St Cuthbert and a Few Thoughts about Europe Today

Many years ago I took as my Special Subject in Part II of the Cambridge Historical Tripos the Church in Northumbria. That meant I spent long hours reading non-Classical Latin texts and looking at photographs of MSS, sculptures and precious atrefacts of the period, none more precious (or interesting) than those associated with St Cuthbert. As a young nun, I was thrilled to read a report from the General Chapter of the English Benedictine Congregation asking whether any of the current monks knew the whereabouts of St Cuthbert’s remains (the so-called Secret or Legend of St Cuthbert) and was disappointed that no-one did. What impressed me powerfully about Cuthbert himself, however, was what most historians merely allude to in passing: his gifts as a reconciler. He was brought up in the Celtic tradition but was instrumental in persuading the monks of Lindisfarne — most of them, anyway — to accept Roman usages. No mean feat when one considers the personality of St Wilfrid, the champion of Roman orthodoxy. And to anyone who has lived in a monastery, little short of a miracle.

That is one reason I find St Cuthbert very helpful when considering the problems engulfing Europe at the moment. We need more than goodwill to solve the difficulties that face us, especially those that have assumed tragic dimensions.

There is the humanitarian tragedy of the migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers being washed up on our shores. The photographs published yesterday of little Aylan Kurdi dead on the Turkish seashore touched the hearts and imaginations of many. They didn’t tell us anything we did not already know, but they provided an image, a simple and arresting image, we could all relate to. Suddenly a vast and seemingly intractable problem had a human face and there were calls for action such as we had not heard before. There is also the humanitarian tragedy lurking behind the economic tragedy that is Greece, the humanitarian tragedy lurking behind the political tragedy that is Ukraine, and the tragedy of the failure of Europe as a whole to cope with any of these.

As long as we continue to think about the challenges we face as abstractions, we are never going to find solutions. Cuthbert in Lindisfarne had to use every gift of mind and heart to win others over to his way of thinking. He saw people where others might have seen merely ‘difficult monks’; he appealed, he urged, he ordered, like the exemplary abbot in the Rule of St Benedict, but he did so with great charm and genuine concern for those he served. He made sacrifices; he asked sacrifices of others. We in Europe will have to do the same. It is no good saying, for example, that the Gulf States should ‘do something’ about the Syrian refugees trying to make their way to Germany; no good saying Greece ‘must accept’ reforms imposed by others; no good demanding that President Putin change his tone about Ukraine. There has to be a consent won from those whose help or co-operation is needed. In the meantime, whenever we see someone go hungry or thirsty and do nothing to help, we see Christ go hungry and thirsty. Let us not abandon Him in our suffering brothers and sisters.


11 thoughts on “St Cuthbert and a Few Thoughts about Europe Today”

  1. Thanks for a timely reminder about the need for not seeing things in the abstract. And also some material that I didn’t know before about St Cuthbert. I know that he is highly regarded in Durham, and features as the Name Saint of the Cathedral there.

    Sometimes we need to put our selfishness aside and have regard for the huge suffering of humanity that is the refugee’s in Europe and in places like Libya waiting to travel to Europe.

    If we look the other way, we look the Devil in the eye and wink back at him.

    My prayers for all who are in positions of governance that their humanity and compassion are enlarged by the evidence of the picture of that kurdish boy, dead on a Turkish beach and that we now see a united international effort to resolve the immediate concerns, but in the longer term the wars and suffering behind the huge migration of peoples, not seen since WW2.

  2. The sense of powerlessness arises from our ‘mass’ identity. Where Cuthbert went among his monks, using his considerable skills to persuade them, we have a great distance between us (the ones eager to respond) and those who are in power (not by any means always elected!)
    For so many, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela were the ‘Cuthbert voices’ for a generation.
    We have become, in a sense, the sea in which little Aylan Kurdi has drowned.

  3. There is a sense of powerlessness about the tragedy unfolding in Europe. And other parts of the world.
    We can all pray that nations take to heart the crisis and meet to work out a way to help. Germany and Britain are leaders in Europe and can set an example, as well as lead at meetings. It’s been heartbreaking to see the pictures of the deceased child on the beach, and the people desperately trying to board trains in Hungary.

  4. Thank you Sister Catherine for the necessary reminder that we all need to do more to love and support those of God’s children who are seeking refuge from the awful dangers faced in their homelands. Nobody chooses to make this leap of faith to make their dangerous journeys without being terrified to remain at home.
    All these refugees are out brothers and sisters. We must not abandon them in their hour of need. There but for the grace of God go us!

  5. My favourite saint, and, good to be reminded of how we need his like to bring some reconciliation of views to those who must cooperate to address this massive humanitarian tragedy. Like you, I love the intrigue surrounding the resting place of his bones. I have seen the bill in the Cathedral Library for 17 shillings and 4½ pence for preparing the grave and marble stone for the 1542 re-burial. Nevertheless, the rumours persist. David Knowles, in this article from the Tablet archive, seems in no doubt that all the evidence points to the relics being in the Feretory at Durham, though his view was challenged at the time by two fervent correspondents:; With all the evidence from the artefacts and other physiological factors, it’s hard to believe the bones could be elsewhere. Ockham’s razor rules here, I think!

  6. “I was a stranger and you made me welcome (Matt. 25:35). In the parable of the sheep and the goats, Jesus places this injunction for radical hospitality in the context of our very salvation. Will Christ be able to say to us, “Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the Kingdom?” Whether they are Syrians fleeing unspeakable barbarism into Europe or Central Americans fleeing organized crime and murder squads, we are asked to recognize each one suffering as Christ. “Can you see me hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked, sick, or imprisoned?” For some reason, these words make me think of Julian of Norwich’s “Christ our Mother,” utterly distraught and grieving over the children in terror of their lives. I pray that those able to see and to recognize that we are all one human family will outnumber those blinded by fear of different colors, races, religion, and culture. Thank you, Sister, for reminding us to be the sheep and not the goats!

  7. The problems in the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia are appalling and seem certain to get worse, at least for a while. Consequently the numbers of potential refugees and migrants from this area alone are very large indeed: they are already running into millions, and could rapidly reach ten million and more. Since, for obvious reasons, it is simply not possible for western Europe to absorb as citizens (i.e. to educate, integrate, house, provide medical care, jobs and social security, etc.) for more than a small proportion of these people, we must also direct our compassion and care to the question of how to help displaced people in their countries and regions of origin, i.e. near to the war zones. This is something the UK can and does manage on a big scale, and it is one of the better uses of the government’s £11 billion international development budget.

    There is a lot of confusion about who is coming to Europe and why. The classic profile of ‘war refugees’ is that they move as a family group or even as a whole village (grandparents, parents, children, babies – everyone except the young men, who are fighting) to the nearest place of safety. They do not want to go too far, because they intend to return to their properties, businesses, neighbourhoods and lives when the fighting is over. This is demonstrated by the fact that (according to the UN) c. 85% of the world’s refugees are living in camps near their own countries’ borders, or even within their countries but away from the fighting. Here refugees can be helped, e.g. with medical aid, food, shelter, and in time businesses can develop and people can find or create work for themselves. (Of course this kind of aid can cause tremendous problems in the often impoverished host countries, and needs to be handled with great prudence, but it can be done.)

    What we are seeing now with the movement of people into Europe is quite different: crowds of fit young men (e.g. in Budapest) moving very long distances, across multiple international borders, without their families. These do not seem to be refugees, but economic migrants. Although it may seem pedantic to make this distinction, the human and ethical situations involved in the two cases are very different. If there is a clear moral obligation to help someone who comes to your door in desperation and with nowhere else to go, there is no obligation to encourage people to come in large numbers in search of work or economic opportunities which one is in no position to provide, and which will involved others already living in one’s country (who also have legitimate interests) losing out in their own jobs, health care, housing, school places, etc.. (They may chose to suffer in this way, but I cannot chose it for them! This, I suppose, is one difference between compassion and grandstanding.) On the contrary, it is dishonest, unethical and foolish to do this, since it raises false hopes, damages social cohesion and trust in the host countries, and, at the practical level, encourages people to pay people traffickers to bring them into the EU. This, unfortunately, is the current policy of the German government and the EU commission. As a result the human catastrophe is going to continue and worsen.

    This confused and heartless policy is the real reason why poor little Aylan Kurdi died: he was being taken on a rubber dinghy from Turkey, where his family were relatively safe, though no doubt frustrated and anxious, to Greece, from where they believed they would have access to the much higher living standards of northern Europe. But the people smugglers do not care about safety, as long as they get their money up front, and Aylan died as a result. It seems to me shameful and deeply unethical that Aylan’s death (which is one of very many) is being used to encourage more migration through dangerous and (partly for that reason) illegal channels, when the humane and ethical response is surely to seek to bring such trafficking to an end and close down the people smuggling gangs. So long as large scale migration is encouraged or tolerated, many other children and adults will die in similar conditions, though the newspapers, having moved on to other ‘stories’, may no longer wish to publish their photos.

    A final point is that the current migration pattern encourages ‘the survival of the fittest’, i.e. those who can push their way into Germany or the UK will be rewarded. A humane and ethical policy would seek to help refugees by treating applicants fairly on the basis of their needs and the danger they faced. There is a group of people in the Middle East who are currently threatened with extermination, and who certainly should be offered refuge in the West, but who never seem to get much attention from the MSM – namely, the Christians. On this subject, though, the newspapers and our politicians are ominously silent.

    • As regards your last point, I think that’s why we who blog/use Social Media to reach out to others have a duty to remind the world of the suffering of Middle Eastern Christians and Yazidis who are, as you say, largely ignored by the media and politicians.

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