away to his cell to read the Holy Scriptures, to speak to God in prayer.

Sometimes he was sent from the monastery to journey among the scattered hill folk, who knew naught of the gospel of Jesus Christ. As in other days Cuthbert rode, his spear in his hand, lest robbers should be lurking in dark ravines or desolate marsh lands.

The hill folk welcomed the stranger and listened to the tidings he brought with wonder written upon their faces, so strange to them seemed the story of the Cross. When they found that the boy priest understood their sorrows and ofttimes healed their sicknesses, they besought him to stay with them. But Cuthbert had other work t6 do and leaving the mountains he journeyed along the sea coast, where the wild tribes of the Picts had their home. Or he hired a boat and rowed along the rocky shores, heedless of wind and wave, until he reached a Pictish village, when he would tarry to tell again the story of the Cross.


Saint Cuthbert entertains an angel in the disguise of a pilgrim.

As he laboured the years slipped away, until a day came, when Eata left Mailros to go to the monastery of Ripon, taking with him Cuthbert who was dear to him as a son.

At Ripon, Cuthbert was guest master. It was he who with willing hands drew strangers into the shelter of the monastery. It was he who washed the pilgrim's feet and chafed them with his hands until they grew warm beneath his touch.

Once, through bitter frost and snow, an angel came to the monastery in the guise of a pilgrim.

Cuthbert welcomed him with kindness and, as, was his custom, he bathed the stranger's feet. With winning words he led him to the chapel, and together they knelt in prayer.

Then he placed a small table with food before the pilgrim and besought him to eat, while he went in search of new bread. "For," said he, "I expect it to be ready baked by this time."

When Cuthbert came back with the loaves the pilgrim was no longer there. The guest master hastened to the door, but on the newly fallen snow no footfall was to be seen.

What could it mean, Cuthbert wondered, as he drew the table to an inner room. A strange fragrance filled the little chamber, a fragrance as of flowers delicate and rare, yet no flowers were there. But on a shelf before him lay three loaves, warm and of wondrous purity.

In a hushed voice Cuthbert whispered to himself, "It was an angel of God whom I received, who has come to feed others not to be fed. Lo! he has brought such loaves as this earth cannot produce. For they surpass lilies in whiteness, roses in fragrance, and honey in flavour."

Soon after this Eata and Cuthbert went back to Mailros, where they were sorely needed. For a terrible plague was spreading over the countryside and along the wild Northumbrian coast, and in every village men and women, as they lay dying, called for the holy Abbot Eata and Cuthbert, whom they named the gentle saint.

From village to village the holy men hastened, carrying healing and cheer to the terror-stricken folk. But before the plague was over Cuthbert, worn out by his labours, was seized by the dread disease.

As he lay tossing from side to side in his little cell, the monks besought God to spare the life of their dear comrade. Through the long nights they prayed, for they could not sleep while Cuthbert was in danger.

One morning the sick man heard how the monks had spent the night. He called for his staff and sandals, and to their astonishment struggled to his feet crying, "Then why am I lying here. It is not possible that God should refuse your petition."

But while St. Cuthbert grew well, the Prior of Mailros, who also had been smitten by the plague, grew worse, and after seven days he breathed his last. Then Cuthbert was made Prior of the monastery in his stead.

Although the new Prior loved Mailros, he would often leave it to journey as of old among the hill folk. As he listened to the story of their cruel deeds he shed tears, while he took upon himself the penance of their evil ways. Then they grew ashamed to sin and grieve the holy man.

One evening Cuthbert reached a lonely monastery in Berwickshire. When the monks had gone to their cells for the night, Cuthbert stole down to the seashore. But one monk had watched him as he left the monastery and followed to see what the holy man would do.

To his dismay he saw Cuthbert step into the cold waters and walk out farther and farther yet, until the salt sea reached to his arms and neck. There he stood until the break of day, singing praises to God. Then he came back to the shore, and, kneeling on the rocky beach, he prayed.

And the brother who was watching saw two otters creep out of the rocks and steal up to the frozen saint. They licked his poor benumbed feet and wiped them with their hair, until they grew warm again. Then Cuthbert blessed them and sent them away, while he walked back to the monastery.

The next day the monk who had followed the Saint confessed what he had done and begged to be forgiven.

"If you will promise never to relate what you have seen during my lifetime, I will pardon you," said Cuthbert.

When the brother had promised never to speak of what he had seen, the monk blessed him and sent him away in peace.

In his wanderings Cuthbert often visited the village where his old nurse lived. And when he came she called her neighbours together that they might listen to the glad story he had to tell. Nor were they slow to come, for they had heard of the wonders that had befallen him when he was a child tending sheep on the grassy slopes of Lammermoor.

Once as he talked to these simple folk a cry of fire arose. The wind was blowing fiercely in the direction of the village and the home of his old nurse would soon be in flames. The people were panic-stricken and ran hither and thither doing nothing.

"Fear not, dear mother," said the Saint to his old nurse. This fire will do you no harm." Then amid the tumult he fell upon his face on the ground and prayed. And as he prayed the wind sank to rest, so that the flames were easily quenched.

A few years later Eata, who was now Abbot of Lindisfarne, sent for Cuthbert, that he might make him prior of his monastery.

Lindisfarne is a flat and desolate island off the coast of Northumberland. When the tide ebbed the blasts of the north wind blew bitter across a dreary waste of sand. At low water Lindisfarne was no longer an island, for the folk could cross from the mainland to the monastery over a pathway of firm sand.

Here Cuthbert had need of all his courage, for the monks were both greedy and lazy. When the new Prior made strict rules and himself saw that they were obeyed, there was wrangling and strife within the old monastery walls.

But St. Cuthbert bore the rough words and ugly scowls of the monks with utter patience, and at length before his gentle ways their rough words grew soft, their harsh looks tender. They learned to love and to reverence their Prior.

While he dwelt at Lindisfarne, St. Cuthbert's fame spread far and wide. Kings and nobles, slaves and peasants came to the lone island to seek counsel or comfort from the saint.

Swiftly the years of service at Lindisfarne passed, until, when St. Cuthbert was forty years of age, he determined to do as he had often wished to do. He would go to live as a hermit on the little island of Farne, that there he might the better serve God.

Farne was a desolate, demon-haunted island, where no water-springs were to be found, where neither fruit nor flowers were to be seen. Here, where others feared to dwell, Cuthbert built for himself a hut. The walls he made of stones and turf. One man could not lift the stones, for they were large and heavy, but the sea-folk told that angels came to the island and carried the stones for the saint and placed them on the wall. When he had thatched the roof, Cuthbert divided the hut into two small rooms. One was a cell, the other was for prayer—an oratory Cuthbert named it.

But there was no water on the island, and without water the Saint could not live. So he bored deep in a rock until he reached a spring. With a spade he dug the hard soil and planted a tiny plot of ground with barley. So scanty was the crop it yielded that the fisher-folk as they sailed past the island would point to it and say, "The Saint must be fed by angels or he would starve."

Close to the beach he built a large house, where the monks and pilgrims who visited the island might rest. Here, as though by a miracle, a fountain of water was found.

At first Cuthbert would leave his hut when he saw the boat from Lindisfarne rowing toward his little island, and go down to the shore to meet it. But soon he grew more strict and never left his cell. Only when the monks still came and looked in through the window of his hut, he would open it and talk to them while the hours passed swiftly away.

Even this he ceased to do at last, opening his window only to give his blessing to some stray pilgrim soul, leaving his cell only to do some act of charity.

The Saint was so quiet, so kind, that the wild beasts loved him, and even the seals came out of the sea to fawn upon his feet, until he, looking down, gave them his blessing. Then they floundered back content to their watery home.

But the birds were hungry and they flocked to St. Cuthbert's little barley, plot thinking to steal the grain. Then the Saint reproved them, saying, "Why do you touch the grain which you have not sown? Do you think that you have more need of it than?" If nevertheless you have obtained leave from God to do this, do what He allows you, but if not, depart and do no injury to the goods of another."

The little birds listened in silence, then flew away twittering, and ever after the harvest of the Saint ripened untouched.

As for the crows, they were bold birds and croaked one to the other that the hermit had come to spoil their home. So they flew to his hut, settled on the thatched roof and began to peck at the straw. Their nests would be built easily this year, they said, as they prepared to fly off with their stores of straw.

But St. Cuthbert had been watching the foolish crows and now he bade them put back the thatch before they flew away. Then in the name of Jesus Christ he told them that they might no longer build their nests on the island.

The crows spread their wings and soon left Farne far behind, but in three days they came back. With hanging heads and drooping wings they surrounded the Saint, uttering timid cries, as though for forgiveness.

When St. Cuthbert saw that they were sorry for their fault he bade them be of good cheer and allowed them to build their nests on the island as they had been used to do.

The wild sea-birds were his friends and grew tame beneath his touch. Through long night watches they clustered around the Saint as he knelt on the rocks in prayer. And still the sea-birds on the lonely island are called, "The birds of St. Cuthbert."

Cuthbert had gone to Farne that he might live alone with God. But his fame spread throughout England and Scotland, and many who were sick and sad journeyed to visit him. For very holy was the hermit, they had heard, very wonderful were the cures he wrought.

St. Cuthbert could not stay in his cell when he saw so many ailing folk on the island. He went down to the shore to welcome them, to lay his healing hands upon them and "no one returned home with the same sorrow of mind that he had brought."

Eight years had passed away, eight blessed years St. Cuthbert called them, when a great procession reached Farne. Noblemen and monks, led by their "devout and God-loved King Egfrid," had come to beseech Cuthbert to become Bishop of Lindisfarne.

The Saint shrank from the honour. He would fain have stayed on his lonely island. But when the king knelt at his feet and with tears begged him to yield he could not refuse.

It was winter when Egfrid came to Farne. In spring of the following year, on a glad Easter morn, St. Cuthbert was in the city of York. There, in the presence of King Egfrid, seven bishops and many priests, he was consecrated. From henceforth he was known as the Bishop of Lindisfarne.

Although he was now a bishop, Cuthbert lived simply as of old. He laboured and prayed in the monastery; he journeyed over the mountains and moorlands, from the Tyne to the Firth of Forth.

Once "as this holy shepherd of Christ's flock was going round visiting his fold, he came to a mountainous and wild place, where many people had got together. But among the mountains no church or fit place could be found to receive the Bishop and his attendants. They therefore pitched tents for him on the road and each cut branches from the trees in the neighbouring wood, to make for himself the best sort of covering that he was able." For two days Cuthbert tarried there to tell the people the glad gospel of Jesus Christ.

When he set out on his journey again, the crowds followed him. Little cared they for hunger, or for thirst, so only they might be near the man of God.

For two years St. Cuthbert laboured as Bishop of Lindisfarne, then feeling that his strength was failing and that death was not far off, he gave up his bishopric. On Christmas day, in 686 A.D., he went back to the little island of Farne.

The monks of Lindisfarne often sailed across to the island to see their beloved master, to listen to his words. Each time they went back more sorrowful, for they saw how weak St. Cuthbert had grown. Once a storm kept the monks at Lindisfarne for five days, but as soon as a boat could be manned the Abbot sailed to Farne to find that St. Cuthbert had been too ill to move.

"How have you lived with no one to give you food," asked the Abbot.

The Saint lifted a corner of the mat on which he lay and pointed to five onions.

"This," he said, "has been my food for five days, for when I was parched with thirst I cooled and refreshed myself by tasting these."

When the Abbot sailed again for Lindisfarne he left two monks to wait upon St. Cuthbert. As he grew weaker the Saint begged the monks to sing the midnight psalm. Ere it was ended angels carried his soul to Paradise. Almost his last words were, "Have peace and divine charity ever amongst you."

The monks finished the psalm, and then, hastening to the shore, they lit two torches that those at Lindisfarne might know that they would see St. Cuthbert no more on earth. For this was the signal for which the Abbot had bidden the monks to watch.

As the light of torches shone through the darkness the monks at Lindisfarne wept. Then in hushed voices they sang, "Eternal rest give to him, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him."

Thus died the holy St. Cuthbert, Bishop of Lindisfarne, when he was about fifty years of age.

But the fisher-folk, who sail along the wild Northumbrian coast, say that at night a figure is often to be seen sitting on the rocks close to the sea. They say it is St. Cuthbert who sits there, a heap of little grey stones by his side. In his hand is an anvil with which he shapes the stones into beads, which are called, "The beads of St. Cuthbert."

"But this as tale of idle fame

The monks of Lindisfarne disclaim."


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