The story of St. Cuthbert must be told in two remarkable chapters – one of his lifetime of holiness, and the other of the centuries following his death.
The son (born c. 634) of Anglo-Saxon Christian parents living in the north of England, Cuthbert experienced a miraculous occurrence while still a youth which determined the direction of his life. He was tending sheep in the hills when he witnessed the soul of St. Aidan, abbot of the monastery of Lindisfarne, being carried to heaven by the angels at his death in 651 in nearby Bamburgh. Cuthbert was so moved by this experience that he entered the monastery at Lindisfarne himself and began his life of prayer. He helped found and lead several other monasteries and was involved in missionary activity at a time when many local people were still pagan. Cuthbert was eventually appointed prior at Lindisfarne but, like many monks before and after him, his desire for the solitary life became stronger and stronger. In 676, he relinquished his position as prior and withdrew to Inner Farne, an almost deserted area where he could live as a hermit. But – as has also been true for other holy men and women – many people sought him out for spiritual guidance. Archbishop Theodore (the Greek Archbishop of Canterbury) appointed him bishop, and Cuthbert left the solitary life to devote himself to service to the people of his diocese. He was beloved by all for his teaching, preaching, and gift of healing. Cuthbert died, surrounded by his monks, on March 20, 687, and was buried at Lindisfarne. When, eleven years later, his casket was opened so that the bones could be placed in a more elaborate shrine, the monks found not bones, but an incorrupt body, which looked just as it had on the day of his death.
Incorruption has been taken as a special sign of the holiness of the person and has also usually been associated with miracles of healing. Instances of incorruption abound among the saints and still occur today (as in the case of newly-declared St. John Maximovitch, whose shrine is in San Francisco).
The next chapter of St. Cuthbert’s story begins in the year 875 when, after years of raiding and terrorizing, the invading pagan Danes destroyed Lindisfarne. A group of monks managed to escape with St. Cuthbert’s shrine and began traveling around northern England and southwestern Scotland looking for a safe place to settle. This “wandering in the wilderness” lasted for succeeding generations of monks for 120 years until, in 995, they finally discovered a rocky piece of land almost completely surrounded by a river – Durham. A Saxon-style church was built to house the shrine of the saint and to provide a place for pilgrims to venerate his relics.
After 1066, a new invader to England brought more changes, but the Norman conquerors built a massive new cathedral in Durham. When St. Cuthbert’s tomb was again opened in 1104 in preparation for placing his relics in a new shrine, the body was again found to be incorrupt. New vestments were placed on the body and the faithful again came to venerate the holy saint.
The next threat to St. Cuthbert’s shrine was on December 31, 1540, when Henry VIII’s royal commissioners were sent to confiscate all articles of precious material and to destroy religious shrines. The commissioners – who in other places had scattered the bones of saints – were amazed to discover the body of St. Cuthbert, lying on its side, completely vested as if about to begin Mass, with “his face bare and his beard as it had been, a fortnight’s growth”! Afraid to desecrate a body which was still intact 853 years after death, the commissioners sent back to London for instructions and were eventually told to simply rebury the body under the floor where the shrine had stood.
St. Cuthbert’s tomb was opened one more time – in 1828 – and this time only bones remained. The vestments and other liturgical articles were removed to be placed in a museum and the holy bones were buried again.
Today, St. Cuthbert’s relics are among the few of pre-Schism Orthodox saints which can be venerated in England. Durham Cathedral is still a beautiful temple, giving a place of honor to a faithful servant of God. St. Bede, in his History of the English Church and People (written less than 100 years after St. Cuthbert’s death), describes him as follows:
Like a good teacher, he taught others to do only what he first practiced himself. Above all else, he was afire with heavenly love, unassumingly patient, devoted to unceasing prayer, and kindly to all who came to him for comfort.