Cuthbert was born to a shepherding family in Northumbria in the early 630s, but we know little of him until he entered the Scottish monastery in Melrose at about age 20. His faithfulness and piety resulted in his being named prior of Melrose ten years later. He found himself caught in the struggle between the Roman and the Celtic Christians, and he eventually retired to complete solitude in 676, traveling to a deserted island six miles off the British coast to live among the birds and seals.
By 684 his reputation for holiness had become widespread, and King Ecgfrith of Northumbria traveled to plead with him to become bishop of Hexham. Cuthbert refused at first, not wanting to leave his tranquil retreat. The king persuaded him at last, and on March 26, 685, Cuthbert was consecrated bishop. He spent his remaining days in public ministry, traveling around the diocese, preaching, converting sheep farmers in the Northumbrian hills, and distributing alms.
He returned to his island after Christmas in 686, believing he was dying. When he passed away on March 20, 687, monks spread the news by lighted torches, and on the following morning carried his body to Lindisfarne for burial in the monastic church.
The burial habits were odd. It was the custom to bury holy men long enough for the flesh to rot in an earthen grave. The bones would then be raised, washed, wrapped in silks, and placed in a shrine. This ceremony was called the “elevation of the relics.” The elevation of Cuthbert’s relics occurred on March 20, 698, the eleventh anniversary of his death. According to church tradition, however, when Cuthbert’s relics were raised, it was found that his body had not decayed. It was solemnly placed in a shrine on the floor of the church. Miracles were soon reported there, and by the time the Venerable Bede penned Cuthbert’s biography in 720, thousands of pilgrims were traveling to the shrine. Cuthbert became the most beloved Christian in the north of England.
|My friends, I want you to know that our bodies of flesh and blood will decay… but we will all be changed. It will happen suddenly, quicker than the blink of an eye. At the sound of the last trumpet the dead will be raised.… Our dead and decaying bodies will be changed into bodies that won’t die or decay. (1 Corinthians 15:50-53)|
Robert J. Morgan, On This Day : 265 Amazing and Inspiring Stories About Saints, Martyrs & Heroes, electronic ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2000, c1997). March 26.