St. Cuthbert: Celtic Hermit of Lindesfarne
The story of the Celtic monk-hermit Cuthbert (634-687) is told less than a century after his death by Bede in the Life of St. Cuthbert and in portions of his Ecclesiastical History. Most of the narrative is typical hagiography but facts show clearly.
Cuthbert entered monasticism and rose to prior of Lindesfarne in Northumbria. But, writes Bede,
When he had the opportunity, he also laid fast hold upon the way of life of a hermit, and delighted to stay in solitude for no short space of time and to be silent and apart from the conversation of mankind for the sake of the sweetness of meditating on God.
At the age of 42, Cuthbert left the monastery for a hermit's life on a deserted off-shore island called Farne. Here he built a dwelling, described in detail by Bede:
The building is almost of a round form, from wall to wall about four or five poles in extent. The wall on the outside is higher than a man, but within, by excavating the rock, he made it much deeperm to prevent the eyes and the thoughts from wandering. ... The wall was constructed not of hewn stones or of brick and mortar, but of rough stones and turf, which had been taken out from the ground within. ... He finished the walls by digging without, and formed the roof out of rough poles and straw.
Cuthbert made two rooms, one for prayer and the other for living. For his monkish visitors, he built a second more spacious house. Bede relates how Cuthbert tapped a spring for water and, requesting tools from the priory, sowed wheat. The wheat did not grow.
At the next visit of the monks, he said to them, "Perhaps the nature of the soil or the will of God does not allow wheat to grow in this place. Bring me, I beg of you, some barley. If, however, it does not [grow], I had better return to the monastery than be supported here by the labor of others."
The barley grew.
Cuthbert's days on the island were busy with visitors from near and far seeking his advice and consolation, a typical pattern for Christian hermits throughout the Middle Ages. As his reputation grew, a synod presided over by King Egfrid elected Cuthbert to the bishopric of Lindesfarne see.
But although they sent many messengers and letters to him, he could not by any means be drawn from his habitation, until the king himself ... sailed to the island [accompanied by a host of religious and other dignitaries.]
What a scene ensured as they fell to their knees before Cuthbert in entreaty, and he, in turn, resisting them until
They drew him away from his retirement with tears in his eyes and took him to the synod. When arrived there, although much resisting, he was overcome by the unanimous hush of all, and compelled to submit to undertake the duties of the bishopric.
This was eight years after first arriving on Farne Island. But Cuthbert did not serve as bishop long; retiring again he returned to his Farne hermitage two years later. But this time Cuthbert died only weeks later, in the spring of 687.
Though sparse in information, the tradition of Cuthbert as hermit reveals all the essential elements by which hermits were favorably viewed in the early and central Middle Ages, even to the detail of the tears drawn from his eyes when taken so reluctantly from his solitary happiness.