Great men have been among us

Great men have been among us

The grand setting of Durham Cathedral brings us a reminder of three great, yet humble men of faith, learning and prayer. The saintly lives of The Venerable Bede, Saint Cuthbert and George Herbert have inspired Christians for centuries.

Some months ago a friend staying with us shared how she had taken a short break in the North, including  a visit to Durham cathedral. For her it was a sort of pilgrimage. While in the cathedral she said she was very conscious of the memories of two great saints, Cuthbert and Bede, who were buried there.  Sadly, I have never visited Durham, but the words of my title from the poem by William Wordsworth encourage me to stay in the North East for this post.  As a ‘southerner’, like our friend, I want to pay my own respects to these two great saints and pioneers of the Christian faith in this country.

Oil painting of Bede translating the Gospel of John.
Bede translating the Gospel of John into old English shortly before his death. ‘The Last Chapter’ – oil painting by J. Doyle Penrose (1902)

The Venerable Bede

As I try to write this simple post with all our modern means of learning and communication at my disposal my thoughts turn to Bede playing his part in the quiet life of the monastic community at Wearmouth.  I can see him sitting at his desk with the limited resources in the monastery library, yet producing such a wealth of learning and influence, way ahead of his time. 1400 years on and we still realise how much we owe to pioneers like him. His ‘History of the English Church and People’ was the first history of this country  and is our only source of information for this early Christian era in Britain. He also wrote many other works, including translations of  parts of the Bible  in the Old English language, sadly few of these have survived. However, two works written by others after Bede, have survived. One of them, is the so-called  ‘St Cuthbert’s Gospel’ and the other, the Lindisfarne Gospels. Both were hand-written and beautifully illustrated. They are now preserved in the British Library.

View of Inner Farne island from the coast

Saint Cuthbert

I think also of Cuthbert alone on his Inner Farne island with only the seals and the sea birds for company, delighting to be there with his God  in prayer and worship. How much do we owe to those prayers and to that example?  A challenge that a life of prayer is still needed in this world today. Thank God for many quiet humble men and women of prayer in our modern times. The influence of such humble folk is immense – they are the real ‘movers and shakers’ of our world. We remember also Cuthbert’s leading role as a much loved bishop guiding the early Celtic church through turbulent times.

These two great saintly men, Cuthbert and Bede, have left a large legacy. Yet despite their humble lives, in huge contrast, they are buried in such grand surroundings in the cathedral at Durham. I don’t think either of them would have chosen this themselves  Yet they deserve to be there  -a reminder of how much we owe to them and those like them.

Early Celtic Gospel of John.
The so called ‘St Cuthbert’s Gospel’- written c 685. The earliest bound book in Europe.

George Herbert

Finally, I think of another humble saint, George Herbert,  who left a promising career in Cambridge and London to serve as a parish priest in a small Wiltshire village. During his life he wrote a collection of poems. Nearing the end of his life in 1633 he left these to his friend Nicholas Farrer, with the request that his friend read the manuscripts:

’and then if he think it may turn to the advantage of any dejected poor soul, let it be made publick: if not, let him burn it: for I and it, are less than the least of God’s mercies.’ (quoted in the Izaac Walton biography of Herbert)

In the years following his death his poems were re-published many times and he has become one of our great English poets.

The Destiny of Meekness

Such great but humble English heroes of the faith challenge us. But we remember another Person. He lived in a remote country  on the edge of the vast Roman Empire among a despised people.  He frequently went out to lonely places to pray. He only had 12 ‘followers’ and one of them left him, yet he has changed the world!

And he left us these words:

 ‘Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth’.

— What a calling and what a destiny!

Photo of Durham Cathedral by Teach46 (Own work) – Wikimedia Commons

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